Two recent releases from bassist-bandleaders show how jazz continues to thrive in the most disparate of musical “cultures,” even with its relatively small, specialized audience. Kyle Eastwood‘s Time Pieces shows off a hip style inspired by the mid-20th-century milieu of Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock, and displays Eastwood’s agility on and affinity for the electric bass. By contrast, Georg Breinschmid’s eclectic, acoustic, bohemian style borrows from various pop and world-music idioms and freely adapts well-known works of classical music while pushing some of jazz’s virtuosic limits.
Kyle Eastwood is the son of Clint Eastwood and a film composer (Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino) as well as an accomplished musician. Time Pieces while full of interesting music is easy to digest. After establishing his leadership by playing the first, funky solo in the horn-riff-driven opening track, he takes his quintet and the listener on a tour of cool, tight, good-natured jazz with touches of funk and lyricism and plenty of easy virtuosity.
Highlights among the cover tunes are a speedy take on Silver’s “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” with some ace work by drummer Ernesto Simpson, and a subtle, slowly building version of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” that just kind of sneaks up on you – not once but twice.
A lot of these tracks are like that, actually, from the funky original “Prosecco Smile” to the muted, thoughtful “Vista.” The latter, written by Eastwood’s longtime pianist Andrew McCormack, may be my favorite track. Based on a startlingly simple melody and chord progression, it whispers and swells, meandering through a landscape that feels like one big question, never fully answered however assertively asked, riding descriptive washes of sound from Simpson and featuring a playful solo from McCormack and an intense one from trumpeter Quentin Collins.
Tasteful simplicity can be wearing, too, as it is, a bit, in the pedestrian “Nostalgique.” The arrangement of a selection from the Letters from Iwo Jima soundtrack never quite gels either. More playful and rewarding is the lighthearted but still somehow sneaky tribute “Peace of Silver.” (Horace Silver died in June 2014, just as Eastwood and his band were recording the album.) On my first listen, I was tapping my feet and nodding my head well before I even realized the tune was in 5/8 time. McCormack’s central piano solo reads more like 20th-century classical music than jazz. And the album ends with another original, “Bullet Train,” a swing back into meaty bop with Eastwood and Simpson trading fours with alacrity.
Georg Breinschmid‘s two-CD box Double Brein is a much stranger beast. It’s fair to say it’s all over the place, with Austrian bassist Breinschmid appearing in several different configurations and experimenting with a bounty of styles and ideas, with CD 2 focused on adaptations of classical music.
“Samba for Michi,” the virtuosic but friendly-sounding opening track of CD 1, is performed by the trio Breinschmid calls Brein’s Café, with agile pianist Antoni Donchev and soulful soprano saxophonist Gerald Preinfalk. Its energetic conventionality doesn’t prepare one for some of the tracks to follow. The bubbly “Musette with Happy Ending” with violinist Benjamin Schmid and guitarist Diknu Schneeberger calls Django Reinhardt and smoky Paris cafés to mind, but then suddenly we’re plunged into eccentricity with the gypsy-dance trumpet feature “Gabriel” (with Thomas Gansch on trumpet), with roughly sung lyrics about (I kid you not) vomiting in a taxi.
The rest of the set ranges over a wide landscape of jazz, expansively defined. The irresistible “Kopanitsa” sets a traditional Bulgarian folk melody in a frenzied 11/8 beat hammered out by rhythm section and strings. The syncopated groove of the jammy “Odessa” evolves from angsty to sweet, while “Feb. 25” is a passage of gentle lyricism, in contrast to the (perhaps literally) tongue-in-cheek splat of “Reich & #Schön / Waltz of the Idiots.” Franck Tortiller’s earthy vibraphone performance and Michael Hornek’s piano carry the good-natured 15/8 nuttiness of “Fifteen Schnörtzenbrekkers Are Better Than None,” with Breinschmid beating out percussion as well as a bass line on his viol. Pianist and vibraphonist meld their sounds even more feelingly later on ” Fantastische Trünenbaum.”
Breinschmid and his cohorts love vocalizing, as in the dry, acoustic funk of “Danke” with its spoken-word weirdness and the drumless reggae beat of “Brein in da Koffihaus” with its appealingly rough, not-as-weird vocals (and in which Breinschmit almost-quotes the bass line from Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”). At the same time he’s not afraid to back off entirely, leaving a couple of tracks bass-free.
The classically trained bassist and his collaborators traverse some entirely different territory on CD 2. Classical-romantic bombast mingles with jazzy swing in a fiery and quite breathtaking 12-minute trio take on Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” with Frantisek Janoska on piano and Roman Janoska on violin. It concludes with a gonzo polka.
That’s not the only Liszt on the disc, which also delves into Verdi, Kreisler, and a part-swinging, part-spasmodic take on Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás” (of which Lady Gaga fans have heard a part in the violin intro to the pop star’s “Alejandro” – are you not one of the 230 million people who’ve watched the video on YouTube?). The bassist also goes back to fundamentals with a delicate, cerebral, jazzed-up, but a little too sleepy trio arrangement of the famous slow second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor.
Florian Willeitner’s “Irish Wedding in Bucharest,” a showpiece of modern concert music for strings, is right up Breinschmid’s alley with its complex rhythms and mix of northern European braininess, Celtic dance flavor, and American string-band guts. Violinist Benjamin Schmid returns for the speedy “Miniature,” a lighthearted piece that gives the bassist himself a chance to show off his deft technique and rhythmic savvy.
Surprisingly, Liszt’s “Consolation No. 2” is played more-or-less straight, creating probably the most emotionally centered and touching moment on the disc. But as you may have surmised, the whole double-CD production is a rather challenging musical document. Listened to with an open mind and an appreciation for original compositions and adaptations, it’s also a rewarding one.