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A good jazz duo record is hard to pull off, but Ben Monder and Bill McHenry are certainly up to the task with their recent release, Bloom. Their musical dialogue conjures the edgy spontaneity of great improvisation, whether sprawling through the drones of the title track or navigating the crunchy distortion of “Ice Fields.”
The record can be a bit challenging at times because of the lack of rhythmic drive, but the long phrasing and angular saxophone lines work because of the way that the two weave together larger melodic arcs.
Guitarist Ben Monder sets the tone of the songs with his intricate electric guitar wizardry, laying a foundation over which McHenry’s saxophone glides melodically. It’s not actually that different from what one would expect from a sax-and-guitar duo, only there seem to be no chord changes or functional harmony. Instead, the two dance within a more ambiguous framework of timbral and dynamic shifts that move subtly within each song and between tracks. McHenry takes the lead in a few places, such as the beginning of “Heliogabalus” (that was fun to type) where his aggressive chromatic passages and brash punctuations give way as Monder slides in quietly underneath him.
Taken together, these conversations provide a display of virtuosic and intimate improvised music. Although a clear departure from tonality and functional harmony, Monder and McHenry’s record is exciting, moving and oddly mystifying. I’ve had to find myself in the right mood to listen to it, but when I have really been able to dig in, it has taken my ear in some surprising new directions.
The media hype machine might not have noticed, but Brad Mehldau is no longer on the cutting edge of new jazz releases. Since the release of Highway Rider in March, I have had the pleasure of hearing at least six new jazz CD releases that may not have the same media profile, but convey a whole lot more inspired music. They are Reclamation by Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, It’s About That Time by the Hot Club of Detroit, Bloom by Ben Monder and Bill McHenry, A Vacant Lot by The Inhabitants, Backatown by Trombone Shorty and Royal Toast by the Claudia Quintet.
Last fall, I participated in a conversation at NPR’s A Blog Supreme, where seven young jazz writers listed some of their favorite releases from the past decade. Brad Mehldau was a consensus pick among my fellow jazz youngsters, and so when his new CD Highway Rider came out in March, it was a big event across the Jazz Internet. Some examples of Mehldau’s praise can be found at Nextbop and Pop & Hiss, the LA Times music blog. Jacob Teichroew from jazz.about.com, on the other hand, wasn’t too impressed.
I wasn’t wowed by what I heard, either, so I chose not to weigh in despite its status as one of the most-hyped jazz releases that will probably occur this year. But since then, I’ve heard a number of great new jazz CDs, and these six are my favorites. I guess this is somewhat of a follow up to Phil Freeman’s album review odyssey over at Burning Ambulance, where he reviewed 31 albums in 31 days. This project is a bit less ambitious: I’ll be highlighting six releases over the next six days, starting tomorrow. In the meantime, check them out!
You’ll get one review a day for the rest of the week, starting with Reclamation tomorrow. Also keep your eye out for Rosetta Trio’s studio session on The Checkout this Tuesday (June 1), and their hit at the Jazz Gallery on Thursday (June 3).
UPDATE: Matt Merewitz had the bright idea of chiming in with his own suggestions for new releases that are better than Highway Rider in the comments section. Please augment his list if you can, as I’m always looking for new stuff to check out.