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Ben Scholz

The last chord has been played, the lights have been dimmed, and the iconic NYC skyline (in miniature) behind Dave’s desk has been disassembled and stored.  The airing of the finale of “The Late Show With David Letterman” on Wednesday May 20th and the accompanying performance by “The CBS Orchestra” marks the end of a television era.  

This past year, Anton teamed up with guitar wizards Eric Johnson and Mike Stern to release Eric’s latest album “Eclectic”.   We caught up with Fig after a performance with Johnson and Stern to discuss their rehearsal process, the album and tour.

BPS:  What was the rehearsal process like?  You were talking earlier about how you went down to Texas to rehearse?

AF:  We read thru all the stuff, one day, and then the next day we read thru all the stuff again and Mike was saying “what did we even rehearse for?” (laughs).  It took a few gigs to figure out how to shape it and set things up a little bit.

BPS:  Whose idea was it to do “Red House?”

AF:  Not sure - We recorded it—its on the album, yeah it’s a good encore. It’s so much fun playing with these guys.

BPS:  So you’ve got your small tom to the right now, why’d you do that?

AF:  Yeah, well you know a long time ago I saw Tony Williams do that, and I thought, it’s actually kind of fun because you can hit it with your right hand, and you’ve got the high drum to the right, you can go round the toms and it sounds a little bit different.  But also, often I can’t get the middle tom where I want it.  Sometimes it hits the bass drum if I’ve got a big bass drum and then it’s up too high. So if I’ve got it like this it sits up really well. And then I often play a 3 piece kit,  so it’s just like two toms, so I’ve still got that.  Then I’ve got high tone on the right as well.  So, it all works out nicely.

Now, the question looms - “what’s next”.  The finale of The Late Show marked the end of a 29 year television relationship with Paul Shaffer and David Letterman.  All in all, this trio has contributed to two networks, six emmys, 22 seasons, and 6,028 episodes of comedy and music.   For Fig, the answer is, “plenty”.  

On May 30th, he’ll be in the house band for The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.  Airing on HBO, this primetime special will feature performances by Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Beck, John Legend, Jimmy Vaughn, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and a host of other legendary artists.  Clearly a staple of the broadcast industry, Anton Fig shows no sign of slowing his rolls.

On his debut album as a leader, saxophonist Michael Eaton presents a collection of original material featuring a rotating group of NYC based musicians including Jon Crowley on Trumpet,  David Liebman on Saxophone, Brad Whitley on piano, bassists Daniel Ori and Scott Colberg, and Shareef Taher on drums.

Exhibiting his artistic and personal development while ambitiously bridging the worlds of lyrical themes, Eaton intricately combines rhythmic minimalistic vamps, freebop, Cageian prepared piano, and multi-layered open terrains.  Songs such as “Guru” and “Me, But Not Myself” feature motivic, almost Mid-Eastern ostinatos and pads.  “Alter Ego” with it’s afro-cuban 6/8 rhythm and McCoy Tyner - esque piano riff features a solo by Leibman, and the two duke it out on the track “Prickly”.  The title track features a 5 part ouvre that transitions through some of the same rhythmic ideas present in other tracks on the album.  Even though the music on this album took months to complete, the material pops in a fresh and lively way without sounding over-rehearsed.

Pop culture’s love-hate relationship with its artists presents an interesting conundrum.  Music created for mass-consumption must be easily digestible, yet the public is quick to retaliate against content that lacks substance. Gifted musicians are often pigeonholed into a certain style or sound that may not reflect their true range.  This myopic point of view focuses on one marketable facet of an artist’s talent without taking into account the fact that most recording musicians tend to compose in a variety of styles and genres.

Born in Cardiff, Wales, Donna Lewis grew up in a family of musicians.  Exposed to the jazz greats at an early age, she left the UK for Canada to record with producer Pierre Marchand.  After years of unsuccessful pitches to record labels, she caught the attention of Atlantic Records in ‘94 and released her debut album “Now In A Minute”.  The album and accompanying single “I Love You Always Forever” went on to become major hits on both the US and global charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album certifying platinum.  

In the 20 years since her smash hit, Donna Lewis has maintained a steady career as a recording artist and composer. Now, accompanied by longtime producer David Torn, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, Donna is set to release her first album in nearly decade.  Light years away from her commercial radio hits of the 90’s, Donna Lewis’ latest release “Brand New Day” re-imagines work by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Neil Young, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Gnarls Barkley.  We sat down with Donna to talk about her artistic influences, her history as a recording musician, and the demands placed on young artists by the popular music industry.

 

Fronted by an already well-established Chicago area saxophonist, the “Shawn Maxwell Alliance” expands the concept of what a mixed ensemble can accomplish in the jazz realm.  This debut album features a sprawling list of modern jazz composers and leaders including another Chicago saxophonist, Chris Greene, vocalist Keri Johnsrud, vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd, and bassist Stacy McMichael. The group is augmented with a collection of featured players including guitarist Mitch Corso, double bassist Marc Piane, drummer Paul Townsend and Rachel Maxwell and Meghan Fulton on french horn.

A long list of tunes accompanies this large ensemble as the album features a full 18 tracks of original compositions.  A cryptic list of titles including “Radio Hit Number Four” (actual album track # 11) and “EGOT” seems to reference inside jokes and industry terminology.  Dave Holland’s Big Band and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet are obvious influences here, though elements of Sun Ra can be heard in the tracks “Quartan” and “Perpetual Day One”.


With the exception of the aptly titled “Here’s Your Swing Tune”, all of the grooves are either straight or free and most of the song structure is motivic. Instead of relying on a repeating form of chord changes to support solos, Shawn’s compositional style tends to layer repeating riffs and phrases into themes.  Soloists are then free to take liberties with the material, bending and shaping it before returning to the original idea.  A concept album in the jazz genre if there ever was one.

Article by Ben Scholz  Originally published 2/17/15 in Allaboutjazz.com

For her sophomore effort “This Side Of Morning”, vocalist Keri Johnsrud presents a collection of original material co-written with pianist Kevin Bales. Featuring a powerhouse band of Chicago musicians including guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jon Deitemyer, and vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd, Johnsrud explores a range of emotions in what amounts to a wonderful album of poetry set to music.

Much of the album conveys a sense of hope in times of loss.  Keri describes difficult situations with a depth that evokes tenderness without coming across as trite or campy.  Many of the questions asked in the lyrics read rhetorical, as if the overall melancholy tone of the music provides enough of an answer.  

The inherent risk in combining elegies in narrative form with improvised music is that the two competing ideologies can sometimes create a final product that sounds forced and unnatural.  Keri manages to keep things organic by employing a diverse range of musical styles to accompany her through-composed lyrics.  The grooves on “From Here” and “The Chameleon” provide welcome contrast to the free-form solo sections featured in “A Thousand Tears” and “Fly Away”.  Keri Johnsrud's crystal clear voice and impeccable intonation allow her to project true sentiment through dense lyrical material on this gem of an album.

Article by Ben Scholz  Originally published 2/14/15 in Allaboutjazz.com

 

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