Jazz: new albums by Bill McHenry and David Virelles

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Tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry has been one of the most exciting, sophisticated players on the New York scene over the last decade, expertly squaring a more restrained and measured approach to improvisation and a curious, progressive sensibility. He made a series of excellent albums with the drummer Paul Motian—something of a model for McHenry, approachwise, despite their much different instruments; smart, melodic, and endlessly exploratory. Last year he formed a new band that placed his music in a context poles apart from most of his previous work. In the company of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis (who together with drummer Nasheet Waits are the excellent Tarbaby), and veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille—a free jazz pioneer known for his early work with Cecil Taylor as well as his own band Maono, where he introduced the late saxophonist David S. Ware to the jazz world—McHenry presents a more intense, scalding style heavily invested in the sound of John Coltrane.

McHenry's new album La Peur du Vide (Sunnyside) features six tracks recorded during an engagement at the Village Vanguard this past February—only the second time the band had gotten together to perform live—and it captures the sound of a unit beginning to coalesce. Album opener "Siglo XX" sets the tone, with a magisterial groove, driving block chords a la McCoy Tyner from Evans, and a burnished, throaty low-end cry from the saxophonist, swooping low as if to signal new ideas, working through terse phrases, and then repeating a final one to close each little episode. When Evans gets around to his solo, he alternates Tyner with Taylor (as in Cecil), dropping in glassy clusters and dissonant runs within the ascending and descending changes. The ballad "Today" reels things in to a beautiful, lyric hush, with little improvisational elaboration, while "Recognition," which also clocks in under four minutes, almost belies the fact that McHenry claims it as a composition—it's a wide-open four-way dialogue with halting phrases only held together by the rhythm section. This is where Cyrille really shines; he's only lightly tapping and scraping his sticks across his snare, but the act is nonetheless fascinating, dramatic, and practically narrative. (Cyrille also turns in a mind-blowing solo on the closing track "Trillard.") Even through it's clearly a vehicle for the drummer, McHenry and Evans still feel a bit like uncertain spectators here. The Trane vibe returns again for "In Sight," which you can check out for yourself below, with stunning, sleek results, but this time the saxophonist retains more of his old sound. The recording is deep and there's no doubt this group is interested in rigorous exploration, but it seems like more time together is needed before they truly get there.


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Cyrille also turns up on Continuum (Pi), the second album by the Cuban pianist David Virelles, which ranks among the best and most original recordings I've heard this year. I've only been able to listen to it a handful of times thus far, so I'm still getting my head around its profusion of ideas. I first heard of the 29-year-old musician last year when New York Times critic Ben Ratliff included him in a feature on four young jazz pianists to watch, and although I've heard some of his work as sideman, none of that prepared me for this stellar new album, in which he transforms the music and folklore of his homeland into something unlike anything else out there. It's no secret that Cuba produced musicians of remarkable technical ability and stylistic fluency, but most of the expats that end up in New York tend to make music so complex and virtuosic that their ideas get obscured by instrumental bombast. That's not the case with Virelles, who sounds closer to Andrew Hill or Cecil Taylor than Chucho Valdés, although one can hear that he has Afro-Cuban rhythms in his blood.

His playing is spare and considered—in fact, he often complements his piano with tremulous long tones played on harmonium and pump organ—and most of the dozen pieces are short. There's little question that Virelles is as skilled as the next Cuban musician—he just doesn't need to show it off. He's joined by Cyrille, bassist Ben Street, and the Cuban hand percussionist and poet Román Díaz, and the band clearly has a strong connection—the results are charged by a potent interactive vibe. Also listed on the album cover is Alberto Lescay, the painter who created the artwork and additional 19 works inspired by the music and a trip he and Virelles took to Santiago de Cuba where they visited the Cuban-Haitian community of San Felipe de Thompson. In the press materials Virelles says, "I am interested in finding out why people express themselves through folklore in the way that they do, and how I can embody that in my music," and he tries to accomplish that through the collaboration with Lescay and the gruff spoken word of Díaz, who chants his poetry in Spanish and three African-derived languages spoken in parts of Cuba: Karabalí, Kongo, and Yoruba-Lucumí. Still, none of those aims weigh the music down, and it's not really necessary to pay attention to them to enjoy the work. Below you can check out one of the album's long pieces, "The Executioner."


Today's playlist:

Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana Revisited/Freeflight (Impulse)
Astor Piazzolla, Concierto Para Quinteto (Sony/BMG, Argentina)
Eli Keszler, Oxtirn (ESP-Disk)
Curtis Amy & Frank Butler, Groovin' Blue (Pacific Jazz, Japan)
Roy Harper, Valentine (Science Friction)

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