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Lesley Mok

Fresh Takes By Nick Dunston

Drummer Lesley Mok is of the generation of young instrumentalists who, in addition to their studies and performances, are also carving out their paths as composers and bandleaders. This month she brings her ensemble the Living Collection to the Jazz Gallery, a venue especially known for supporting younger bandleaders. “The Living Collection is a newly formed sextet that brings together musicians with diverse backgrounds and distinct musical vocabularies,” Lesley says. “While the project began as a foray into compositional study, the focus of this group is in the collective personalities of the band; the written material is a mere framework for improvisational dialogue.” Through her ensemble, Lesley carries ambitious, yet clear intentions: “The Living Collection aims to build an ecosystem, one in which each member activates compositional material, learns to find a center within multiple relationships, and creates new forms and cycles as it unfolds.” At the Jazz Gallery, the band features David Leon on alto saxophone and flute, Yuma Uesaka on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Kalun Leung on trombone, Sonya Belaya on piano and Steve Williams on bass.

Lesley Mok performs at the Jazz Gallery, July 18.

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Charnett Moffett

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Two musicians known for intrepidly anchoring vibrant rhythm sections over the years explore other aspects of their artistry on new albums. Both Charnett Moffett and Linda May Han Oh are bassists and the principal composers on their latest releases, but for the first time, Charnett exclusively plays fretless electric bass guitar on his. Both albums also feature violins as part of the basic ensembles.

Charnett Moffett’s Bright New Day (Motéma), showcases the billowing, horn-like sound of his bass guitar in a hornless band. His quintet is rounded out by Jana Herzen on guitar, Scott Tixier on violin, Brian Jackson on piano and synth, and Mark Whitfield Jr., on drums. Charnett’s bass is on top, or prominent in the mix, on the majority of tracks, with Jana, Scott and Brian melding and interweaving so the ensemble has a mutable, constantly evolving quality. It is most pronounced on the title track, which is inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics. “Bright New Day” begins with a canon figure exchanged by Charnett and Scott, which accelerates as the others join in waves of shifting rhythms, as each instrument rises to the top in a roller-coaster of solos. A shorter harmolodic piece, “Netting,” uses a riff theme to jump off into polyphonic jamming highlighted by a violin-guitar tandem.

The shifting, flexible time/tempo possibilities are most formally employed on “Set It Free,” a piece contrasting sections of rhythmic 6/8 with suspended time, semi-rubato interludes, each one introducing another 6/8-driven solo section for piano, violin and guitar. Tempo is used in an impressionistic way on “Waterfalls,” as Charnett’s bass begins slowly, with long tones, as if floating down a river until the beat accelerates as he’s going over a falls, where he is joined by Jana and Scott bouncing answering phrases to his bass to simulate rapids below the falls. There are also two tracks in the gospel-spiritual mode. “Holy Spirits” is uplifting and celebratory, with Charnett’s clarion refrain underpinning a round of solos emerging from the communal ensemble reflecting the title. “O My God Elohim” could be a traditional hymn, with Charnett’s bass playing the role of lead singer. In funky contrast is “Free the Slaves,” spurred by a jazz-rock beat, with solos over roiling, thick backgrounds and insistent riffs under Charnett’s chant of “Free the slaves, let ’em go.” Jana contributes one composition to the album, “Precious Air,” a song with her own lyrics, delivered in a breathy voice and the musical textures of folk-rock.

Charnett Moffett showcases music from Bright New Day at Jazz Forum, July 28.

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Terraza Big Band

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb

Go big or go home

Saxophonist and composer Michael Thomas heard a lot of big band music while he was growing up, so it seemed natural to him to start up one of his own. For the past four years he has co-led the Terraza Big Band with co-founder, bassist and composer Edward Perez. “As you compose more, you realize the possibilities of different combinations of instruments. I did gigs in configurations from piano duo to septet. A big band offers all that at once; nothing else offers as much,” Michael explains.

The ensemble is named for Terraza 7, the Queens club where it’s performed monthly since 2015. At the time their first gig was confirmed, Michael and Edward had completed only two big band compositions each, and scrambled to write enough music for a full set in one week. Their debut performance went so well that they were immediately booked for the next three months. “For the first eight or nine months, we each made an effort to add one new piece for each gig,” Michael recalls. “That way the music was always fresh for the band, there was always something they hadn’t done before.”

In recruiting members for the 18-piece band, Michael and Edward aimed high. “It’s not worth it to do it if the band isn’t the best it could be. We called the people who would be the best choice in a perfect world, and this being New York made it possible: Music is the reason they’re here. We created a community around the ideal,” Michael says. The personnel varies according to the players’ schedules, and the saxophonist estimates he has a pool to draw from roughly the size of two big bands.

The lineup often includes tenor saxophonists Troy Roberts and John Ellis, trumpeter Alex Norris, trombonist John Fedchock, bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton, pianist Luis Perdomo and other mainstays of the Big Apple jazz scene. “They’re all first-call players. Even if we get a last-minute sub they’re still playing at an extremely high level, it never feels like they’re struggling to play the music.”

The first Terraza Big Band album came out recently, One Day Wonder (Outside In Music), featuring four compositions each by Michael and Edward, plus the Troy Roberts-penned title track, which Michael arranged. “Troy is an integral part of the band, a great section guy and soloist. This is a great feature for him, Alex and drummer Jimmy Macbride. And it’s interesting for everyone else, the band has a lot to do on this one.”

The title One Day Wonder could also apply to how long it took to record the CD—a single day. Michael credits conductor Miho Hazama with helping the session go smoothly. The Terraza Big Band hadn’t used a conductor before, though Edward and Michael had worked with Miho in the past. They saw plenty of advantages to having her on hand in the studio, including allowing the co-leaders to focus on their playing instead of cuing the band. “We didn’t have to set up in some weird way so everyone could see us,” Michael says. “Miho is very intuitive and we trust her. She took the pressure off us and streamlined the process. She made it easier for us to stay on track.”

When the Terraza Big Band plays Birdland July 28, they’re going to focus on a mix of material, with selections from One Day Wonder along with some brand-new pieces. “We’re premiering new things all the time,” Michael notes. “And we have such a great depth of soloists, we want to take advantage of this situation and feature everyone as much as possible. We can mix the intricacy of a large ensemble with the freedom of a small band. We’re aiming for a 50-50 split between orchestrations and solos. We have such good players, it’s silly not to have them do their thing.”

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Amaro Freitas

The Latin Side of Hot House By Raul da Gama

Amaro Freitas: O Malandro do Dedo

It is often said that most musicians spend years paying their dues before they find their voices. But the Brazilian composer-pianist Amaro Freitas seems to be among the latest exceptions to that unwritten rule. In 2018 he released his sophomore recording Rasif (Far Out Recordings) and a new voice in Brazilian music appeared, fully formed. The words o malandro do dedo spring to mind, for he is truly “a finger trickster,” clothed in the garb of a melodic and harmonic pianist.

Listening to Amaro play is always a breathtaking experience. On the surface, his right hand seems to caress black and white keys into intriguing melodies, seducing his left hand into diaphanous accompanying harmonies. But beneath this something else is simmering: Each finger and thumb becomes its own drum creating a volcano of polyrhythms that, together, erupt into music.

Amaro appeared seemingly fully formed out of the musical tradition of the Brazilian north—to be precise, from Recife, in the state of Pernambuco— which just happens to be the home of the great Brazilian composer, bandleader and woodwinds player Moacir Santos. But somewhat unlike his famous forebear, Amaro cut his musical teeth in church. “As a youngster, I attended the Pentecostal Evangelical Church of God congregation,” he says. “While our service was based on the European music system, which is a binary one based on the Christian harp, the music ministry of our Pentecostal churches was strongly influenced by traditional rhythms of the Brazilian northeast and other popular Brazilian and gospel music.” 

This collision of church and state developed into and emerged in a deeply spiritual musical voice, one that comes from traipsing across the rhythmic world of the unique sertão (hinterland) of Pernambuco that rises in the Brazilian northeast and falls into the rugged coastline along the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean. Here, following a push from his father, Amaro pursued formal piano studies. Despite having to practice on a bare tabletop at home as he was too poor to afford a piano, the music imagined only in his mind began to flow from his fingers.

This lonely pursuit in his formative years has followed through in his music and has been instrumental in creating his unique pianistic voice. “My music comes from a place of inner contemplation. The ecstasy of worship also translates into a connection to dance but one that resides in the inner rather than the outer body. I convey a sense of the body’s cells moving through my blood; a kind of dissonance in symmetry,” he explains. When it all emerges, each finger beats its own drum; the resulting polyrhythms convey what’s happening on the inside.

All of this emerges majestically on Rasif. The title is a play on the colloquial spelling of his hometown. “I am painting a picture of seas breaking on the rocks simulating ebb and flow of the sea through frevo and maracatu, music that’s pure Pernambuco, Brazil,” says Amaro, unveiling his deep, musical secret.

Amaro Freitas Quartet performs at Henry Gourdine Park, in Ossining, July 29, part of the Jazz Forum Arts Summer Series; and Dizzy’s, July 31.

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