Quickies: Three From Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records

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For this installment of Quickies, the inaugural releases of a new label dedicated to presenting the music of talented up and coming jazz musicians are highlighted. These musicians are all members of an artist collective, the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, and this spring saw the launching of the collective’s Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records.

BJU Records’ mission statement goes like this:

“Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records is an independent and artist-run label committed to creative and adventurous contemporary improvised music. We strive to put out quality recordings that define the shape of today’s jazz. BJU Records is a sister company of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground bandleader collective.”

Sounds to me like a worthy goal to aspire to.

These three releases feature a couple of bassists/composers and a democratic guitar/piano/bass/drums ensemble. All of these recordings contain excellent support, including from some artists who we’ve spotlighted here previously. And each of these three CDs reveal three distinct personalities that utilize different approaches to achieving the BJU Records’ lofty ideals.

Here’s the rundown on each record:

Alexis Cuadrado Puzzles
Of the three we’re presenting here, this one has the most varied material. The Spaniard bassist Cuadrado co-founded the BJU collective and shows much diversity and acumen as a group leader and composer.

I like the harmonic invention Cuadrado shows across different styles, whether it’s the light, pop-ish bop of “Bright Light,” the Dave Holland-styled challenging shifts of the sprawling “Quintessential” or the seamless combination of blues-rock and jazz of the catchy “East 10th Shuffle.”

Backed by an able crew consisting of Loren Stillman (sax), Brad Shepik (guitar) and Mark Ferber (drums), the keyboard-less quartet is supplemented on three tracks by Alan Ferber’s trombone and organist Pete Rende for “B&W Pop”. Speaking of “B&W Pop” this soulful, slow-funk tune is one of the spots where Shepik is provided plenty of space to shine. “Canon” contains some wonderful three-way interplay between Shepik, Stillman and Alan Ferber. You just don’t encounter such demanding and exciting contexts like that much in tonal jazz that much nowadays.

Perhaps the inspiration for Puzzles came from Cuadrado’s fixer-upper residence; he wrote all those compositions in the midst of renovating his house and ultimately decided to record these songs with his quartet in the living room (rock has garage bands…jazz has living room bands. Go figure). If Puzzles right at home with jazz that’s tuneful but challenging, that’s because Alexis Cuadrado went to extremes to make sure it would sound that way.

Anne Mette Iversen Many Places/Best Of The West
Iversen’s offering qualifies for the best value of this trio of releases: it’s a twofer. Not only that, but each disc presents a different band configuration.

The white disc, Many Places, is by Iversen’s AMi Quartet, consisting of her, saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Otis Brown III. The ideas presented here can be found in the dynamic harmonies that underpin her songs.

Like Cuadrado, Iversen is more inclined toward presenting her compositions with a sympathetic ensemble than in a dazzling display of chops, but she brings the goods when needed. The high point is the gradually unfolding “Many Places.” Here, Iversen states a theme on cello. As soon as the happier, main body of the song gets underway, Iversen locks down the melody while Grissett solos. When Ellis goes off in Charles Lloyd land, Iversen is taking assertive struts up and down the bass while Brown throws in punctuations that seems to egg everyone to keep the energy level high. To wrap up, Iversen takes the bow out again to return to the more somber mood of the intro. It’s a tour de force of what Iversen brings to the table.

“2004” is another highlight, for recalling Wayne Shorter’s twisting, multi-facted melodies and Ellis doing a nice impersonation of Shorter’s lean, angular playing technique. This tune sounds like it belongs on JuJu.

The black disc is named Best Of The West, which is a “with strings” jazz affair. The AMI Quartet is augmented by a four piece string quartet (Tine Rudloff, violin; Sarah McClelland Jacobsen, violin; Anne Lindeskov, viola; Mats Larsson, cello). This “4Corners String Quartet” joins the AMI Quartet to form a double-quartet chamber jazz ensemble, better quipped to render Iversen’s more formally structured compositions.

“Formally structured” is only in the relative sense, though. The frenetic “North (Presto)” is an example where Iversen has her expanded band run through some tricky chord progressions with all the nimbleness of a smaller unit.

Best Of The West recalls, at least aesthetically, Stan Getz’s Eddie Sauter collaboration Focus from 1961. The comparison is especially stronger when Ellis’ buttery tenor takes a solo turn on top of the four part string section, as in the closing “North East.”

Whether it’s a small-combo bop or larger group chamber jazz, the centerpiece is Iversen’s assured anchoring and advanced composing skills. To get both presentations in a single package only adds to the treat.

Bernard Emer Lackner Ferber Night For Day
The foursome of Will Bernard (guitar), Andrew Emer (bass), Benny Lackner (piano), and once again, Mark Ferber (drums), all hailed from California to join the thriving NYC improvised music scene. Judging from Night From Day, their embrace of the scene is palpable because of the three records presented here, this one is perhaps the most “outside.”

Of these four, Will Bernard is the one I’ve been previously familiar with. He (like Ellis) has a strong connection to acid jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, as both Hunter and Bernard were members of the adventurous but short-lived supergroup T.J. Kirk back in the mid-nineties. I recall him putting out a fews records under his own name shortly afterwards, which showcased his swampy, bluesy style of soul-jazz. After then, I sort of lost track of his career up until now. I wasn’t even aware that his record from last year Party Hats was nominated for a Grammy. Shame on me.

Night From Day isn’t entirely about Bernard, however, and it is a cooperative effort in practice, not just in name (or four names, to be precise). The songwriting chores are spread out pretty evenly among Bernard, Emer and Lackner, and everyone gets a chance to strut their stuff. In fact, they often do all at once, as in Bernard’s opening “Chicken Pox,” where both collective and group improvision is taking place.

Lackner and Emur, buddies from many years ago,bring more of the assertively progressive jazz element that nicely counters Bernard’s wonderfully weird Delta/New Orleans voicings. “Pianohaus” and “Snow” ar
e fine illustrations of that.

The lone cover, a casually-paced rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Heaven,” finds Bernard trading in his Philip Catherine stylings for his more familiar jazzy slide. Meanwhile, Lackner acquits himself well with a thoughtful, graceful solo.

All of the musicians presented in these trio of releases have paid their dues working under many of the biggest names in jazz. Under the auspices of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, they’re given the opportunity to step out from under the shadows of others to make a name for themselves. After soaking in all three of these records, I can attest that they’re plenty ready to do that.


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