If you are unfamiliar with the Peoples Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City I’m here to let you know that you best be knowin’ about it. If you live in the greater KC area I’d strongly suggest you checking them out – they can usually be found the first Sunday of the month at the Record Bar in Westport. They also appear in other venues throughout the year. For more info check them out on Facebook here. If you don’t live in the area, or are unlikely to visit, I’d suggest checking out their self titled album on Tzigane Records, which you can find on iTunes, Amazon, emusic and a whole bunch of other places. In lieu of writing a record review and limiting myself to the standard genre of the CD review, I’ve decided to hit you with 20 reasons why the PLBB is freaking awesome, many of which can be found on the disc. So here you go, in no particular order, 20 reasons why the PLBB is awesome.
1. As opposed to what seems like the majority of contemporary big bands going right now the PLBB sounds absolutely nothing like Maria Schneider’s Orchestra. This has its advantages: namely, since it is not trying to sound like Maria Schneider there’s absolutely no possibility of you thinking to yourself, “self, this sounds a lot like Maria, except crappy, next disc.”
2. there’s an oboe in the band, and a bassoon, and sometimes toy pianos
3. out of sheer principle any band that can tear the shit out of “Caravan” in 7/4 is awesome
4. the PLBB is made up of some of KC’s best jazz musicians
5. PLBB’s leader, Brad Cox, has successfully used the PLBB and other groups he’s involved in to create some serious support from the KC arts community. The amount of support avant-garde and experimental music gets in KC continues to blow me away. The PLBB often provides the music to the Owen Cox Dance Group productions, such as an annual performance of a very bent, but very fantastic, version of the Nutcracker Suite.
6. I’ve never heard a big band scream at the top of their lungs “hooray, here it comes, here comes the playful kitten,” that is until I listened to the CD. A lame, stiff, unspirited chant of “Pennsylvania 6-5-0-0-0″ this is not.
7. Related to number 6: Brad Cox often arranges tunes by his young piano students for the band, thus the “Shanley Lenart Suite.”
8. did I mention there’s a quick quote of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” at the end of the “Shanley Lenart Suite”?
9. the PLBB can rock really freaking hard
10. they can also take something from John Zorn’s Masada book while not only staying true to Zorn’s aesthetic, but to their own as well.
11. Oh my dear lord the lyrics to “Scrat Rut” are dirty. Dirty. Do not bring your kids.
12. Song titles are awesome. For example: “I Like Coffee for the Jitters, I Like Sugar with my Bitters,” which happens to be the second movement of Cox’s Nursery Rhymes Suite. Take Tim Burton, and your favorite nursery rhyme, combine that with a flexible, yet hard charging avant-garde big band and you’ve got a pretty good idea what this group sounds like.
13. At any time the band will break into an impromptu version of “In the Mood.” But they’re not in the same key, which makes it that much better.
14. I still have a hard time believing this group draws such a large, enthusiastic, supportive audience.
15. Although I haven’t seen it, the PLBB has performed the music to the silent film Battleship Potempkin, which tells the story of a mutiny that occurred on a Russian battleship in 1905. I hope the PLBB does this again, and if it happens seeing this performance is on my list of things to see before I move away from the area.
16. PLBB live performances are liable to shift gears at will, making each performance a new experience
17. The band is just as good at mass freakouts as it is executing tight section work.
18. Fun things you might see at a PLBB show: recreating the Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl halftime show the day of the Super Bowl. Or…posthumously marrying John Cage and Merce Cunningham to the music of Michael Jackson.
19. PLBB has often recreated Disney Songs, but in a really not that good for children kind of way.
20. I’m hesitant to say anything about their upcoming May day show, because I want to make sure I’ll be able to find a seat, but it’s going to feature tunes from Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera and excerpts from the Battleship Potempkin. Should be pretty awesome.
Guitarist Beau Bledsoe describes the aesthetic and approach of his new group Alaturka as a “musical handshake” between jazz and traditional Turkish music. While visiting his wife’s family in Istanbul Bledsoe heard attempts at merging both genres, but noticed that something of each genre and culture were lost in the process. He felt that his friends in Kansas City would be able to pull off what was hearing in his head. Bledsoe, who is a world class Flamenco guitarist, enlisted the help of KC tenorman Rich Wheeler, bassist Jeff Harshbarger, who I believe at this writing is on the road with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and percussionist Sait Arat, who is from Istanbul. Tamam Abi, which translates to “okay brother,” is Alaturka’s excellent debut album.
I’ve seen Alaturka perform a handful of times and based on those performances Tamam Abi fully realizes the group’s aesthetic. The album combines traditional and popular Turkish songs, scales and rhythms with jazz improvisation. As a saxophonist I can attest that this music is incredibly hard to play, from the non-Western scales, which can have many more than twelve tones in an octave, to the tempo shifts, to the difficult tunes, to the tricky meters – that is, tricky for Western trained musicians. I’ve heard Harshbarger and Wheeler describe in clinics how they have had to adjust how they play their instruments in order to play in tune with Bledsoe’s guitar and oud. In Wheeler’s case he has had to invent new fingerings, and at times he has to ignore what his Western-trained ears are telling him is an out of tune note in order to play in tune. Despite the numerous difficulties inherent in this music’s approach the end result sounds effortless, which is a tribute to the musicianship on display here.
The closest auditory comparison to Alaturka I can make is to Anouar Brahem’s recent album The Astounding Eyes of Rita on ECM, although Brahem used bass clarinet instead of tenor. I enjoyed Brahem’s album (I gave it 3 stars in my Downbeat review), but Tamam Abi is a much more dynamic, engaging, and lively recording that lacks some of the over-done quiet introspection on Brahem’s album, which can sometimes plague ECM recordings. What we have in Tamam Abi is an album that is wide ranging in moods, tempos, and textures.
Wheeler, who is playing the tenor at an incredibly high level right now, is often the group’s dominant melodic and solo voice. He shows his ability to produce lengthy, voice-evoking, lyrical lines on the upbeat “Neyleyim Köskü,” which also features fine solos by Arat and Bledsoe on oud (you’d never know that oud was a relatively recent addition to Bledsoe’s arsenal). Wheeler often shows off his sick chops (his altissimo is always in tune, under control, and seemingly effortless), his left-of-center leaning style, and his ability to build a solo logically. On the album’s opener “Leyla” he begins his solo quietly, placing space between his ideas; it’s as if he pauses, thinks to himself “ok, now let’s see where I can go with this,” and proceeds. He juxtaposes longer melodic lines with more probing exclamations that begin in the horn’s bottom end and surge upward.
Harshbarger, who has numerous side projects, has a huge bass sound which anchors the group, often via ostinato patterns. He also has several opportunities to solo and does so with aplomb. Bledsoe’s oud solo stands out on “Gözyaşi.” Every note is shaped, many are bent, and many more are heard vibrating sympathetically. His measured phrases are held fast by Harshbarger and Arat’s nimble drumming. The title track is a solo for Arat, in which numerous percussion instruments are overdubbed on top of each other; it grooves like mad.
Tamam Abi is an excellent album, made by four mature and highly skilled musicians who share and achieve a common aesthetic goal. All you need to know about Alaturka can be found on the record’s closing track: “Kürdili Hicazkar Longa.” It begins with a jaunty, medium tempo, snaking melody line that is heavy on quickly repeated notes and trills. The tempo jumps up for a brief continuation of the head and then Wheeler goes off frantically over Bledsoe’s strumming, Harshbarger’s repeated pounding bass note that pushes the group forward, and Arat’s busy hands and fingers. The dynamics soften up, the texture thins out, and it’s Arat’s turn. After a rhythmically inventive and texturally varying solo he cues the head and the band comes in to take the tune out. Not being familiar with traditional Turkish music I cannot determine if any of that musical tradition has been sacrificed in this group. But I can say that the jazz element is there, and that regardless of what one chooses to call Alaturka’s music, it is inventive, creative, hypnotic, rewarding, and fun to listen to. Harshbarger told me that the group hopes to play the Istanbul Jazz Festival in a year or so. That would be a level of success that this group deserves.
Tracks: Leyla; Gözyaşi (Tear); Kirmizi Gülün Ali Var (The Rose has such a Deep Red); Neyleyim Köskü (A Palace Without My Beloved); Tamam Abi (Okay Brother); Hatasiz Kul Olmaz (No one is without Faults); Vazgeçtim (I Gave Up); Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere (On the High High Hills); Kürdili Hicazkar Longa.
Personnel: Rich Wheeler, tenor saxophone; Beau Bledsoe, oud, saz, guitar; Jeff Harshbarger, bass; Sait Arat, darbuka, bass darbuka, bendir, tef, hand cymbals.