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Listening Post: Kamasi Washington, Itzhak Perlman, Gap Mangione Quintet and Maria Schneider

Hip-hop/Jazz fusion

Kamasi Washington, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder). Good God, what a big, beautiful and hot mess this is. Saxophonist/producer/arranger/composer Kamasi Washington named his wildly ambitious three-disc effort “The Epic” for a reason – rarely in modern music has there been a release that so consistently shoots for the heavens, that seeks to make grandiose statements and, more often than not, manages to do so. Washington is much buzzed-about these days, largely due to his work on Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing hip-hop/jazz fusion masterpiece “To Pimp A Butterfly.” His work on that album is notable, of course, but it only tells part of the story. The rest is told here, across the span of nearly three hours of insanely adventurous jazz that acknowledges hip-hop’s import, but treats the form as merely one color in a palette that also includes classic soul jazz, bebop, funk, fusion and free-jazz. Strings, choirs and unexpected shifts in the aural landscape abound here, and guest vocalists – Patrice Quinn, notably, during the gospel-tinged slow burner “The Rhythm Changes” – add spice to the sonic stew. For some, all of this might be too much – this is not background music, nor the variety of jazz-based music that aims to take listeners by the hand and make them feel welcome and comfortable. It is, however, a bit of a musical playground for listeners who love the gradual unfolding of dense music that only comes through attentive and repeated and active listening. At the heart of “The Epic” is the rather brilliant soloing of Washington, whose authoritative tone and unerring feel for the well-turned phrase is supported by a core band that includes bassist Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner) and his brother, drummer Rondald Bruner, Jr., as well as percussionist Leon Mobley, keyboardist Brandon Coleman and pianist Cameron Graves. These are some of the most dynamic and inventive young musicians working today, and “The Epic” gives them all a chance to strut their stuff in service of some killer compositions and arrangements. 3 1/2 stars(Jeff Miers)


Itzhak Perlman with various orchestras, fellow soloists and conductors, “Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon” (Deutsche Grammophon, 25 discs). You’ll notice first off in this splendidly useful box issued to celebrate Itzhak Perlman’s upcoming 70th birthday Aug. 31 that you’ll find Berg’s and Stravinsky’s Violin concerti but not Bartok’s or Samuel Barber’s. Tckaikovsky’s and Shostakovich’s Violin concerti are here but not Mendelssohn’s or Brahms’ or Sibelius’. Beethoven’s and Mozart’s Violin Piano Sonatas are here, along with the Mozart Concerti but not Beethoven’s. The only Bach here are songs performed by Kathleen Battle with Perlman, not the single or double concerti. So despite the heft of a 25-disc package, this is a very particular slice of the violin repertoire in keeping with the simple fact that in his immense career, Perlman seems to have recorded for just about every label, most notably EMI. So much of his best work, then, is elsewhere. But what you’ll hear are recordings made as Perlman says at 25, 30 and 40. They begin in 1968 and reach into his latter-day career. Obviously, the high points here are the Mozart Concertos and Sonatas, and the Beethoven Sonatas the latter performed with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the former with his friend Daniel Barenboim. There is, to be sure, a vast quantity of great fiddling here. And when you have to put up with gimmickry – a live recording of Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” featuring solo turns by Perlman, Isaac Stern, Schlomo Mintz and Pinchas Zukerman, you can, if you want, blame Zubin Mehta for it all. The preponderance of fine fiddling here takes precedence over luxuriance in stardom. 3 stars (Jeff Simon)


Gap Mangione Quintet, “Live in Toronto” (Josh Music). Call it “upstate bebop.” It’s been around for more than half a century and it’s been as tasty a New York State product as macintosh apples and chicken wings. You could hear it in the Clef Club on Syracuse’s Wolf Street a half century ago or, would you believe, in the pit band of Dewey Michael’s Palace Burlesque (where Sam Noto, Red Menza and Joe Romano were famously employed while making a living, though not exactly with bebop). The music is hot, hard-charging, ferociously lucid in both conception and execution and basking in shameless melody. The most famous exponents of “upstate bebop” would arguably be Rochester’s Mangione Brothers, pianist and composer Gap, now 76 and his trumpet-playing younger brother Chuck, now 74, whose “Friends and Love” was once that uncommon thing, an actual smash hit best-selling jazz record. The band here may be as much Canadian as upstate New York, but the musical style in this superb Gap Mangione Quintet disc is upstate bebop and it’s first-rate. The saxophone soloists are Andy Weinzler and Pat LaBarbera, the bassist is Neil Swainson and the drummer is Steve Curry. Lest anyone read too much into the absence of a trumpet player in Gap Mangione’s band, his brother’s most famous composition “Land of Make Believe” is played superbly by this band as are two others. (It’s good to remember that when Chuck Mangione started out, he was playing an upswept trumpet that was a gift of Dizzy Gillespie, no less.) Gap’s tunes are most of the rest, along with Duke Pearson’s “Tribute to Brownie” (as in Clifford Brown) and, yes, Leroy Anderson’s “Serenata.” Lest anyone doubt how much of family project this is, Gap’s wife, Janet, contributed the Impressionist painting used for the disc’s cover. And the disc ends with Gap’s tribute to his wife “Calypso for Janet” in which the saxophonists converse, play ensembles, solos and make themselves known in Sonny Rollins’ spirit (in his solo, Gap is, naturally enough, reminded of Rollins’ tune “St. Thomas”). What is now abundantly clear about “upstate bebop” is that its infectiousness is quite beyond time and place. 3 stars (Jeff Simon)


Maria Schneider, “The Thompson Fields” (ArtistShare). “The subject is beauty,” writes Maria Schneider to explain her composition “The Monarch and the Milkweed” on this magnificent, nature-drunk masterpiece, one of the great jazz records period, not just one of the great recent jazz records. “What is it exactly? Why does it exist? Many species are drawn to beauty and evolve according to it, or so it appears. But who is the decider of what’s beautiful? … The latest news from key scientists is the discovery of a place in the brain they’ve named Field A1. It lights up on brain scans when something strikes a person as beautiful, whether musical, visual or even mathematical in nature. How many creatures have an A1? And if we judge beauty, not only within our own species, but also in the things around us, might other creatures recognize beauty outside their own species?” If so, not only have the A1s of jazz listeners been responding ecstatically to the music of this band (and variants thereof) for 25 years but, who knows, maybe Siamese cats and domesticated salamanders have, too. What is a sure thing is that the Field A1 in any jazz lover’s brain will be lighting up auroras in apprehending everything about this utterly amazing disc, from its physical beauty full of Audubon bird paintings to Brienne Lermitte’s gorgeous photographs of Schneider and her Minnesota home. Everything about this disc has a good chance of haunting you, from Schneider’s compositions and the soloists in her orchestra (including Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson and pianist Frank Kimbrough) to the poem by Ted Kooser that inspired “Walking By Flashlight” (“November 18/Cloudy, dark and windy./Walking by flashlight/at six in the morning,/my circle of light on the gravel/swinging side to side/coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,/each watching from darkness/this man with the moon on a leash.”) This is by any possible assay at any possible time, a very special project. Schneider writes, “Making a recording like this is becoming increasingly difficult and would now be impossible without the generous support of many participants.” It is only available through the remarkable composer/orchestra leader’s website There is no more beautiful place on the Web in jazz to discover these days than that one. 4 stars (Jeff Simon)

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