At WSJ on how NBA Defense has Changed

http://on.wsj.com/1GF6zMA NBA-Basketball-07-08-SeasonHow NBA Defenses Got Turned Inside Out Forget protecting the rim—now defense in the pros is all about guarding the perimeter Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. ENLARGE Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. Photo: USA Today Sports/Reuters By Martin Johnson March 1, 2015 6:14 p.m. ET 1 COMMENTS

For generations, the key to playing great team defense in the NBA was simple: having a great center. From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, fearsome big men were almost always at the heart of the best defenses. This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.

Today’s NBA, though, is turning this basic understanding on its head. Now good defense is no longer mainly about guarding the rim. It’s about guarding 23 feet or so away from it. Stopping the three-point shot has become the paramount defensive objective in the NBA. Offenses are launching them in unprecedented volume, which is forcing defenses to focus on preventing them, and changing how defenses are built. This season, entering Sunday, the top defensive teams in the league based on points allowed per possession were the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks. Each of these teams either lack a dominant rim protector or they start a center who has missed a significant part of the season because of injuries.

What they do have is the ability to harass three-point shooters. In the NBA, the teams that allow the lowest three-point shooting percentage have become a reflection of the league’s overall defensive ratings. The top four teams in three-point defense entering Sunday were Houston, the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State and Milwaukee. (Portland ranks sixth overall.) Advertisement Meanwhile, the three worst defenses this season—the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves—were among the worst at three-point defense. In other words, stop the three, and you have an excellent chance of stopping your opponent. It is the latest reflection of how shots from long range have revolutionized the sport.

“It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation,” said Jeff Van Gundy, a former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who is now an analyst for ESPN and ABC. “It used to be that you wanted to get an open 15-foot jump shot. Now that’s what defenses will concede because everyone wants to shoot threes.”

“It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market,” said John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations. “Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”

‘It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation.’ —Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy on the reliance on the three-point shot

The three-point shot was introduced in the 1979-80 season, but it took a long time to catch on as a weapon. During that first year, Atlanta made 13 three-pointers the whole season. The next season, they made 10. Usage of the three slowly grew, then jumped in the 1994-95 season, when the three-point line—initially 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the rim, 22 feet in the corners—was moved to 22 feet uniformly. The league returned it to its original length in 1997 and has left it there. But after an initial decline, reliance on the shot has grown, in part because it has been found to be more efficient than the mid-range shot. Now the average team is taking 26.8% of its shots from three-point range, up from last year’s 26%, which was an all-time high.As Van Gundy said, teams used to have only one or two capable shooters on the court at once; now teams can deploy four or even five.

“It’s made defense in the NBA much more team-oriented,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “You can’t game-plan to isolate against one guy; you have to defend the entire court.”

Stopping the three was one of Stotts’s points of emphasis when he took over the Blazers before the 2012-13 season. It has driven their rise from 21st in defensive rating during his first season to the league’s upper echelon this season. Stotts said the primary strategy was keeping the ball on one side of the floor, rotating back into the paint to stop drives and forcing long-distance two-point shots. “We want to be in position to contest as many threes as possible,” he said.

Milwaukee Bucks swingman Jared Dudley played last season for the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that led the NBA in opponents’ three-point percentage. He contrasted what the Bucks do versus what the Clippers did. “With the Clippers, we were determined to run shooters off the line”—that is, prevent threes from being taken—“but sometimes that allowed them to drive to the hoop,” he said.

He said the Bucks’ approach is more comprehensive. In addition to running shooters off the three point line, the Bucks try to force ballhandlers toward the baseline, where the passing angles are more severe. Or they force shooters to dribble the ball toward a help defender, frequently long-armed forward Giannis Antetokounmpo or center John Henson.

A lot of three-point attempts nowadays occur on fast breaks when defenses are scrambling to locate and guard opposing players, so the Bucks make transition defense—getting three or four players to the defensive end as quickly as possible—a point of emphasis. “It takes a lot of communication,” Dudley said. “You’ll always hear us talking to each other about what’s going on on the floor.”

All of that said, experts see an eventual leveling off in the league’s infatuation with the three. For one, defenses are catching up: The leaguewide three-point percentage is down

to .348 from .360 last season.

Van Gundy sees a more imminent change. “I think you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”

you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”

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Archives: At WSJ on the new recordings by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi

http://on.wsj.com/1LzuY72

Reviews of ‘Bird Calls’ by Rudresh Mahanthappa and ‘Intents and Purposes’ by Rez Abbasi

Two new discs revisit and revise Charlie Parker and ’70s jazz rock

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s most recent album is ‘Bird Calls.’ ENLARGE
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s most recent album is ‘Bird Calls.’ Photo: Jimmy Katz

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is 43, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, who is 49, share more than South Asian and American roots. Each musician is a vital figure on his instrument, the two jazzmen rose to prominence about a decade ago, and they have played together in several bands.

Earlier this month, each released a recording that takes vintage repertoire in a new direction. Mr. Mahanthappa’s disc, “Bird Calls” (ACT), offers a series of tunes inspired by the music of Charlie Parker—but so deeply abstracted that it is no rote tribute recording. Instead, the saxophonist who counts Parker as a cornerstone influence sought to trace the jazz great’s impact on his own style. Mr. Abbasi looks back to the jazz rock of the early ’70s on his “Intents and Purposes” (Enja), but he rearranges this repertoire for an acoustic ensemble.

Guitarist Rez Abbasi. ENLARGE
Guitarist Rez Abbasi. Photo: Jimmy Katz

Mr. Abbasi’s recording is especially interesting, as he didn’t listen to much jazz rock when he was growing up. He was an adolescent when this fusion was all the rage, but he shunned it, preferring traditional jazz for his studies and listening. Thus he brings a fresh set of ears to his set list of classics by Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Larry Coryell and others. Also, his band, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, is well suited to this music. The band features vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, and the vibes/guitar front line creates sumptuous textures and intriguing harmonies. Mr. Crump’s bass sound is deep and resonant and Mr. McPherson’s drumming makes excellent use of his brushes and tom toms.

All of these elements come into play in this repertoire. For instance on Joe Zawinul’s “Black Market,” a hit for Weather Report in 1976, Mr. Crump’s bass is able to approximate the catchy lines that Jaco Pastorius brought to the original, while Messrs. Abbasi and Ware take an innovative approach to the lead roles. The band’s take on Mr. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is more concise than the original, as the solos are shorter, but the improvisations are more wide-ranging in their musical references. Overall, the band lightens the tone of the pieces on this recording and, in doing so, it displays the versatility of work that might otherwise seem dated.

Mr. Abbasi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Los Angeles. His early influences on guitar were Jim Hall, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. He moved to New York in 1987, and since then he has played with a wide variety of performers, including rhythm-and-blues great Ruth Brown and such leading jazz musicians as trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Greg Osby. He is also producer and musical director for his wife, vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia.

Mr. Mahanthappa was born in Italy to Indian parents and grew up in Boulder, Colo. He settled in New York in 1998 after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and a masters from DePaul University in Chicago. His most important sideman gigs include stints with pianists Vijay Iyer and Danilo Pérez, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Bird Calls” is the latest recording by Mr. Mahanthappa where he reconsiders his musical roots. Recordings such as “Kinsmen” (Pi Recordings, 2008) and “Apex” (Pi, 2010) explore his connections to India and Chicago, respectively. “Samdhi” (ACT, 2011) offers his take on ’70s jazz fusion, which is an influence.

For those listeners who are not dedicated students of Charlie Parker’s music, “Bird Calls” may work best initially as an academic exercise. Mr. Mahanthappa lists which Parker tune influenced the originals on his disc, and a minute or two of comparative listening is instructive and revealing. It is easy to connect the dots from Parker’s evergreens to the new material, and in doing so, the building blocks of Mr. Mahanthappa’s passionate yet complex style are apparent.

Both of these recordings are as ambitious as they are accomplished. “Intents and Purposes” takes an often overlooked and frequently disdained aspect of jazz history and makes a case for its spot in the canon. Rather than treat it as sacred text, Mr. Mahanthappa takes Mr. Parker’s music on his own terms.

For today’s musicians, jazz history is often the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It’s nearly impossible to address the glorious history of the music without getting lost within it. With their new recordings, Messrs. Mahanthappa and Abbasi solve that classic dilemma.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Archives: At WSJ on Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra

http://on.wsj.com/1tnz5jz

Adding Instruments, Adding Influences

The prolific saxophonist Chris Potter expands his quartet on the new album ‘Imaginary Cities,’ bringing in hints of South Asia and Béla Bartók

Saxophonist Chris Potter has appeared on more than 150 records, 18 of them as a leader, and his powerhouse group Underground is one of the leading quartets in jazz; on his new recording, “Imaginary Cities” (ECM), he does something completely new. His usual working band, augmented with a vibraphonist, two bassists and a string quartet, is billed on the disc as Underground Orchestra, but it is neither an exercise in jazz meets classical nor a situation where the strings simply operate as a smooth response to the other band members. Instead, Mr. Potter uses the additional instruments to reflect Arabian and South Asian inflections and the influence of Béla Bartók. The members of the quartet dial it back a bit, which results in a complex and remarkably diverse range of sounds. The Underground Orchestra is playing Jazz Standard in New York through Jan. 31.

Saxophonist Chris Potter. ENLARGE
Saxophonist Chris Potter. Photo: Bart Babinski/ECM Records

Mr. Potter, who is 44, made a striking first impression on the New York jazz scene as an 18-year-old with his outstanding contributions to the band of bebop great Red Rodney, demonstrating both a unique facility with the style and an original voice. He has since performed on a regular basis with bands led by bassist Dave Holland and by drummer Paul Motian, and he is a member of the Unity Band led by guitarist Pat Metheny. He also toured with Steely Dan in the late ’90s and recorded with them on the 2000 disc “Two Against Nature” (Giant). In each setting, his commanding tone and formidable technique on the tenor and soprano saxophone grew, and he became one of the most admired reedmen of his generation—winning jazz magazine polls and, in 2000, becoming the youngest musician to win the prestigious Danish Jazzpar Prize.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra

Jazz Standard

Through Jan. 31

Mr. Potter formed Underground Orchestra after an invitation from Jazz at Lincoln Center to present music there. He first recorded with the quartet he calls the Underground in 2006; the sound recalled the ferocious energy of early ’70s jazz rock. It was the rare jazz band that played as if it was trying to raise the roof of the venues that hosted it. The quartet features Adam Rogers on electric guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes keyboards and Nate Smith on drums.

Those three musicians are present on “Imaginary Cities,” but in different roles. Mr. Rogers plays acoustic guitar on some tracks, Mr. Taborn plays piano, and Mr. Smith uses his drums more as a textural element than as a lighted fuse. Much of the music on the recording is pensive and compelling. For instance, “Lament,” the first track, begins with the strings creating a mesmerizing set of harmonies before Mr. Potter, almost edging in from the margins, joins in. The saxophone and strings work gradually to blend, building substantial tension en route.

The title track started out as a single tune and grew into a four-part work with sections titled “Compassion,” “Dualities,” “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding.” Mr. Potter sought a musical statement about what future cities might resemble. The suite features gorgeous textures of sound swelling around different soloists. Mr. Potter is on tenor and soprano saxophone as well as bass clarinet, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and marimba, Mr. Rogers on guitar, and Mr. Taborn on piano, and their backing pushes the solos toward scintillating climaxes. The other four tracks on this sprawling set of music follow similar strategies and showcase a wide range of improvisatory acumen, especially from bassists Scott Colley and Fima Ephron and violinist Mark Feldman. The panoply of sounds, both subdued and distinctive, gives the recording a textural unity that highlights the rhythmic subtleties and harmonic invention.

“Imaginary Cities” continues a series of innovative endeavors by Mr. Potter. His 2013 recording, “The Sirens” (ECM), was inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey” and showcased the work of emerging pianist David Virelles. Mr. Potter’s other non-Underground project, 2007’s “Song for Anyone” (Sunnyside), showcased some of his early writing for strings. Mr. Potter has long been an idol of the student set. It is not uncommon to see college-aged youths at his shows practically taking notes on his saxophone playing and improvisations. With the release of “Imaginary Cities,” those students may begin to take notes about Mr. Potter’s compositions as well.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal

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Archives: At WSJ on The New York Brewing Renaissance

The funny behind the scene aspect of this story is that when I pitched it six new breweries had opened in 2014.  By the time I finished the edit, it was eight!!  Now a new one, Braven, has already opened in 2015.

Renaissance indeed!

http://on.wsj.com/1yVaODZ

Breweries Keep City Hopping

Eight New Production Facilities Opened in NYC in 2014

Greg Doroski, head brewer at the brewpub Threes, which is part of the burgeoning craft-beer scene in New York City. ENLARGE
Greg Doroski, head brewer at the brewpub Threes, which is part of the burgeoning craft-beer scene in New York City. Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

It is 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday, but the din at Threes, the newest brewpub to join the city’s craft-beer scene—just a short walk from Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn—screams midnight.

There is a wait for seating. Big wooden tables are jammed with a lively, diverse crowd sampling Threes’ house-produced brews—including an IPA described on the menu as “juicy, pine, citrus, fresh bread, soft bitterness,” and a saison listed as “rustic, melon, grain, hay.” Also on offer: exotic brews like tripel and Flanders red from other craft producers and food from local purveyors who rotate in “residence” in the kitchen.

“It’s too early to call this success,” said Justin Israelson, one of three owner-partners in Threes, which opened to the public in December after a four-year ramp-up.

It isn’t too early to call it part of a New York brewing renaissance. Not since the early 1960s, when nearly 10% of the nation’s beer was produced in Brooklyn, has the city seen this much brewing activity. Threes is one of eight new craft-beer production facilities that opened within the five boroughs in 2014.

The newcomers aren’t just in the artisan mecca of Brooklyn. Threes, Other Half Brewing Co. and Folksbier Brewery are, but Transmitter Brewing and Finback Brewery set up shop in Queens; Gun Hill Brewing Co. and the Bronx Brewery operate in the Bronx; and Flagship Brewing Co. opened on Staten Island. In all, more than two dozen breweries and brewpubs, which make at least some of their offerings on premises, have opened around New York City in the past 30 months.

They are launching against some pretty steep odds—not the least of which are astronomical real-estate costs. Two renowned Manhattan brewpubs, Heartland Brewery in Union Square and 508 Gastrobrewery in West Soho, closed their doors in late 2014, while many of the newly opened facilities situated themselves on the outer fringes of the outer boroughs.

Patrons at Threes in Brooklyn. ENLARGE
Patrons at Threes in Brooklyn. Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Brewery startup costs in New York City can run in the neighborhood of a million dollars—about twice as much as a comparable venture in Chicago or Atlanta, estimates Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, a trade group. Some of the area’s new brewers said they had to craft their beer elsewhere—sometimes for years—to raise the startup capital and ride out bureaucratic waits for inspections and permits.

Then there is the New York consumer mind-set. “Many states, like Vermont, Michigan or Oregon, are very loyal to their local brands,” said Steve Hindy, co-founder and president of Brooklyn Brewery, which launched in 1988 and grew to become one of the best-known craft-brew brands nationally. “New Yorkers want the best of everything, and many do not care where it comes from.”

But the recent rise in New York City’s brewery scene reflects broader bullish trends, industry experts say. National craft-beer sales topped $18 billion in 2014, said Mr. Watson, up 26% over 2013.

Demographics are expanding. More women and minorities are tippling craft brews, said industry consultant Jen Schwertman, and the millennial generation has come of drinking age in an era when beer options expanded significantly past a handful of dominant national brands.

In New York City, homegrown brews are also infiltrating upscale bars and restaurants. “We make sure a large percentage of our beer list comes from local breweries,” said Hayley Jensen, beer sommelier at Taproom No. 307, a craft-beer bar with nearly 100 offerings. Artisan brews, with their unique, complex flavors, are increasingly being treated as pairing fodder for haute cuisine at such epicurean destinations as Eleven Madison Park, NoMad and others.

When Brooklyn Brewery opened in 1988, it sparked a revival of the city’s proud brewing tradition, which began in the mid-19th century and dried up by 1976. But the two dozen area breweries that opened after Brooklyn Brewery’s launch have failed, mainly because traditional beer distributors were reluctant to take on their product, Mr. Hindy said.

These days, he said, “you do not have to explain why your beer is dark or hoppy, or why it is strong and tastes like cherries or peaches or whiskey.”

Chris Gallant, co-founder of Bronx Brewery, said he hopes to follow Brooklyn Brewery’s example. But, he noted, “when Brooklyn started, there were just a few Goliaths like Bud and Heineken. Now, there are a lot more Goliaths, and they’re one of them.”

Back at Threes, Mr. Israelson described a culture of camaraderie between New York’s newest brewers.

“There’s a lot of sharing,” he said. “When possible, we go over to Other Half and bring them a growler of what we’re working on, and they have done the same for us many times.”

All of which raises the question of whether a New York-style beer might be in the offing.

“It would certainly have to be bitter…not overly fruit forward,” speculated Cory Bonifiglio, general manager of Proletariat, a Lower East Side beer bar, tossing out taste profiles like “confident and bold,” “robust yet brisk” and “a little funky on the back end.”

“I think we’ll strive to find our own tastes,” said Zach Mack, owner of Alphabet City Beer Co., a craft-beer bar and store. “Because if there’s anything a New Yorker is good at it, it’s forming an opinion on what is good and what is not.”

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At WSJ on the new Ornette Coleman disc

So one side of the story goes like this. I was at Spuyten Duyvil, the wonderful Williamsburg beer and wine bar about five or six years ago when one of the bartenders, a musician, told me that his friend at the end of the bar had just been to Ornette Coleman’s house to jam. My drinking buddy thought I should pursue a story from it. I thought I should order another mead-barrel age bierre de garde. Turns out my drinking buddy was right, but the beer was really good.
At WSJ (yes again!) on the new Ornette, yes, the new Ornette.
http://on.wsj.com/1s70kOt

Completely New Yet Pleasantly Familiar

Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996.

With shockingly little advance publicity, a new recording featuring jazz great Ornette Coleman has been released. The album, “New Vocabulary” (System Dialing Recordings), became available late last month via the label’s website, and it features the innovative saxophonist and composer in a collective ensemble that includes trumpeter Jordan McLean, drummer Amir Ziv and keyboardist Adam Holzman.

The release comes at a time when new music from Mr. Coleman has grown scarce. He made a guest appearance on one track of “Road Shows Vol. 2” (Doxy), a 2011 release by fellow saxophone legend Sonny Rollins. His last official recording was “Sound Grammar” (Sound Grammar), a live recording from 2006, which received the Pulitzer Prize for music the following year. His last studio recording was “Sound Museum: Three Women” (Harmolodic/Verve) in 1996.

Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996. ENLARGE
Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996. Getty Images

Mr. Coleman, who is 84, is one of the most pivotal figures in jazz history. In the late ’50s, he arrived on the scene, first in Los Angeles and then in New York, with an approach to music that loosened the rules of harmony and freed musicians to play more of what they felt. The approach was often called free jazz, a name taken from one of Mr. Coleman’s best recordings of the time. Later in the ’60s, he was one of the first jazz musicians to compose string quartets. His band in the ’70s produced classic recordings like “Science Fiction” (Columbia, 1971), and in 1976 he released his first recording with Prime Time, a band featuring electric guitars and basses that seamlessly combined jazz and funk.

Although its arrival was a surprise, the timing of the release of “New Vocabulary” is entirely appropriate. Mr. Coleman’s music was the subject of two heralded tributes in 2014. In October, The Bad Plus performed the entire “Science Fiction” recording in a series of concerts; in June, music luminaries including Mr. Coleman himself played his works in a Celebrate Brooklyn concert called “Celebrate Ornette.”

The new album was recorded in 2009. A year earlier, Mr. Coleman had attended the musical “Fela!” Afterward, he went backstage and met Mr. McLean, who was assistant musical director for the production and is a member of Antibalas, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Afrobeat band that arranged and performed the show’s music. The two men became friends, and Mr. Coleman invited Mr. McLean, who is 40, to his home to play music. Those sessions evolved to include Messrs. Ziv and Holzman, Mr. McLean’s bandmates in an electronic music group called Droid. Mr. Ziv, who is 43, has been a leading sideman for more than 20 years; his credits include work with Sean Lennon, Lauryn Hill, and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Mr. Holzman, who is 56 and leads several bands, has played with Miles Davis and Chaka Khan. Informal jamming gradually became more rigorous rehearsals as the musicians honed the 12 songs that appear on the recording.

“New Vocabulary” is a concise 42 minutes, and it begins with two spare tunes, “Baby Food” and “Sound Chemistry,” that contrast Mr. Coleman’s bright, often gleeful saxophone tone with electronic effects by Mr. McLean and piano from Mr. Holzman. From there the intensity picks up on pieces like “Alphabet,” “Bleeding,” “If it Takes a Hatchet” and “H20” as Mr. Ziv’s drumming becomes more prominent and both Mr. Coleman and Mr. McLean accent and play off of his driving rhythms. The album ends with “Gold is God’s Sex,” a ruminative piece that lends the recording a bit of symmetry.

Most Ornette Coleman projects offer either something completely new or something closely related to what he has done in the past. Prime Time and the band on “Sound Museum” were radical shifts. “Science Fiction,” built on the Blue Note recordings that preceded it, and “Sound Grammar” placed Coleman in a familiar setting—a quartet—with repertoire from his lengthy career. “New Vocabulary” does a little of both. Without directly quoting melodies, Mr. Coleman’s playing at times recalls his work in the early ’60s, early ’70s and late ’80s. Yet the backing is completely new for those who know his work only via recordings, and Mr. Coleman sounds energized by his bandmates. One can only hope it is a direction he will continue to pursue. Despite its under-the-radar launch, “New Vocabulary” is a valuable addition to Ornette Coleman’s extraordinary discography.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Archives: At WSJ on Jon Irabagon and Mary Halvorson

Always fun to write on two rising jazz stars.

http://on.wsj.com/1rwj2yR

Standing Out From Their Crowds

Ensemble work highlights the burgeoning skills of saxophonist Jon Irabagon and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Saxophonist Jon Irabagon and guitarist Mary Halvorson spent 2014 solidifying their stature as two of jazz’s rising stars. Each musician spent time in ensembles that showcased the increasing diversity of their sound and approaches. As the year wore on, Mr. Irabagon put his influences further in the distance as his own distinctive style emerged; Ms. Halvorson seemed to arrive fully formed seven years ago, but in the past 12 months she has demonstrated surprising new range in her composing and playing.

The winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Mr. Irabagon, who is 36, worked as a sideman on stellar recordings by trumpeter Dave Douglas and drummer Rudy Royston, and he played both the alto and tenor sax on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s controversial recording “Blue” (Hot Cup), a note-for-note re-creation of the cornerstone Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue.” Ms. Halvorson performed with saxophone great Anthony Braxton, guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Matt Wilson, as well participated in the collective band Thumbscrew.

Mr. Irabagon plays in two bands, a quintet and a septet, led by Ms. Halvorson, and the guitarist plays in a trio led by the saxophonist. That group will perform on Saturday during a three-night residency of bands led by Mr. Irabagon at New York’s Cornelia Street Café. That engagement will begin on Friday with performances by a trio that includes virtuoso elders—drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias—and will conclude on Sunday with a quartet that features Mr. Royston. Ms. Halvorson will lead her quartet, Reverse Blue, at Cornelia St. Café on Jan. 9 and then play two sidewoman gigs during Winter Jazzfest, the annual downtown New York jazz club crawl, in bands led by Mr. Ribot and by the drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

Mary Halvorson (left) leads her septet during the 2014 Winter Jazzfest. ENLARGE
Mary Halvorson (left) leads her septet during the 2014 Winter Jazzfest. Getty Images

The saxophone-bass-drums trio is one of the most rewarding settings for Mr. Irabagon’s wide-ranging approach, and his 2014 release, “It Takes All Kinds” (Jazzwerkstatt), deservedly made many top-10 lists. It is his band with Messrs. Altschul and Helias, and the music builds on his 2010 trio release “Foxy” (Hot Cup), an energetic recording that made deliberate references to Sonny Rollins’s 1957 classic “Way Out West” (Contemporary). The only obvious precedent to the new recording is the group Air, a trio from the late ’70s and early ’80s whose work was characterized by the same wily use of space and democratic sharing of the lead role found on “It Takes All Kinds.” Mr. Irabagon has often played as forcefully as possible, but here he balances the aggressive moments with more nuanced ones. The strategy elevates a catchy track like “Vestiges” to an anthem. His intense, tightly coiled solo on “Quintessential Kitten” is exhilarating.

Mr. Irabagon grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and took to the saxophone after being taught the piano by his aunt. He was an avid fan of popular music but fell in love with jazz upon hearing the alto-saxophone great Cannonball Adderley. That interest led him to the music of other pivotal saxophonists like John Coltrane, Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell and Wayne Shorter. He studied at DePaul University before moving to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music and join the jazz scene.

Ms. Halvorson, who is 34, grew up in Brookline, Mass., and studied violin before a fascination with the music of Jimi Hendrix led her to take up the guitar. As a high-school student she enrolled in summer programs at Berklee College and the New England Conservatory of Music, but to her dismay she was often stereotyped as a folk singer.

During this time, Ms. Halvorson took to the music of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and she attended Wesleyan University to study with Mr. Braxton, a longtime professor of music there. She emerged on the New York jazz scene with a style that owed little to the classic jazz-guitar tradition. She had a heavy touch and augmented her notes and power chords with effects and delays. She showcased this sound on the 2008 recording “Dragon’s Head” (Firehouse 12), which featured her in a trio setting. She formed larger groups that offered complex pieces that balanced her guitar with an array of horns.

The first track on her new recording, “Reverse Blue” (Cunieform), follows from the previous recordings, with furious guitar work meshing with fervent playing by her bandmates: Mr. Fujiwara, saxophonist Chris Speed and bassist Eivind Opsvik. But much of the rest of the recording offers some of Ms. Halvorson’s most elegant writing and fluid work to date. The lean sound and high-pitched harmonies of tracks like “Hako” and “Rebel’s Revue” recall the early piano-free bands led by guitarist Jim Hall and reedman Jimmy Giuffre in the late ’50s. Like Mr. Irabagon, Ms. Halvorson has found a way to reflect her instrument’s past while driving it confidently into the future.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Archives: At WSJ on Three Archival Discoveries That Reflect Well on the Current Jazz Scene

PrintThere are a lot of “archival discovery” recordings on the market these days and since the concept isn’t new (remember the Thelonious Monk John Coltrane Carnegie Hall disc from ten years ago?) I could simply try to cover all of them.  So I chose three that I thought presaged the mid-decade NYC jazz scene in some vital way.

http://on.wsj.com/1zwjsrT

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