CapitalBop :: Album reviews

Album review | Siné Qua Non’s Simple Pleasures: A vast collection of influences, effortlessly distilled

Siné Qua Non. Courtesy collectiveactiondc.org

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

The first thing to note about the debut album from Siné Qua Non is the instrumentation. A drum set, percussion, steel pan and bass, with winds and frequent vocals on top. Those first three fit within the drum family, so this group’s rhythm section is truly an interplay between drums and bass.

top 5 albums of 2013
Simple Pleasures is No. 4. Read CapitalBop’s full list.

 
Needless to say, the key ingredient to Simple Pleasures is the beat. Often complex in its cadence and structure, the groove is steadfastly African with its insistence on keeping a 6/8 swing, the characteristic closely associated with many of the musics found on the continent.

Click to buy Simple Pleasures

This band, with its exotic-sounding name (it means “the indispensable part” in Latin), is often misperceived as a Latin jazz group. It is easy to see why, with its instrumentation, song titles and the music itself. But to pigeonhole this band as another Latin-fusion group would be a mistake. One listen to Simple Pleasures refutes the notion.

Sure, there is a stark Latin influence, specifically that of Brazilian samba and Spanish flamenco. The album is full of references to pan-Latin music, though the compositions are affirmatively generated from the U.S.’s jazz tradition.

The band’s makeup features a number of celebrated and experienced jazz musicians living in the D.C. area: Michael Bowie, who founded the group and composes most of its music, on bass; Lyle Link on reeds; Victor Provost on steel pan; Sam Turner on percussion; Mark Prince on drums. Given their musical lineage, it’s all but inescapable to have many compositions containing some of the idiom’s common chord progressions. There are also some strong references to the funk and fusion of Graham Central Station and Stanley Clarke, which feels like comfortable territory in a group that’s led (in de facto terms) by its bassist.

The best surprise comes at the song “Mastermind,” which features an emcee and an eerie arrangement that sounds like a lost collaboration between Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Dr. Octagon. Ultimately, Siné Qua Non’s music is expansive and difficult to fit into a specific framework. Featuring an all-star cast of some of D.C.-area musicians, Simple Pleasures is a joyful addition to any music library, and an auspicious token of what to expect as this new group develops.

Album review | Allyn Johnson & Sonic Sanctuary: The Truth is revealed

Allyn Johnson. Courtesy lrdudc.wrlc.org


by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

If you want to get to know a local jazz scene, or a new strain of thinking in the music, look to its pianists. Eighty-eight keys make up an orchestra unto themselves, percussive and complementary and narrative. Pianists are called “professors” because they lead by example and by diplomacy, even when they’re not bandleaders; other players can relate their own ideas to the keyboard, and a good pianist can relate them to each other.

top 5 albums of 2013
The Truth is No. 1. Read CapitalBop’s full list.

 
Allyn Johnson is the best representative you’ll find for the state of creative Black music in D.C. He’s a true professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s jazz studies program, and his cell buzzes incessantly with invitations to play in others’ bands—jazz, gospel and R&B. The Truth is Johnson’s self-released trio record, featuring the bassist Romeir Mendez and the drummer Carroll Dashiell III. It has a steady-beating heart and a bounding stride. Rhythm is melody is harmony is dynamics. Johnson grew up playing gospel in his uncle’s church, which taught him more than the power of warm tension and resonant bass notes: It showed him how music can reach into a complex story, strip away the incidentals, make a message universal.

Click to buy New York Suite

His glistening right-hand chords are the camera lens through which we receive The Truth’s moving picture. They’re rich, abundant, but full of breathing room—like fresh whipped cream or a well-lit gallery. On the up-tempo “Tune in A” (tied for the album’s high-energy point, next to a version of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You”) those voicings accompany their own narrative, while Johnson’s left hand – no, his whole arm – issues single-note patterns with a low center of gravity, then dazzles on a gallivanting solo section with counterintuitive jabs of harmony.

The angle of Johnson’s playing that rears up and sweeps across all the others is one of ornamental muscularity. His gospel background and interest in R&B make Robert Glasper an obvious comparison, but in the way he drives and swings with serious, real-world conviction, Johnson has a lot in common with another rising pianist: New York City’s Harold O’Neal. Hearing these guys take a solo, you can envision a man walking quickly toward downtown, shoulders leading belly, the lapel of a winter coat clenched in his hand. He could be hurrying because he’s late or because it’s cold, but it makes more sense to believe he’s just eager to see whoever he’s meeting.

Album review | Reginald Cyntje spreads the Love with a gentle message

Reginald Cyntje. Courtesy Timothy Forbes Photography

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

The trombonist and composer Reginald Cyntje isn’t against didacticism, and he doesn’t have to be. Music creates rare opportunities to deliver serrated messages with a cushion, and that demands conviction. Cyntje’s blog finds him ministering from the pulpit of life, and he has insight. But you worry about Love, a concept album that’s heavy on vocals and filled with abstract-noun song titles (“Faith,” “Determination,” “Peace”).

top 5 albums of 2013
Love is No. 3. Read CapitalBop’s full list.

 
Art isn’t so good at direct appeals (for reference: that Crash movie; painters from the Romantic era). Messages find your sweet spot by leading you down a more indirect path, by “kindling associations,” as the historian Joseph Bernstein said of Baudelaire’s poetry. Music should get a grip on your perspective so fully that it invites you to draw your own connections and conclusions, from within its reality. Love, Cyntje’s sophomore effort, works because it seems sure about where you should go, not how you should get there.

Click to buy Love

Cyntje’s music is always made taut and warm by rhythmic tension: between Caribbean lilt and classic, small-group swing feel. There’s insistence and comfort and generosity and demand, which complements the muscular sound of his trombone playing—intentional and concerted, like he’s trying to push a burlap bag out of a narrow berth. On Love, an upright and un-strenuous mist seeps up through the 11 tracks, originating in the bell of the trombone and spreading through his core quintet.

About that group: Herman Burney’s bass is the first thing you hear on track one, and it lays down mulchy soil for the entire record. The pianist Allyn Johnson and the drummer Amin Gumbs are all firm but counterintuitive rhythm. Over that rhythm section, it’s the brittle sweetness of Victor Provost’s steel pan that gives Cyntje his foil. Provost’s flurrying solos and fierce accompaniments are high and bright, but he’s a willing junior partner to the bandleader.

Then there’s the poetry, all written by Cyntje, recited on most tracks by a handful of singers and readers, conveying messages on the border of ethereal (“She ascended to earth to teach divinity unconditionally / Fertile with faith, she gave birth to life’s blood”). On “Hope,” when Heidi Martin and Lasana Mack recite separate verses in overlapping dialogue, jumping and quickening and lagging and responding, you lose track of what exactly is being said. You catch snatches of words and phrases, and repeated incantations. The message seems to attack you from somewhere hidden, inside the music. It feels positive, not capturable, but easy to become a part of.

Album Review: Brian Settles Trio’s Folk: braving the rough waters of tradition with creative comrades

Brian Settles. Courtesy Timothy Forbes Photography

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

One of the more studied saxophonists of the D.C. area, Brian Settles has released an album that feels like a new start – a new beginning – rather than a follow-up to his debut, 2011′s Secret Handshake. Where the preceding record was a strong exploration of various aesthetic and timbral approaches, the newer Folk presents Settles’ music with much more focus and deliberation.

top 5 albums of 2013
Folk is No. 2. Read CapitalBop’s full list.

 
Most notable is the narrowing down of his ensemble to the classic piano-less saxophone trio format, creating a more streamlined palette for composition and improvisation and linking up with tradition. Settles’ trio has taken this tried-and-true instrumental configuration and approached it with its own personal originality. Longtime cohorts Jeremy Carlstedt on drums and Corcoran Holt on bass lend themselves fully to the collective creation, coming together with Brian’s gracious and subtle, yet piercing, tenor tone.

Click to buy Folk

The band rocks in a swaying, nautical kind of way, like a ship sailing through a fierce but steady current. Its sound and propulsion set concisely inside the structure of the compositions, maneuvering through improvisations, intuitively building tension and releasing it, as if the three musicians are breathing with the same lungs.

The recording successfully captures the fact that this is an extremely “viby” trio, something too often lost in modern bands and recordings that don’t give the instruments room to breathe. Brian Settles’ Folk feels much more like an album, rather than a collection of songs; it’s a complete statement. As Settles’ body of work continues to unfold, it remains to be seen whether this album marks a new beginning or another important document in the accrual of an already strong career. Whatever it may become, it is without doubt a contemporary record with a classic sound.

Best D.C. Jazz Albums of 2013: Our Top 5

CapitalBop Best Albums of 2013
by Giovanni Russonello & Luke Stewart
Editorial board

In a year when just about every musician in the world seemed to be putting out his or her own recording, D.C.’s jazz scene yielded a manageable and strikingly high-quality crop. It’s not just the caliber but the variety, in terms of sound and perspective, that grabs your attention about these albums.

D.C. musicians showed an interest in crossing boundaries and reaching beyond the District for inspiration — look to Kenny Rittenhouse’s New York Suite, or the Caribbean underpinnings of Reginald Cyntje’s Love, or the influence of Spanish classical music on Siné Qua Non’s Simple Pleasures. At the same time, all of these excellent records are pure and without pretense: They strip away the glitter and bloated imagery — the feeling of high velocity and low impact — that pervade our lives in a digital age. Some albums below have simple titles that get at that spirit of grounded introspection: Folk and The Truth (both Victor Haskins and Allyn Johnson used the latter). What a fitting pair of names. Jazz, a folk music made between folks seeking common ground, is less concerned with style or symbols than it is in approaching that illusive, subjective place called personal truth.

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Album review | Kenny Rittenhouse’s New York Suite finds inspiration in family, and a city’s heartbeat

Kenny Rittenhouse, shown performing at Bohemian Caverns, recently released his sophomore album. Courtesy Timothy Forbes Photography/flickr


by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

Kenny Rittenhouse has developed a reputation as one of the DMV’s most versatile and virtuosic trumpeters, able to bounce between classical music and various sorts of jazz with the poise of a true master. His sophomore album, New York Suite, further exhibits him as a gifted composer, crafting complex lines and harmonies, all the while making great use of his excellent group.

top 5 albums of 2013
New York Suite is No. 5. Read CapitalBop’s full list.

Rittenhouse recorded it in January with a septet featuring some of the usual suspects of the District jazz community’s top brass. It’s little wonder that the pianist Allyn Johnson, the trombonist Reginald Cyntje, and the saxophonist Lyle Link continuously crop up on District artists’ liner notes – these are simply three of the most well-versed and sensitive jazz musicians playing today, anywhere. The seasoned bassist Romeir Mendez, the veteran drummer J.C. Jefferson, Jr., and Rittenhouse’s fellow Army bandmate, the saxophonist Antonio Orta, round out the ensemble.

Click to buy New York Suite

The album opens with “Seneca’s Dance,” a polite salvo; as the title might suggest, the tune is a medium-tempo, hard-swinging blues, a great way to warm up to a classic-sounding recording. Next is ”Last Train to Harlem,” the first movement in Kenny’s “New York Suite,” a three-part piece with tracks scattered throughout the album. A very interesting tune once the title is realized, the continuous line from the piano and bass is reminiscent of the Nuyorican clave, a standout in the culture of Harlem. Though set in 3/4 time, the feel is very similar to much of Duke Ellington’s Latin-tinged work, complete with the intricate melodic line shared by the horn section. Continue reading

D.C.’s best records of 2012: The Top 5


Compiled by Giovanni Russonello & Luke Stewart
Editorial board

This year, the District’s jazz scene saw recordings from a number of outstanding musicians — people ranging from classic crooners to experimental ambient artists, first-time leaders to studio veterans. Below you’ll find our five favorite albums from the past year. Click on any of them to go to a full review.

All five of these albums come highly recommended, and they say something extremely promising about the future of this town’s wide-reaching, fertile music scene. And the keg isn’t tapped yet: A handful of extremely talented D.C. musicians still have yet to record their own albums. By the end of 2013, hopefully we’ll be able to recommend debut CDs by the likes of Lyle Link, Tarus Mateen, Kris Funn and so many others.

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Album review | Blake Meister’s Septagon

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

The bassist Blake Meister has been a rising star on the D.C. jazz scene for a number of years, garnering a reputation as a hard-working, hard-swinging bassist. He has always stood out from many other bassists in the area for being not only technically proficient but also singular in his approach.


CapitalBop’s Best Albums of 2012

#1

This uniqueness is well demonstrated on his debut release, Septagon, which features eight original compositions. What is notable before even listening to the album is the lineup. The record was released on the famed saxophonist Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music label, and Blake is joined by guitarist Paul Bollenback, pianist Marc Copland, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and drummer Ralph Peterson. Meister, who recently joined the faculty of the Peabody Institute, has always been known as a very smart musician, incorporating sometimes-esoteric concepts into his compositions. Continue reading

Album review | Paul Carr’s Standard Domain

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Educators ought to have strong foundational beliefs, but pliable sensitivities. The robust tenor and soprano saxophonist Paul Carr seems to fit the bill.

One of the D.C. area’s great music teachers and organizers, he’s responsible for the Jazz Academy of Music, a 10-year-old educational nonprofit, and the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival – an annual stomping ground for some of the best musicians in the world, as well as talented students. Carr advocates for what he calls “real jazz,” his way of drawing battle lines around the role of swing rhythm and adherence to the rubric of chord changes.


CapitalBop’s Best Albums of 2012

#2

On his latest release, Carr argues for the continued importance of a standard repertoire. It’s not a groundbreaking statement by anyone’s count, but maybe it seems at least a little bit meaningful today, when jazz means so many things to so many people. Characteristically, his statement is pro-tradition but anti-dogma; he’s not sticking to any routine playbook. On Standard Domain, Carr delves into a handful of lesser-heard but still immortal compositions: Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” Thelonious Monk’s “Sixteen,” Joe Henderson’s “Tetragon” and others. He also contributes a tune, the up-tempo title track that bounces between modern straight-eighths feel and plowing swing, and allows one by the pianist Joey Calderazzo: a valedictory hard-bop melody called “Bye George.” Continue reading

Album review | Janel & Anthony’s Where Is Home

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

Janel & Anthony is not a jazz group. Janel & Anthony is not an indie-rock band. They are not a classical duo.

Janel & Anthony are in a genre all of their own. Since the release of Where is Home this year on the Silver Spring-based Cuneiform Records, the electro-acoustic duo has quickly achieved a cult following among the experimental music community.


CapitalBop’s Best Albums of 2012

#3

Formed in Northern Virginia, Janel & Anthony started jamming together in the early 2000s when they were on break from college. Janel’s classical training and Anthony’s jazz abilities combined to form a radical new sound. Over the years, that sound has developed into a cohesive array of original music that sweeps and undulates with digitally altered tones and subtle rhythms. Continue reading