Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ark Ovrutski, Treme’ and New Orleans

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“… We want to hear propulsion, originality, coherence, imagination and excitement in jazz. We want sounds that beguile, provoke, amuse and sooth. We want those sounds to provide insights into those who make them, who we can then identify as a lot like us. That's why we like their music: it resonates with what we'd do, if we but could.”
- Howard Mandel, Jazz author and journalist

One of the [sadly] most memorable highlights in recent television viewing was Treme’, a drama set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina.

Airing on HBO beginning in 2010, Treme’ primarily follows musicians and residents as they try to put their lives back together in the aftermath of the storm.

Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic tropical cyclone of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. It was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States with winds that reached upwards of 180 mph. The storm caused over 1,800 casualties and was particularly devastating in the New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward which even today has “… grasses that grow taller than people and street after street which are scarred by empty decaying houses; the lives that once played out inside their walls hardly imaginable now.”

New Orleans has long been credited as the birthplace of Jazz and strange as it may seem, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles was reminded of the fact with the recent arrival of Ukrainian-born bassist Ark Ovrutski’s latest CD 44:30 on Zoho Records [ZIM 201402; the disc gets its title from the total playing time on the CD].

Why with a new CD led by a bassist who was born in Kiev, studied at the Russian Academy of Music, ran a Jazz club in Krakow, Poland and attended Berklee College of Music seminars in Italy before immigrating to New York in 2005 create reminiscences of New Orleans?

All one has to do to answer this question is listen to the opening track on 44:30 which appropriately enough is entitled – New Orleans – which Howard Mandel describes in his insert as “… an upbeat ode to the Crescent City universally honored as the cradle to Jazz.” He goes on to say: “Pianist David Berkman and drummer Ulysses Owens set the pace, the Ark enters to deepen the street parade pocket. Michael Thomas, playing soprano sax, and trombonist Michael Dease trade phrases up ‘til a chorus of joint improvisation, and converge on a hip bluesy line. Appropriately for a tune celebrating New Orleans’ rhythms, Owens’ drum solo is stellar.”

And there you have it in a nutshell: 44:30 proves that irrespective of where you are born and no matter what generation your age places you in, New Orleans cradles you into its musical traditions, primary among which is Jazz.

Ark Ovrutski, Michael Thomas, Michael Dease, David Berkman and Ulysses Owens are splendidly capable and talented musicians who have a lot to say and say it well. 44:30 is one of those joyous surprises that reaffirms why you fell in love with Jazz in the first place. Its exciting music and it will move you emotionally and rhythmically because it is based on the primary ingredient of Jazz – it swings.

Chris DiGirolamo of TwofortheShow Media sent along all of Howard Mandel’s insert notes as a media release and since I couldn’t improve on them I’d thought I’d share them with you.

Howard Mandel is the author of Future Jazz and Miles Ornette Cecil-Jazz Beyond Jazz, writes for many publications, reports for National Public Radio, blogs at ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz and is president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

© -Howard Mandel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Wherever in the world or in whatever disposition a jazz musician starts their professional journey, he or she must eventually come to grips with creating a personal approach based on technique, imagination and feeling. Ukrainian emigre composer and bassist Ark Ovrutski likes to say that since age 20 he has been an "international homeless traveler." With 44:33, his third album as a leader, Ark has arrived.

A program of bright melodies, tight ensemble collaboration, individualized solos and firm underlying swing, 44:33  -titled for its running time — is an expression of accomplishment and direction from a coterie of players, instigated by a well informed, thoroughly engaged leader. Multi-reedist Michael Thomas, trombonist Michael Dease, pianist David Berkman and drummer Ulysses Owens are all players from the top echelon of New York's abundance of talented jazzers. Ark is pivotal at the band's core, generating material as well as holding everything together.

Born in Kiev, Ark was playing violin at age 8 — but not out of love of classical music. Influenced by his father who admired Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, he remembers being "always excited by swing." Today Ark regards Charles Mingus as his hero, citing Mingus' goal of advancing the art of a composer-bassist towards a melding of classical and jazz traditions. "I'm working on the challenge of being a bassist - not just a prominent soloist," Ark explains. "I think the future requires bassists to have both classical-level technique and a jazz player's ability to lead and improvise."

Ark has pursued both paths of experience. He attended and graduated with a degree from the Russian Academy of Music, where he roomed with trumpeter Alex Sipiagan (frequently featured today in the Mingus Big Band) and met tenor sax star Igor Butman. Ark visited the U.S. in the early '90s, then got a job as house band mainstay and artistic director for a jazz club in Krakow, Poland, where he remained for three years. He "travelled like crazy" all through Europe, enjoying extended time in Spain and Italy, before returning to Moscow to freelance and produce his first recording (not available in the West).

In 2003 Ark attended Berklee College of Music's summer clinics in Italy. Told that to advance his career, he should be in America, he applied for and received a scholarship to New York City's Drummers Collective, in which he enrolled in 2005. He was soon gigging in Harlem clubs such as the Lenox Lounge, Minton's and St. Nicholas Pub with the circle of musicians including vocalist Gregory Porter. He was also mentored by drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, with whom he has recorded and toured, and who is prominent on Ark's 2011 self-released album Sounds of Brazil.

In 2006 Ark began work on his masters’ degree in music at Rutgers University in New Jersey, studying with bassist Mike Richmond, drummer Victor Lewis and pianist Stanley Cowell, among others. Veteran bassist Bob Cranshaw advised him to go for a doctorate, which he's done at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Taking the most ambitious compositions of Charles Mingus as his thesis project, Ark has just completed his degree requirements and at this writing is about to receive his Ph.D.

Such credentials are admirable, but jazz musicians are only as good as their music, and that's where Ark & company shines. 44:33 opens with New Orleans, an upbeat ode to the Crescent City universally honored as the cradle of jazz. Pianist Berkman and drummer Owens set the pace, then Ark enters to deepen the street parade pocket. Thomas, playing soprano, and trombonist Dease trade phrases up 'til a chorus of joint improvisation, and converge on a hip, bluesy line. Appropriately for a tune celebrating New Orleans' rhythms, Owens' solo is stellar.

Waltz follows, demonstrating variety and consistency with pretty airiness. Ark's intro seems to pulse with the funky insistence of a CTI-era bass part a la Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay," however the quintet unfolds this composition in a different mode entirely. Dease, who's worked with Ark in such Manhattan venues as Dizzy's Club and NuBar since 2009, projects warmth through his muted sound; Thomas takes a silvery turn on alto sax. Ark's spotlight passage has a confident throb that connects tunefully to his intro - which he notes "sounds like it's in 5/4, but is actually in 3/4 (waltz time)." The track's ending is especially mellow.

Up is, of course, quick, with Ark's walk sprightly, not rushed. There's something of John Coltrane's "Impressions" in Up - maybe the sax/'bone harmonization that nods to that classic's blend of Coltrane's and Eric Dolphy's inimitable voices. Berkman sparkles, as he does throughout this album whether soloing or underscoring. Ark's break is dark and deft; he goes for an earthy, springy sound.

Baby's Vibe, which subtly references "Infant Eyes" by Wayne Shorter (another of Ark's musical models) has a tender vibe, unusual for a trombone-led number. Thomas's alto matches Dease's 'bone, their parts twining like vine.

Medium, launched by a drum roll and trilling horns, is also companionable. The band makes its easy swing seem easy to achieve, but don't take its mastery for granted. Thomas bespeaks post-bop on his soprano sax, which is also unusual; Ark, in his solo, dances on his strings. The group's cool modesty is becoming.

The exacting melody Milestones - the "Milestones" written by John Lewis for Miles Davis's 1947 debut with Charlie Parker, not the "Milestones" Davis himself wrote for his '58 recording with the musicians who cut Kind of Blue - is 44:33's sole track not written by Ark. Dease's arrangement is beautifully interpreted - I especially like the connection between the horns and Berkman's accompaniment. Ark's solo chorus is flavored by Mingus-like urgency, yet pleasure emanates from the music's totality more than any particulars, as he binds the disparate instruments into a cohesive whole.

The finale Path Train was inspired by the commute to Manhattan Ark made daily in 2005, when living in Jersey City. Benito Gonzalez plays Rhodes electric piano, getting the big, glistening tone that Joe Zawinul promoted when he introduced this gear on Cannonball Adderley's 1966 hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Ark's groove is just right; the quintet aces the concluding stop-time breaks as if the task were as natural as breathing, the better to frame Owens.

"As a composer, I'm still learning," says Ark. "Trying to get to the truth with music is hard. Michael Dease says I use a lot of 'slash chords' — meaning one triad on top of another in layers, for polytonal and polychordal purposes, the way composer Darius Milhaud explored. But I try not to forget about the blues scale and feel. I like Wayne Shorter's example: always modern, always jazz. Let's not forget we're playing jazz!"

That's an important point for listeners as well as musicians. We want to hear propulsion, originality, coherence, imagination and excitement in jazz. We want sounds that beguile, provoke, amuse and sooth. We want those sounds to provide insights into those who make them, who we can then identify as a lot like us. That's why we like their music: it resonates with what we'd do, if we but could.

Ark Ovrutski and his cohorts can, and do. So a "homeless international traveler" and his colleagues turn from being strangers into something more like neighbors, better than acquaintances — friends. Quite a feat that they pull off in 44:33. - Howard Mandel”

For more information about Ark, please visit his website at www.arkovrutski.com/

The following video features Ark and the quintet on New Orleans from 44:30 as set to images of the city and poster art from the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals.

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