Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Danny Green Trio: Jazz Plus

When I attended Berklee College of Music in the 80s, students engaged in an adolescent turf war, a sort of whimpified version of West Side Story sans knives or anything else involving danger. Instead of the Sharks and the Jets, it was the Rockheads and the Jazzheads, the former perceived as buffoons by the latter, and the latter perceived as smug elitists by the former. I was somewhere in the middle, having been raised on rock and roll though very open to learning about jazz, but the jazz tradition at Berklee made it hard not to side with my rock brethren. So smug were the Jazzheads that they gleefully rode the coattails of Wynton Marsalis’s criticism of his brother Branford for his joining Sting’s band, and they were downright incredulous at how Sting ruined his otherwise legitimate song “Englishman In New York” with a rock beat breakdown (right after a swing section, which the Jazzheads natural approved of).

I may still be a rock guy at heart, but my favorite musical discovery of 2016 came not from one of the dozen rock stations of Chicago but from the jazz frequencies of 90.9 WDCB.  While driving in my car, I heard a piano jazz trio playing an odd-metered song with a stellar melody backed by – of all things – a string quartet. It blew me away. I rushed home, went on-line to check the name of the song – “Porcupine Dreams” – and purchased the Danny Green Trio album, Altered Narratives. It’s a gem.

Altered Narratives showcases a wide spectrum of jazz styles, and with Green’s flair for odd rhythms and the addition of strings on a handful of tunes, the album offers a listening experience that’s far more interesting, varied and fulfilling than any other jazz album I’ve heard in a long, long time. The addition of strings is a stroke of genius as it completely changes the musical palate.  As much as I love the sound of a traditional piano-bass-drums combo, the strings fill out the sound when the band plays percussively, and offers accents at other times, each unit balancing the other to lift the song to an entirely new level.

Some songs stand out in a big way. After a few more traditional pieces to open the album (still original and still excellent), the trio dives into the haunting “October Ballad,” a tune in three-four whose tensions and changing tonal center keep the song moving forward and avoid getting too settled. In addition to his piano chops, Green’s gift is melody, and this song is exhibit A. 

After a solid Latin-based “6 A.M.” the band switches gears yet again with “Second Chance,” opening as a sort of romantic piano piece with the first string accompaniment on the album and reminiscent of some of the cinematic themes of Ennio Morricone. It’s a lovely piece that seemingly concludes, pauses, and then begins again with the full band in a different key and a different time signature, now with the reprised melody offering a compelling 4 on 3 motif that gives the piece its momentum. The next tune, “Katabasis” also sounds cinematic, and its 12/8 rhythm would feel right at home in a tension filled montage of a mystery film. Once again, the feel changes a third of the way through the song, becoming a more staccato piece and giving the song a welcome lift.

Next on the CD is the piece that started it all for me, the wonderful “Porcupine Dreams,” offering another haunting melody with strings punctuating the 7/8 rhythm before the band breaks with a frantic conclusion that alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 and keeps the listener desperate to find the down beat, like a thrill rider’s anticipation of the next stomach-churning drop.

The short piano solo “Benji’s Song” once again stresses Green’s mastery of melody, and the chromatic changes would fit right in with a Randy Newman instrumental album.

Here ends the more experimental side of the album, with the last three songs completing things on a more traditional jazz-trio note, though “Friday At the Thursday Club” offers yet again some very interesting chord changes beneath a melody whose accents are unfamiliar in a 6/8 time signature (a 4 on 3 is once again employed – wonderful!). But for me, tracks 3-8 are among the best six I’ve ever heard on a jazz recording. If the bookends are a bit more on the traditional side, they’re still excellent.

Bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm hold down the rhythm fort nicely, particularly in the odd-metered moments. If there’s one criticism I’d make of the album, it’s the inclusion of so many bass solos. I suspect jazz purists will crucify me for saying so, but I never understood the allure of the bass solo. To me it’s an instrument that should stay in its supporting role and allow other instruments to handle the highlights.

Whatever. The Danny Green trio is a stunning group that’s willing to push the boundaries and explore interesting territory. That may be what’s expected of all jazz musicians, but this is a band that is equal to the task.

Peter Gabriel and Sting at Milwaukee's Summerfest

When I saw Peter Gabriel and Sting perform at the Marcus Amphitheater in ’87 and ’88, respectively, to imagine seeing them perform together 29 years later with my adult twin girls (and my sister!) in attendance would have been way too bizarre to contemplate. I could barely be expected to attend class on a regular basis much less successfully raise two children (and now very close on the third). How cool that both musicians are still around on tour, but cooler still that they managed to pull off a very entertaining and fulfilling show as a double bill. It could have been oh so lame, but it was anything but.

Though the stars shared the number of songs performed, I couldn’t help but think that this was a Peter Gabriel show with Sting in tow, and I have to give credit to Mr. Sumner for being such a gracious musician on stage. Gabriel opened with “Rhythm of the Heat,” a track I never expected to hear live in my lifetime, and the power exhibited during the finale of the tune was such that even Sting’s powerhouse “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” that followed sounded thin by comparison. That’s not a knock on Sting. That’s a recognition that when it comes to majestic, heartfelt performances, Gabriel likely has no equal. 

Following the two opening numbers, Gabriel, after a joking reference to the body shapes of the two singers (yeah, Sting wins, and beats just about every male in attendance), announced that the bands and the stars themselves would commingle throughout the evening. Up to fourteen musicians graced the stage, with several staying put for most of the show while others exited and entered or combined, and not always with allegiance to their usual band. From where I was sitting, I at first thought that Sting was handling all the bass parts, but then from behind a large pole that obstructed part of the stage, I saw the unmistakable silhouette of Tony Levin as Gabriel began 1992’s “Digging in the Dirt,” and my girls were equally thrilled to see David Rhodes, the guitarist they loved watching on the Secret World Live DVD that was on constant rotation during much of their early childhood.

Sting surprisingly eschewed much of his stronger solo tracks in favor of his Police catalog, focusing on several deeper cuts, including “Invisible Sun,” “Driven to Tears” “Englishman In New York,”and “Walking in your Footsteps,” and as cool as it was to hear those songs, when held up against Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” “San Jacinto” and “Secret World,” they didn't have the same impact. All told, only six Sting solo numbers were performed, with Gabriel taking the reins on a Beck-inspired “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.” It would have been cool to hear a few others (“I Hung My Head,” anyone?), but again, to Sting’s credit, he leaned on several tunes that he knew would please the crowd, including the overplayed but still pretty damn fun “Message in a Bottle,” and “Roxanne,” the latter morphing into a lovely verse of the Bill Withers tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” the only song not penned by either of the evening’s stars.

The most surprising inclusion of the night was Sting’s brief cover of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” a track from the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis catalog that the original singer has avoided for decades. I find it odd that Gabriel is unwilling to give a gentle nod to his prog-rock past while still playing old songs like “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers,” but oh well, Sting took it upon himself to get the job done!

As strong as most of performances were, the weakest tune of the evening by far was Gabriel's "Love Can Heal," a new track written for the recently slain Jo Cox. Perhaps this tune would have worked better in a different setting, but to me it simply isn't a good song, and I also found it interesting that Gabriel played not one note from his album Up, another example of how underwhelming the exceedingly nonprolific composer's songs have been since his album Us.

I admit I was moved to tears during two numbers: first, the booming climax of “San Jacinto,” the song Gabriel opened up with when I saw him back in 1987 as a wee 19 year-old, the same age my daughters will be in a month’s time – this was simply too much for me to handle; and then again on the climax of “Don’t Give Up,” a song I don’t particularly care for, and yet again, the song conjured up a complexity of emotions that went way beyond the song itself.  Perspective matters with these things.  Hearing Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday” means so much more today than it meant three decades ago, and a sixty-six year old Gabriel singing “Whatever may come/and whatever may go/That river’s flowing” meant more to this nearly-fifty year-old writer last night than it did in 1987.

That river’s flowing, indeed.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved