Monday, February 10, 2020

Satoko Fujii and Orchestra New York Bring Urgency and Brio to 11th Album Entity

Satoko Fujii and Orchestra New York
Bring Urgency and Brio to 11th Album Entity

“This big band packs fierce solo power, but Fujii flexes all that muscle masterfully.” ― Tom Hull, The Village Voice

“Balances rousing swing with probing experimentation, updating the big band tradition with inspired verve and an abiding reverence for venerable customs.” ― Troy Collins, All About Jazz

“Interlocking riffs, driving rhythms and a tight band who do full justice to her imaginative conceptions, showing the benefits of a lineup barely changed since their 1997 debut.” ― John Sharpe, The New York City Jazz Record

Featuring Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Andy Laster, Natsuki Tamura, Herb Robertson, Dave Ballou, Curtis Hasselbring, Joe Fiedler, Nels Cline, Stomu Takeishi, Ches Smith

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York, led by one of this era’s greatest big band composers, sounds as fresh and exciting on their eleventh recording, Entity, as they did on their first in 1997. Working with a 13-piece big band that includes a remarkable nine founding members, Fujii continues to inspire her orchestra—and be inspired by them. This is an album that revels in the soloing prowess of its individual members while showcasing the ever-inventive composing and arranging of its founder and leader. The album will be released on February 14, 2020 via Libra Records.

“Since I have been playing with this band for such a long time now, I know how they play,” Fujii says. “And when I compose, I actually hear their sound. So, soloists actually support my writing. For me composing for this band is more like collaboration—when I compose I am already working with the band, even if I am in Tokyo and they are in New York. Is this strange to say?”

Strange or not, the music is unfailingly exciting, with an urgency and brio born of the mutual admiration between performers and composer. “The music cannot be boring with these musicians,” Fujii says. “This band inspires new ideas in me and I always feel free to try something different because I know they will respond and make it sound great.” 

Fujii also found inspiration for her compositions from another source. “I am not a scholar and don’t have a deep knowledge of Buddhism,” Fujii says, “but I was reading about some of Buddha’s ideas online and learned that he had the idea of elementary particles centuries before physicists discovered them. The concept inspired me to write the pieces on this album.”

Throughout the album you can hear the chemistry between composer and orchestra. Fujii finds all kinds of ways to frame soloists and provide full ensemble themes that set a mood, often several different moods within the same composition. “Entity” opens with an attention-grabbing blast of energy that launches guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Ches Smith into a bounding and weaving duet. As the band sets up a regular two beat pattern, guitarist and drummer dip and curl in off-kilter tandem around the pulse, beautifully highlighting their subtle sense of rhythm and texture. Tidal surges of massed horns on “Flashback” launch trombonist Joe Fiedler into a boldly phrased solo that gives way to a searching, introspective unaccompanied solo from Oscar Noriega. Trumpeter Herb Robertson’s virtuoso mute technique highlights his outing with the band’s blue-chip rhythm section.

Fujii’s majestic “Gounkaiku” is a feature for trumpeter Dave Ballou’s elegant melodicism, while “Elemental Particle” lets Ellery Eskelin cut loose with a fire-breathing solo. “Everlasting,” a heart-wrenching ballad, pairs soloists in duets, first trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and trombonist Curtis Hassellbring, then alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss and baritone saxophonist Andy Laster.

On occasion throughout the album, Fujii creates spontaneous arrangements to fit the moment. “While we are playing,” Fujii explains, “I can hold up Sign 1, which means play a long tone with any note, or Sign 2, which means play a glissando. There are others, too. It may be a little bit like Butch Morris, but my signs are for predetermined materials.” This can be heard in the opening moments of “Gounkaiku,” when the band plays a series of long tones that glimmer like a necklace of jeweled sounds or toward the end of “Flashback” when Fujii uses the long tones to create tension before the band plays the rollicking closing theme. It’s a part of the ongoing dialog between the composer and a seasoned orchestra fully attuned to her creativity.

Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She’s “a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a bandleader who gets the best collaborators to deliver," says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on more than 80 albums as a leader or co-leader, she synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and folk musics into an innovative style instantly recognizable as hers alone. A prolific band leader and recording artist, she celebrated her 60th birthday in 2018 by releasing one album a month from bands old and new, from solo to large ensemble. Franz A. Matzner in All About Jazz likened the twelve albums to “an ecosystem of independently thriving organisms linked by the shared soil of Fujii's artistic heritage and shaped by the forces of her creativity.

Over the years, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music, including her trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black and an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins. Her ongoing duet project with husband Natsuki Tamura released their sixth recording, Kisaragi, in 2017. “The duo's commitment to producing new sounds based on fresh ideas is second only to their musicianship,” says Karl Ackermann in All About Jazz. Aspiration, a CD by an ad hoc quartet featuring Wadada Leo Smith, Tamura, and Ikue Mori, was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. “Four musicians who regularly aspire for greater heights with each venture reach the summit together on Aspiration,” writes S. Victor Aaron in Something Else. As the leader of no less than five orchestras in the U.S., Germany, and Japan (two of which, Berlin and Tokyo, released new CDs in 2018), Fujii has also established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, leading Cadence magazine to call her, “the Ellington of free jazz.”

Monday, February 3, 2020

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra Releases Jazz Party

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra Releases Jazz Party 

February 7, 2020 via Troubador Jass

The UJO’s second major studio recording captures its quintessential New Orleans spirit

Featuring Tonya Boyd-Cannon (“The Voice”), original UJO member and Dirty Dozen Brass Band co-founder Roger Lewis, rising star rhythm section Joe Dyson Jr. (Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ellis Marsalis) and Kyle Roussel (Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Headhunters)

For the better part of a decade, acclaimed trombonist, producer and composer Delfeayo Marsalis has spent Wednesday nights at the helm of his sprawling Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s residency at Snug Harbor in New Orleans. With Jazz Party, Marsalis’ seventh album as a leader, he delivers an original composition-heavy set of music that showcases the same exuberant energy of those shows, complete with modernized twists on New Orleans songbook gems and musical traditions, and swinging, groove-infused homages to the contributions of modern jazz masters.

Spiked with the NEA Jazz Master’s wry wit and visionary production acumen, Jazz Party sees Marsalis – along with Roger Lewis, Terrance Taplin, Khari Lee,  and more of the Crescent City’s finest musicians – making a strong musical case for the notion modern New Orleans jazz can and should be as celebratory in nature as it is cerebral in execution.

“Music, like all art, should have some type of contemporary relevance,” Marsalis says, joking that his decision to call 2016’s UJO recording premiere Make America Great Again missed fulfilling its “comedic relief potential” by “a few votes” in the 2016 election.

“Jazz, the indigenous American music, is a music of celebration and optimism,” he continues. “The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is such a fun band that I wanted to capture its uniqueness. The idea was to keep the wide variety of styles that we play but to really capture the joy that is a central trademark of the band.”

Recorded in February and May 2019 at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios with the help of Marsalis’ longtime production partner Patrick Smith (and without the so-called “dreaded bass direct”), Jazz Party opens with a laidback and languorous title track that brings “The Voice” alum Tonya Boyd-Cannon’s gospel roots in touch with the band’s preternatural sense of groove.

The Dirty Dozen’s Roger Lewis, an original member of the UJO, contributes another album highlight with his burning “Blackbird Special” solo as the band delivers a perfect balance of wiggle, funk and propulsive motion that urges its way forward, second line-style.

The breezy “Seventh Ward Boogaloo” shifts gears to highlight the lasting influence of musicians who have historically called that neighborhood home, from Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet to Lee Dorsey and Allen Toussaint.
Another standout, the Marsalis original “Raid on the Mingus House Party,” turns up the tension with a dramatic horn section performance that kicks off the narrative arc implied by the title before Ryan Hanseler’s gorgeously restrained piano work guides the melody away from the proverbial cliff’s edge. According to Marsalis, it was inspired by “aspects of the current social climate in America” that seem to be continually “heightened by extreme political negativity, mass shootings and racial community divisions.” When all ten of the tune’s moving melodic parts get resolved, the music reminds us that, as Marsalis puts it, “love for humanity” really can “reign victorious” even in the most troubled and confusing times.

The album begins and ends its second half with two takes on “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail,” delivering the kind of funny bar banter one might overhear between sets during a UJO performance at Snug Harbor.

Between the first incarnation and its final reprise, the orchestra serves up a hilarious riff on its hometown’s hyper-local obsessions (“I’m so New Orleans I remember when crawfish was $1.27 a pound,” Dr. Brice Miller raps on “So New Orleans”); the Scott Johnson centric jump blues meets “modern tonality” flavored “Irish Whiskey Blues” and an anthemic rendition of the Soul Rebels’ “Let Your Mind Be Free,” plus funk-laced tributes to Roy Hargrove (“Dr. Hardgroove”) and New Orleans’ cultural connections to the Caribbean (“Caribbean Second Line”).

Jazz Party offers a deftly varied look at the role of joy, humor and straight-up fun in jazz, an artform Marsalis points out in his liner notes was created by a group of people seeking to “define life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in a “psychological vacuum” necessitated by the systematic denial of their own human rights. That one band can so compellingly reflect the many nuances embedded in that fundamental cultural concept is a major artistic achievement in itself.

Over the course of his prolific career, trombonist, composer, producer, educator and NEA Jazz Master Delfeayo Marsalis has been hailed as one of the “most imaginative...trombonists of his generation,” a title that reflects decades of musical exploration, preparation and risk-taking, much of which began during his childhood in New Orleans, where his father, Ellis Marsalis, introduced him to jazz in the family home. Eventually, Delfeayo says, he “gravitated toward the trombone,” which felt like “an extension of my personality.” He was simultaneously developing his ear for music production after his brothers, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, piqued his interest in the process, which he continued to develop while producing their demo tapes and interning at Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint Studio. He’s gone on to produce more than 100 recordings for artists including his brothers, his father, Spike Lee, Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and others. An exceptional trombonist, Delfeayo has toured internationally with bands led by Art Blakey, Slide Hampton, Abdullah Ibrahim, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, as well as his own groups.

Jazz Party, the trombonist’s second studio album with his 10-plus-year-old Uptown Jazz Orchestra,
comes on the heels of 2017’s live album, Kalamazoo, and 2016’s UJO studio recording debut, Make America Great Again!, which uses the orchestra’s stylistic fluidity to fuse its hometown sound and musical history with songs associated with American patriotism. Other highlights in his discography include The Last Southern Gentlemen (2014), his first album-length collaboration with his father and 2010’s stunning Sweet Thunder, a fresh octet reimagination of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s suite of the same name. Pontius Pilate’s Decision (1992), his dramatic musical take on biblical tales, remains a standout.

Delfeayo recently served as Music Producer for the film “Bolden!,” a mythical account of the life of Buddy Bolden, and has worked extensively in arts education. He holds a master’s degree in jazz performance from the University of Louisville and an honorary doctorate from New England College. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.