Take Five: New Music by Lee Konitz and Dan Tepfer, and the Jazz Beat Behind Mister Rogers
Lee Konitz & Dan Tepfer, “Through the Tunnel”
The alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is 90 — an NEA Jazz Master, an alumnus of both the Tristano School and The Birth of the Cool; the last surviving musician to have played the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival. The pianist Dan Tepfer is 36 — an astrophysicist by training; an exacting yet exploratory student of the music; the creator of experimental algorithms for digital player piano. What the two artists share is a drive to conjure deep musical coherence out of a passing moment, drawing on every available resource but few predetermined moves.
Another thing they share is a great deal of mileage as a duo. Their new album, Decade, just out on Verve, stands as a noble testament; it’s their second proper release, following Duos with Lee in 2009, but it has the feeling of an impromptu address that could only have been made with the benefit of time. The music ranges widely in temperament, even including a few slyly titled tracks — “Alter Ego,” “Egos Alter” and “Eager Altos” — in which Konitz overdubs multiple parts. One standout is “Through the Tunnel,” which involves an inquisitive melodic foray against a tremulous curtain of pianism, concluding with the briefest taste of Konitz’s now-trademark scat singing.
Andy Biskin and 16 Tons, “Blue Tail Fly”
Andy Biskin has long had a knack for making musical connections that look unlikely from a distance but almost inevitable up close. A clarinetist, composer and arranger of thoughtful disposition, he has just released Songs From the Lomax Collection, an album of rearranged tunes drawn from Alan Lomax’s landmark 1960 anthology, The Folk Songs of North America. Biskin has a genuine connection not only to the material but also to the man: his first job out of Yale was as one of Lomax’s research assistants. So a project of this scope feels almost overdue, though it’s clear that Biskin has deliberated for a reason, personalizing the songs to suit his ensemble 16 Tons, which pairs him with three trumpeters and a drummer.
The balance of care and whimsy in Biskin’s approach is fully evident on his version of “Blue Tail Fly,” the minstrel song perhaps better known by the first line of its refrain, “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.” It opens with a lone, beckoning preface on clarinet, and gathers momentum in stages as each of the trumpeters — John Carlson, Dave Smith and Kenny Warren — joins the party, and adds his own solo flair. Rob Garcia brings the beat, driving the ensemble like a little big band. (Don’t miss the passing nod to Thelonious Monk around four minutes in.)
Marcus Miller, “Sublimity ‘Bunny’s Dream’”
Everyone knows Marcus Miller can bring the funk. He does so, in exuberant style, through much of Laid Black, his slick new album. But Miller, who’s no less an electric bass phenom today than he was during his hotshot years, has also cultivated a rare mastery of the quiet-storm ballad. He knows how to strike the ideal balance between tart and sweet, like the purveyor of a deceptively strong summer cocktail.
The track on Laid Black that best encapsulates this balance is “Sublimity ‘Bunny’s Dream,’” which he cowrote with his pianist, Brett Williams, and his alto saxophonist, Alex Han. The track features some acoustic guitar and wordless vocals by Jonathan Butler, who brings a vital hint of South African flavor. But the core feature of the track is its subtle harmonic movement — nothing flashy, but with enough of a contour to give Han and trumpeter Marquis Hill plenty to work with. As for Miller, who plays bass clarinet here as well as bass guitar, he brings an emotional center to the song, whose title pays tribute to a family member.
Itai Kriss and Telavana, “Sahadi’s Serenade”
An Israeli flutist on the Afro-Latin scene — that’s an oversimplification of the musical profile that Itai Kriss cuts in New York, but not an inaccurate one. Kriss, who moved to the Big Apple from his native Tel Aviv some 15 years ago, has devoted his career to exploring the commonalities between Cuban, South American and Middle Eastern musics, which often boil down to the primacy of danceable rhythm. He pushes this idea to the forefront of his new album, Telavana, beginning with a track called “Sahadi’s Serenade.”
The track, which Kriss named after the beloved grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, superimposes a Moroccan flute melody over an Afro-Cuban syncopation. It’s a musical synthesis as appealing and unforced as the cultural mix of the band, which is also named Televana, and features musicians from Israel (bassist Or Bareket, drummer Dan Aran), Puerto Rico (percussionist Marcos López) and Cuba (pianist César Orozco). On trumpet is Michael Rodriguez, who was born in Queens, and whose friendly sparring with Kriss, just after the midpoint of the track, is worth your time.
Itai Kriss and Televana perform on July 20 at Smalls Jazz Club.
Johnny Costa Trio, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood (End Credits)”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — a full-length documentary film about Fred Rogers — recently opened to wide release and even wider acclaim. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m squarely within the demographic that grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on my local PBS station. Naturally some small part of me is hopeful that the film takes a moment to duly credit Johnny Costa.
A jazz pianist who, like Fred Rogers, was an adopted Pittsburgh institution, Costa held the title of musical director on the show. What that meant in practical terms was an everyday miracle: Costa’s playing, performed live during tapings, typically flowed like a current through the show. He was an Art Tatum-inspired wonder at the piano, and his trio, usually with Carl McVicker Jr. on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums, had personality to go with its precision. The clip above, from the end credits to an episode from 1986, captures some of the effusive sparkle that they routinely brought to preschoolers across the country. And just as the show represented a life’s work for Fred Rogers, it came to define Costa’s, up until his death in 1996, at 74.