Friday, October 12, 2018

Satoko Fujii & Alister Spence - intelsat (2018)

“Satoko Fujii is a brilliant and inspiring jazz genius..”
– Travis Rogers Jr., The Jazz Owl

“Spence has that priceless gift of always leaving you wanting more...He is never less than absorbing.”
– Jazzwise Magazine, UK

intelsat is a meeting of two very unconventional minds. Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and pianist/composer Alister Spence (on Fender Rhodes for this recording) both have an insatiable thirst for new sounds and dauntless courage to follow their fertile imaginations wherever it leads them. Their debut duet album—the ninth of 12 CDs celebrating pianist composer Satoko Fujii’s 60th birthday—goes places few other musicians venture while keeping listeners hooked with compelling rhythms, inviting tone colors, and surprise touches of lyrical beauty. 

Spence and Fujii first crossed paths in late 2007 when Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura toured Spence’s native Australia. They immediately struck up a friendship and the two Japanese visitors asked Spence and his trio to join them as guests on their Sydney gig. In 2008 the Alister Spence Trio and the Satoko Fujii Ma-Do quartet shared a double bill at the Tokyo International Jazz Festival.  At this time Fujii also set up the first Fujii/Spence duo piano concerts. Since then, they have revisited the duo format on several occasions, including a second Japanese tour in 2016 and another in 2017, during which intelsat was recorded. 

“When I first heard his trio on CD, I thought my music would be too “out” for him,” Fujii says. “But when I saw them live, I was so impressed with how openly and freely he played. I knew then that we could play duets together. I am always amazed at how open he is and how unafraid to play in any style.” 

“For me, in the early stages of our collaborating, it was a matter of being willing and adventurous,” Spence says, “I trusted that there was empathy, and therefore we would find a way to make things work. I feel that Satoko is adventurous and curious and trusting.” 

Spence takes a unique approach to sound creation on the Fender Rhodes. Besides playing the keyboard in the usual way, he takes the top cover off the instrument, “to see what noises I can make, with the aid of some electronic effects pedals, that were not necessarily linked to activating the keyboard mechanism,” he explains. “For me the setup presents me with a way in which I can explore sound without necessarily revealing myself as a keyboard player.” 

Coupled with Fujii’s use of prepared piano, Spence’s techniques make for some intensely creative and unpredictable music making on intelsat. Each track, named for a different moon of Saturn, is excerpted from a continuous improvisation recorded just five days before the concert that resulted in the CD Bright Force (Libra Records). Bright Force was released in April as the 4th release in Fujii’s 60th birthday celebration. Sometimes it’s hard at times to tell how the music is being made and many of the sounds don’t sound like they come from traditional instruments. “Mimas” has an eerie beauty, with what sounds like ringing bells, distant gongs, muted industrial noise, strummed piano strings, and less identifiable sounds blending together and shifting. “Telesto” and “Paaliaq” are more propulsive, constructed of layered rhythmic patterns and punctuating chords. But whether the music is drifting on clouds of unique textures and timbres or surging forward, the rapport between the two artists is so close that the music is warm and responsive, even when it is abstract. 

“If musicians respect each other, we can make music together,” Satoko says. “I think it doesn’t matter what kind of music you play, or what style, or even what instrument you play or where you come from. If we know we are open and we can hear each other, then that means we can make music together.”

Fujii’s unprecedented birthday bash continues in October with Weave, a special CD/DVD set by Amu, a quartet featuring Fujii along with percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn, trumpeter Natuski Tamura, and percussionist Takashi Itani. This year’s unforgettable outpouring of musical riches concludes with a new recording by Orchestra Tokyo as well as a special release of classical pianist Yuko Yamaoka performing 118 short piano pieces from Fujii’s diary compositions along with the sheet music. 

Pianist-composer Alister Spence is “utterly compelling,” according to Jazz Journal, UK, and the Sydney Morning Herald calls him, “The cutting edge of modern Australia defined.” For more than 20 years, he has fronted a trio featuring bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Toby Hall that has toured around the world and released seven CDs. In 2012, after four CDs on Rufus Records, he founded his own label, Alister Spence Music, to continue releasing music by his trio as well as other international projects. Their most recent double CD, Not Everything but Enough, by the Alister Spence Trio, was voted as one of 2017’s top 10 jazz albums worldwide in Japan’s Music Magazine, and received an Honorable Mention for the “Best of 2017” in the New York City Jazz Record. It also received 5 stars in Jazz Journal, UK. Since 2009, he has also lead a trio with bassist Joseph Williamson and drummer Chris Cantillo and toured Europe and the UK on a regular basis with this lineup. Eyal Hareuveni in Salt Peanuts praised their debut CD, Begin (Alister Spence Music) for its “Brilliant musicianship, masterful playing and imaginative improvisation.” Spence’s list of international collaborators includes bassist Barre Phillips, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Helias, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, guitarists Jim O’Rourke and Ed Kuepper, and drummer Tony Buck.

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 90 albums as a leader or co-leader, she synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone.

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, the Min-Yoh Ensemble, 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 band 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.

She records infrequently as an unaccompanied soloist, but Solo (Libra), the first of her projected 12 birthday-year albums, led Dan McClenaghan to enthuse in All About Jazz, that the album “more so than her other solo affairs—or any of her numerous ensembles for that matter—deals in beauty, delicacy of touch, graceful melodicism.” As the leader of no less than five orchestras in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, 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.” 

Brad Whiteley - Presence (DESTINY RECORDS October 2018)

Presence, the new album by pianist and composer Brad Whiteley, is out on Destiny Records. The melodic and textured release, the New York artist's second as a leader, highlights 11 original Whiteley compositions played by and a stellar NYC band including tenor saxophonist Michael Eaton, electric guitarist Tom Guarna, double bassist Matt Pavolka, and drummer Kenneth Salters

“New York pianist-organist Brad Whiteley offers more than a smart record. He shows us how it’s done.” 
– DownBeat on Whiteley’s debut Destiny album, Pathless Land

Brad Whiteley has made a name for himself as a musician’s musician, a New Yorker who makes everything sound better – whether as the longstanding keyboardist in alt-pop star Regina Spektor’s group, as keyboardist in the pit band of Broadway musical Avenue Q, or as music director and organist for the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx, not to mention playing keyboards or programming synths for recording sessions of every stripe. Above all, Whiteley – as pianist, composer and improviser – has the soul and touch of a jazz musician. For his debut album as a leader, Pathless Land, he earned a four-star review from DownBeat, with magazine also making the Destiny Records release an Editor’s Pick in June 2014 – dubbing Whiteley “an exciting young artist to watch.” Now, this ever-busy performer releases his sophomore Destiny album as a leader – the dynamic, melody-rich Presence – on October 5, 2018. Bringing 11 of his original compositions to vibrant life, the pianist-composer-producer leads a band of ace New York players: Michael Eaton (tenor saxophone), Tom Guarna (electric guitar), Matt Pavolka (double-bass), and Kenneth Salters (drums). Presence incorporates a world of influences into a warm, engaging whole, with Whiteley’s hook-filled writing and fluid pianism leading the way. 

All About Jazz, praising the concision and accessibility of Whiteley’s music, has marveled at how “easy and enjoyable” his brand of jazz can be – qualities that continue on Presence, even with the pianist’s increasing ambitions as a composer and bandleader. Above all, Whiteley seeks to convey “the power of song.” He says: “That’s a lesson I learned on the road performing with Regina Spektor. Her band is like a small chamber ensemble, and even playing the material night after night around the world, I never tire of her songs, because they’re just so good. I’ve worked with a lot of singers now – not only Regina, but also Kellylee Evans, Ben l’Oncle Soul, workshops for a musical with David Byrne – and it’s all about the song, heightened by the performance. With Presence, I strived for the tunes to be as strong as possible, with the composed material on equal footing with the improvised parts. And I always play to the core of a song when improvising, thinking melodically and structurally. I also learned lessons about the power of song in my gig with the church in the Bronx – each number you play is an attempt to move people, spiritually and emotionally. That’s something I keep with me in whatever music I play.”

Whiteley’s jazz piano playing has been influenced by icons from Duke Ellington to McCoy Tyner and beyond, as well as by such players on today’s scene as Brad Mehldau and Edward Simon. Presence brims with tracks that are object lessons in alluring, melodic contemporary jazz (“Everything Changes,” “When We Met,” “Sunset Park”); there are flowing ballads (“Presence”) and rhythmic workouts (“Demagogue”). Other tunes draw subtly on such far-flung inspirations as the mysterious modern jazz nexus of Paul Bley/Carla Bley (“Dawn”), the sly tunefulness of John Lurie’s classic downtown band the Lounge Lizards (“A Dark Day”) and the catchy riffs of ’90s alt-rock (“Sinking Feeling”); then there are hints of motoric Krautrock (“Dusk”), vintage drum’n’bass (“The Unwinding”) and rollicking R&B (“K-Car Funk ’83”).

The artfully textured arrangements of Presence are tailor-made for the top-flight band, with the players having close connections. “Reflecting on the breadth of material I drew on for inspiration makes me realize how much I appreciate the group on the record,” Whiteley says. “Each player was great at adapting to the different styles and bringing his own approach to the tunes. I’ve known Michael Eaton for 16 years – we met at Indiana University. It’s special to have such a long musical relationship with a friend. He’s an amazing musician, who has huge ears and perfect pitch, as well as an open mind about music and the world. I love the guitar tones Tom Guarna produced for this record, and he fits in so well, from the free sections to his soaring solo on the title track. Matt Pavolka also sounds incredible – I love the way he grooves on all of these styles, from drum’n’bass to free to swing. Kenneth Salters, who also played on my first album, is one of my oldest friends in New York City, plus one of the best drummers I know. He makes it seem effortless, from complicated polyrhythms to straight-ahead grooving.”

The Presence sessions made for a virtual Destiny Records family affair, with Eaton, Salters and Guarna each having previously released albums as leaders via the label. As a sideman, Whiteley played on the Destiny albums by Eaton and Salters (not to mention releases from the label by guitarist Cameron Mizell and trumpeter Jon Crowley). Whiteley and company recorded Presence in the spacious, state-of-the-art A room at Avatar Studios (now the Power Station of BerkleeNYC), with the pianist producing and George Shalda engineering. “That room is like a temple for music – so many classic pop and jazz albums were recorded in that big space,” Whiteley says. “Working in that room added something extra special to the day. George captured the sounds incredibly well, so that each instrument sounds totally alive – plus his mix really breathes and has a nice stereo field. I feel lucky to have recorded in that space with George.”

The title of Presence stems from Whiteley creating the album while his wife was expecting. “The new ‘presence’ is here now, and she is going to be 2-years-old soon,” the pianist explains. “So, the title refers to having a child come into your world, but it also touches upon the idea of being present in the musical moment, even during the chaos and excitement of becoming a parent. Being fully present and genuine while writing, performing and collaborating with other musicians is what leads to the most meaningful music-making, it seems to me. That ideal of being present in the moment also extends to performing for people – I want to be aware of the audience and open to the people listening. After all, when it comes to music, listening is pretty much everything.”

Brooklyn-based pianist, organist and keyboardist Brad Whiteley has performed on stages from London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House in Australia to New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the Greek in Los Angeles, not to mention such Manhattan jazz clubs as Smalls, the 55 Bar, Smoke, and the Jazz Gallery. He has been the keyboardist of the Regina Spektor Band since 2012, and he has worked with a wide range of other international artists, from jazz (saxophonist Dave Liebman and singer Kellylee Evans), pop (singer-songwriters David Byrne and Ben L’Oncle Soul), film (composer Alan Silvestri) and musical theater (performers Darius de Haas and Lena Hall). Whiteley released his debut jazz album as a leader, Pathless Land, via Destiny Records in 2014; the disc, which showcased him in trio settings on both piano and Hammond B-3 organ, earned praise in publications from DownBeat and All About Jazz to Jazz Weekly and Lucid Culture. He has also appeared on five other Destiny jazz albums as a sideman: Michael Eaton’s Individuation and Dialogical; Kenneth Salters’ Enter to Exit; Jon Crowley’s I Walk Amongst the Humans; and Cameron Mizell’s Negative Spaces.

Already a veteran performer on television, Whiteley has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Colbert Report, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America and CBS Saturday Morning. He also composed the music for, and appears in, the PBS Learning Matters show School Sleuth. Whiteley has been the music director and pipe organist of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx since 2010, and he has performed as keyboardist in the pit band of Avenue Q on Broadway since 2017. Born in 1980 and a native of Upstate New York, he received his master’s degree from the Indiana University School of Music and his bachelor’s degree from DePauw University, with further studies at the Mancini Institute, the Banff Centre and Aspen Music Festival.