Friday, January 29, 2010

Allison Miller - Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven)

Background beyond the basics on Allison Miller is absent in the packaging of this disc. That’s hardly a problem, however, as her music swiftly conveys volumes about whom she is and how she approaches her instrument. Most apparent is the way her playing warmly invites listeners to ruminate at length about the drums, about their role in a jazz ensemble and what they’re capable of both within that framework and without. She’s the ostensible leader of the session, but in the estimable company of pianist Myra Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose she shrugs off any privileges presumptive of the position, opting instead for equilibrium of input with her partners.

An exquisite crispness and clarity attends Miller’s constructions, along with a speed between thought and action measurable in milliseconds. Her sticks move with machine-like precision, but retain a very human grace. She never overwhelms from her kit, though the resiliency and immediacy of her rhythms implies that she readily could if so inclined. There’s abundant humor as well as she slips for bold relief swing to a slippery funk beat and on to an oddly-metered aside in a manner that exposes more than a passing interest in rock. Taking stock in this sampling of her artistry I can’t help but think of the often-shoehorned but still valid adage of teenage Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility” put into practice.

Half of the program’s eight tunes are Miller originals. The trio also runs down two by Melford along with Mary Lou Williams’ “Intermission” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair”. Melford melodic side is in full bloom on the latter, almost to a fault. Miller’s cymbal washes and brushed snare accents help in neutralizing any schmaltz. Each piece packs in liberal amounts of improvisation while frequently remaining thematically grounded. Proof of Miller’s willingness to defer is plain with the middle section of Melford’s “Be Melting Snow” where the drummer sheathes sticks and serves as spectator for the composer’s close conversation with Sickafoose. For his part, the bassist wields a broad resonant tone from his strings, perfectly matching the agility and alacrity of his colleagues. Violinist Jenny Scheinman sits in on “CFS” adding texture and enhancing the folk-friendly interplay of the piece. Miller's facility and versatility definitely make her one to keep close tabs on and this set is an ideal introduction.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mark “Porkchop” Holder, 501 Club, Minneapolis, MN, 1/27/10

Please excuse this break from regularly scheduled record-reviewing for a little concert-going communiqué. Last night, I ventured out into the single-digit Minneapolis weather with a singular purpose in mind, to catch one Mark “Porkchop” Holder in-person at a local watering hole that kindly waives any kind of cover.

Holder was easily one of the highlights of last summer’s Deep Blues Festival, a gathering of like-minded musicians that fall under the rubric of that somewhat-nebulous Robert Palmer-coined phrase. Formerly one-third of the Black Diamond Heavies, he’s been touring as a band of one for awhile now and isn’t the worse for wear. He resembles his nickname both in rotund frame and the high caloric content of his fretwork. Overalls, t-shirt and ball-cap are his preferred attire and he makes do with a National Polychrome Tricone Steel-Body Resophonic guitar, amplified foot tambourine, and a device he refers offhandedly to as a thumper, an amplified piece of wood that serves as primitive kick drum. Harmonica rack is another accoutrement when a song in question calls for it.

A repast of massaman curry in my belly and thirst momentarily quenched on several tap-drawn Bourbon County Stouts, I bellied up at the corner of the bar with a clear sightline to the stage and the beginnings of a pleasantly-numbing buzz. Sadly, a good portion of the 50-strong crowd was there for the bar’s weekly trivia night and emptied their seats when Holder took the stage. “I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, where it’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity,” he quipped as a means of hasty introduction, launching into killer breakdown “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day”. “Delia” followed, Holder crediting it to Johnny Cash, though I think it holds older folk origins. Once again the plugged-in slide work was stellar, a complex edifice built with the bricks of Bukka White, Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell with frills and embellishments that were clearly his own. Other standouts in the set included “My Black Name”, a slow and harrowing, “You Got to Move” and a surprise rendering of “Gallows Pole” that was far more Leadbelly than Led Zeppelin.

The set was short and the crowd slim, but I was more than satisfied. Holder signed off with patchwork version of “Hambone”, explaining “This song is a bunch of verses strung together, some taken from nursery rhymes, others from Tin Pan Alley, but basically it’s about fucking.” Deep Blues Fest organizer Chris Johnson, who had a principal roll in booking the gig, made the rounds through the meager audience with tip jar in an effort to bolster the take. I had a chance to chat with Holder briefly after the gig and finally nab his two solo discs, which I’d failed to get at his previous Twin Cities hit over the summer. A section of his self-penned liners aptly summarizes where he’s coming from:

“So, here’s what you’ve got in your hands; it’s my street act, mic’ed up. Guitar, vocals, foot-thumpery and harmonica tracked in realtime, all at once, no overdubs, no second takes, no bullshit. Two inch tape like Jesus intended. I’m happy with it. Sounds like me. This is who I am. What I love and what I do. If I played in your kitchen (which, like most things in life, is negotiable), it would sound like this. I hope you enjoy this recording. If you don’t… tough shit.”

Best part is he’s in town through the weekend, holding court at another Minneapolis Bar, Palmer’s, on Saturday in the company of another slide guitar doyen, one Kenny Brown on loan from Mississippi. I’m counting the hours… in the meantime, here’s a little taste of the man in action at the DBF…


Porkchop 2

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Barnö Grip Lasserre – Snus (Ayler)

Originally formed for the auspicious occasion of Alan Silva’s 70th birthday in Paris, Snus is a European trio that takes the expatriate bassist/composer/improviser’s legacy to heart. In other words, they play full contact free jazz, listener helmets and protective padding strictly optional. This live set, a reconvening initially planned in the promising aftermath of that inaugural Silva-celebratory gig, pulls no punches from the start.

Swedish bassist Joel Grip practically turns his instrument into firewood, chopping mercilessly at his strings, first with fingers and later with bow. French drummer Didier Lasserre is similarly draconian toward his drum kit in driving home fractured passels of beats. The opening “E 1520” Niklas Barnö, another Swede, barks out stentorian smears and slurs on his trumpet across a spectrum that encompasses Donald Ayler and Axel Dorner. The mics capture all three close and hot and the eleven minutes that constitute the set’s first two pieces, “E 1520” and “Tobacco”, make for a gloriously teeth-gritting musical assault.

It’s not all bullhorns and battering rams though. “Water” switches channels to the trio’s free improv frequency where the component sounds are often just as abrasive, but tempered slightly by heightened space and texture. Grip generates a percussive snap to his plucked patterns on “Aroma” that bring Money Jungle-Mingus immediately to mind. Barnö picks through scraps of metalicized melody as Lasserre skitters and scampers at the edges on a combination of sticks and brushes. “Salt” shows off Grip’s rosin-combusting bow work while slow smolder of Barnö muted and Lasserre’s brushes on “Smoking Flavour” picks up steam and structure through his incessant pile-driving thrum.

Not so long ago, Ayler’s future was worryingly uncertain. Not so now as producer Stéphane Berland, who took over for founder Jan Strom, continues to find and foster and musicians with the same conscientious attention to quality and consistency. With ensembles of the caliber of Snus in the stable, the label’s fortunes appear on the rise indeed.

ROW: Joe Houston – Cornbread and Cabbage Greens (Specialty)

Honkers and bar walkers were legion in the Los Angeles R&B scene of the late-Forties. The arguable triumvirate of the community consisted of Big Jay McNeeley, Chuck Higgins and Joe Houston, as reviled by jazz purists as they were revered by teenage fans hungry for that hot-stepping, proto-rock & roll sound. Houston’s style hardly varied from his peers in appropriating Illinois Jacquet’s freak register squeals and gutbucket growls as springboard vernacular. These 26 sides, originally waxed for storefront labels like Fort Knox, Regent and Money and later bought up under the Specialty umbrella, cross off pretty much all his stylistic ticks. Most are booting instrumentals with basic rhythmic backing working as vehicles for his wailing, stratosphere-slashing tenor. A few, like the disc’s title track, also pivot off boisterous shout-chorus vocals. The truly revelatory cuts are the final three that Houston’s wildly gesticulating tenor with an unnamed electric guitarist who slathers on stinging distortion and contrasts starkly with the decorous T-Bone Walker-style fretwork of earlier sides. Houston was still actively touring at the time of this collection’s pressing in 1992, sobering proof for those aforementioned purists that a honker’s career could just as easily eclipse a serious jazzman’s in the longevity department.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nicolas Masson Parallels - Thirty Six Ghosts (Clean Feed)

Swiss saxophonist Nicholas Masson’s Parallels consists of conventional instrumentation save one crucial component, the presence of Fender Rhodes in place of piano. The album’s novel title and design reference renowned tattoo artist Horiyoshi in the stylized depiction of figures from feudal Japanese mythology. It makes for a beautiful and striking package, one that the music regrettably doesn’t quite equal for the most part.

Masson handles all of the composing and his pieces make clever use of the broad tonal color schemes accessible through Colin Vallon’s electric instrument. That canny mutability immediately recalls the sort of work Keith Jarrett accomplished in the company of Miles at their epochal Cellar Door stand. Bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Lionel Friedli take like salmon to a spring stream when it comes to Masson’s groove-infused schematics. Problems present themselves in the rhythmic and harmonic rigidity that occasionally underscores the leader’s creations. It reminds me a little of the difficulties Ken Vandermark sometimes confronts in his writing for the Vandermark 5. Masson’s melodic language on tenor periodically brush the edges of the boilerplate blowing and there are a few moments where the band traffics precariously close to the safer side of Seventies fusion.

Masson’s preferred device on many of the pieces is the slow boil build. The opening “Sirius” and “Le Phasme” scroll by for most of their length without making much of a memorable impact, despite conveying some pleasant atmospherics. “Arsenic”, “Bermuda” and “Yeah Baby” initially follow this framework at only to up the intensity ante in their closing minutes, accelerating tempo and/or density with galvanizing segues to circular menace thanks in large part again to Vallon’s forceful coloring and the close syncopated symmetry of Moret and Friedli. Other pieces, like the frenetic “Hellboy” and brooding “Sentinel” get by on cleanly stacked beats, energetic interplay and elastic grooves throughout their duration. Masson and his sidemen may not score an unqualified win with this outing, but high marks for effort and intent certainly seem in order.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult - If You Should Go (Cadence Jazz)

“Chamber trio with teeth” serves as convenient shorthand for cellist Tomas Ulrich’s Cargo Cult. This disc was the first of two released in 2009. I initially slept on it and only got hip to the ensemble upon hearing their second effort, self-titled and issued on CIMP. That set made mention in my year end piece for Dusted Magazine. This set, originally a demo tape sent to producer Bob Rusch, documents the players in less polished form, plying their music in front of a live audience in Kingston, NY in early 2007. It’s raw by comparison with CIMP session, but also rewarding in the way in which it presents the trio at an earlier stage, finding their collective sea legs and relying on a reservoir of shared purpose that eclipses any indulgences or blemishes in interplay that arise.

Ulrich and bassist Michael Bisio are no neophytes to the Cadence family, both having recorded on numerous occasions for the company’s labels and earned Rusch’s confidence. Rolf Sturm is a comparatively new name to me, but his facility on both acoustic and electric guitars features prominently in the trio’s sound. The harsher side of Ulrich’s instrument haunts the openings minutes of “The Last to Know” and “Existential Fragility” as his slashing bow scares up abrading showers of stentorian dissonance that rival those of renowned string-shredder Fred Lonberg-Holm. The balance of the recording favors his positioning and when he goes at it full bore, Bisio’s contributions suffer the consequences, occasionally almost drowned out in the din. These opening pieces feel a bit ragged and long-winded when compared to clarity and acuity of the ones that follow.

Even though Ulrich enjoys certain advantages in the mix, Bisio isn’t one to defer quietly. Midway through the beautifully-rendered ‘Rains End”, he plays a knuckle-popping solo high on the bridge and accessing a pitch region in proximity to Ulrich’s cello. Sturm opts for acoustic strings, picking dulcet patterns and it’s the most chamber-sounding performance of the set. The closing “If You Should Go” gives him free reign on his electric instrument and he uses liberal swathes of reverb and echo to heighten the drama. Ulrich sits out for most of the piece, coming in for the closing minutes with a pitch-perfect arco summary and sign-off. Their CIMP may have an overall edge, but this earlier entry is just as worthy of exploration.

Friday, January 22, 2010

John Patitucci Trio – Remembrance (Concord)

The lucrative lure of session work can be a perilous proposition for the creative musician. Bassist John Patitucci has fallen prey to the seduction for much of his career. Blessed with sterling chops and stylistic impartiality, a fair share of smooth jazz, pop and funk fusion dates accumulated on his resume over the years. However unfair, I liken it to the Pat Metheny Syndrome where projects chosen by a player pale in comparison to what he or she is capable. Patitucci sets the record partially straight with this Concord release from last year, his seventh for the label and a disc that narrowly missed inclusion on my year-end list. A high percentage of the success goes to the significant assists of his sidemen, saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Brian Blade. Both match Patitucci in terms of their mastery of their instruments and more importantly in this context, are perfectly willing to push his artistic envelope.

Old habits die hard though and the disc is checkered with a few performances that fall short of the promise. The curiously-titled “Messaien’s Gumbo”, burbles along on a standard issue funk bass ostinato, but Lovano’s lithe interjections and Blade’s porous beats manage add an appreciably amount of heat to an otherwise pedestrian piece. “Mali” unfolds as a better vehicle for Patitucci’s electric 6-string, building from a juicy afro-funk vamp and Blade’s dancing polyrhythms in concert with guest percussionist Rogerio Boccato. The leader’s thumb-bruising solo revels in groove and makes the boilerplate of his earlier excursion seem all the more forgettable. “Meditations” features his 6-string electric piccolo and finds the trio delving into atmospheric territory reminiscent of the schmaltzier side of one of Lovano’s other employer’s, the Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell. As the other session guest, Patitucci’s wife Sachi plays cello on “Scenes from an Opera”, a somber orchestral-textured piece benefits from Lovano’s overcast alto clarinet and Blade’s deftly deployed brushes and mallets.

Other pieces offer up state of the art samplings of pizzicato double bass. “Sonny Side” spools out at a slow stroll with Lovano tapping his inner Joe Henderson through breathy melodic wisps. The energizing “Joe Hen” is its opposite in mood in tempo and Patitucci puts his bull fiddle through a punishing set of paces.
Despite a few less-satisfying detours, the program holds together well in mapping the numerous facets of Patitucci’s musical personality. Lovano and Blade are inspired choices as partners and the disc is an effective corrective for listener’s who may have pegged Patitucci as a one-trick pony on his past work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jerry Bergonzi – Three For All (Savant)

The second release by Jerry Bergonzi for Savant in 2009, this set features the saxophonist in circumstances somewhat uncommon to his discography. Absent a chordal instrument his tenor relies solely on the accompaniment of bassist Dave Santoro and drummer Andrea Michelutti. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate as Bergonzi also overdubs soprano and piano on certain tracks changing three to four or five. The decision widens the trio’s palette while effectively illustrating the leader’s facility on the other instruments. His twining thematic line on the opening “Crop Circles” exudes a fluidity of tone and phrasing oddly akin to an accordion and the thread count of his harmonic weave recalls the sort of cleanly meshing interplay Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz used to regularly sew together.

Writer Jimmy Katz lays a pitch on thick, depositing superlatives like “legendary”, “titan” and “innovator” in the liners and relating a choice anecdote where Michael Brecker deferred the title of “greatest saxophone player alive” to Bergonzi’s person as summation. I don’t hear much in the way of innovation in Bergonzi’s admittedly enviable chops, but the ascription of “musician’s musician” definitely seems apposite. He’s balanced active gigging with an admirably consistent role as an educator for going on three decades, with reportedly a two year wait lists the norm for potential students. Cusp-of-the-Sixties Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins are readily apparent as tenor influences, but there’s also a cry inherent to his articulation that recalls Charles Lloyd’s sound on ECM. Bergonzi long ago assimilated these into a sound identifiably his own.

Despite generous solo room for Santoro and Michelutti, it’s clearly Bergonzi’s show from the onset. Both sidemen are at times strangely laidback, filling their roles ably but opting not to goose or challenge their employer even when opportunities readily arise. That staunch adherence to protocol becomes a bit frustrating over the long haul with Bergonzi sailing through his improvisations independent from pursuit. On the win side are his compositions, often clever in title and construction, which accord his horn a good workout. “Obama” tips to political topicality and prescience with a lush and promising preface eventually broken by a spate of disruptive drum breaks. “End of the Mayan Calendar” concludes with abruptly with out of tempo coda intimating the advent of the possible apocalypse. Though there are no daring deviations or curveballs to speak of this is still an enjoyable set and clear-cut evidence as to why Bergonzi continues to curry such high esteem.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Forty Fort (Hot Cup)

Ungainly in name, but hardly in purpose or practice, MOPDtK (to use the shorthand) strike the target again on their fourth full-length for Hot Cup. Whether it’s a bull’s-eye or an outer ring impact probably depends on listener tolerance for melodic monkey business and slapstick unpredictability. Either way there’s no denying the musicianship on display or the sincere sense of fun behind their antics. Coming to a MOPDtK performance for spit-polish decorum is like arriving at a Sarah Palin rally and expecting sharply reasoned discourse.

Several of their earlier albums cheerfully copped aesthetics from seminal albums by Art Blakey and Ornette Coleman for Blue Note and Atlantic, respectively. This time it’s Roy Haynes’ Out in the Afternoon for Impulse, with each of the four aping the album’s original quartet in attire and posture, right down to a trio of faux moustaches. Forty Fort name checks another Pennsylvania locale (as did their 2nd album Shamokin!!! and liners, once again penned by pseudonymous Leonardo Featherweight, elucidate all the effort behind the facsimiles.

Success in advancing their pro-canon, anti-repertory agenda hinges on a number of factors not the least of which is a gig-honed rapport that most ensembles would give their eyeteeth for. What at first seems like contradictory ensemble philosophy becomes complementary with the realization that nearly all of those members of the jazz canon earned their posts by initially bucking what came before. Contrary to what some critics might argue, the goal isn’t the slaying of idols. Rather, it’s to follow suit by abstaining, and embracing autonomic improvisation and staying open to any and all ideas.

Saxophonist Jon Irabagon won the 2008 Thelonious Monk International competition and chose to record with the suit-and-tie rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis for Concord. Trumpeter Peter Evans regularly criss-crosses the chasm-wide stylistic gaps between Bill Dixon, Bubber Miley and Maynard Ferguson without batting an eye or pulling a groin muscle. And that’s just the ‘jazz’ compartment of his chops bag. Bassist Moppa Elliott, the erstwhile leader, and drummer Kevin Shea straddle similar pan-musical terrain, absorbing everything from hip-hop to country, reggae to 80s AM pop, cherry-picking choice bits from each and spitting out the pits.

The music is bristling with the rapid fire change-ups and mish-mash collisions that are the band’s buttered bread. “Pen Argyl” blows through a dozen such costume changes in just over half as many minutes. “Rough and Ready” finds Evans and Irabagon surfing a surging rhythmic breaker anchored on an Elliott ostinato and Shea’s Tasmanian Devil traps, folding in wooly extended techniques nearly in the same breath as Aebersold-approved straight blowing. Minutes before the end of “Blue Ball” Irabagon breaks into bombastic song fragment* from that would make an acne-faced high school marching band proud. The sole “cover”, Neal Hefti’s “Cute” serves as circus sideshow showcase for Shea who tinkers with a percolating exchange of acoustic and electric beats amidst rambunctious band interjections. Idols intact, these guys are still storming the Ivory Tower and dragging jazz back to its populist roots.

*I still can’t quite tag it despite recalling having heard it played at numerous football games. It pop’s up around 6:40 & is effectively driving me nuts, so anyone with a line on its identity, please do a brother a solid & comment below.

ROW: Deep River of Song: Alabama (Rounder)

Level accusations against the Lomaxes as cultural opportunists and paternalistic stewards if you like, but the music they gathered in copious quantities during their many field recording excursions across the globe stands largely immune to any invective. The fine folks at Rounder put their finances in line with their faith in the father and son team, reissuing dozens of collections as part of the voluminous Lomax Collection series. Sadly, it’s seems as if many of the titles are swiftly going the way of the Dodo. This disc, a 32-track sampling of the musical denizens of Sumter County, Alabama between 1934 and 1940, is fairly on par with its brethren. Par in that it contains some of the most amazing rural-gleaned folk music put to shellac record. The crux of the set is ten cuts by one Vera Ward Hall, whose secular-suffused-with-sacred songs will haunt you ‘til your dying day. Singers Mary McDonald and Harriet McClintock almost match her in emotional potency, the former adding stomping clog rhythms to her impassioned verse-work while the latter goes the whistler’s route on an infant’s lullaby. Also on the roll call: The button accordion fireworks of Blind Jesse Harris and the train sounds-improvisations of Richard Amerson’s harmonica. Most of the pieces abstain from instrumentation and all carry the crackle and hiss of age. Even familiar staples like “Hog Hunt” and “What is the Soul of a Man?” have singular stylistic sheens about them. This stuff is inarguably antique in age, but damn if it doesn’t ever get old.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

James Moody - 4A (IPO)

Much like the cruel joke of Lucky Thompson’s sobriquet, there’s a certain unintentional perversity to James Moody’s surname when considered through the fractured prism of his life. Harrowing travails with mental illness, substance abuse and racism threatened to derail his career on various occasions over the past six decades, but Moody soldiered on. He even composed a tune, “Last Train from Overbrook”, illustrating in musical terms his discovery of personal recovery as a means of creative catharsis.

Now an octogenarian, those obstacles are relics of Moody’s past. He’s well past the point of proving himself or justifying his continued presence on any scene. That hard won, late-game confidence suffuses this studio session recorded in the summer of 2008. His colleagues are as congenial as the set list, a short batch of standards that Moody could probably play in his sleep. Fortunately, there’s nothing somnambulistic about the way they comport them. Pianist Kenny Barron makes for an inspired lieutenant and second soloist. His lush statement on “Stablemates” is just one of several specimens evincing quiet pianistic quality. Bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Lewis Nash acquit themselves amiably to support, stepping up for the occasional solo, but mainly according Moody his royal due and audibly enjoying a relaxed audience with the veteran.

The program’s manifold pleasures don’t depend on the songs themselves. As with most repertory jazz, the worth manifests in how the players come to terms with the well-furrowed particulars of the pieces and personalize them in turn. Moody’s reading of “’Round Midnight” is a perfect case in point. The fingerprints-coated changes have been handled millions of times. Moody himself has probably played the theme on occasions numbering well into the thousands. Somehow though, even with that preponderance of precedence, his burnished tone and loose-jointed phrasing still manages to rub off something winsome from the tune. “Stella by Starlight” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”, old gray mares themselves, also receive fresh coat-brushings with bossa and waltz bristles, respectively.

It’s always tempting to cap a review like this one by preemptively calling out those with qualms toward such final lap coasting. Moody’s decision to focus the time he has left on the familiar and what he loves doing hardly seems worth faulting. That he still has game to the stellar degree demonstrated is almost just icing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Greg Burk - Many Worlds (482 Music)

In common with many of his peers, pianist Greg Burk has his hands in a number of creative cookie jars. A working trio with drummer Gerald Cleaver and the Lunar Quartet with saxophonist John Tchicai, along with the quartet featured here account for just a few of his musical outlets. Burk counts Paul Bley, George Russell and Yusef Lateef among his teachers. The enviable tutelage of that trio manifests in a grounding melodicism along with a keen touch when it comes to threading together composition and improvisation. Those elements hold ample sway on this latest outing, which balances five free-standing pieces with a six-part suite. The album also represents a departure from the frequent Chicago-locus for 482 Music, the music originating from Rome over a nearly four-month span in 2007.

Burk’s brief accompanying essay imagines the playful activity of subatomic particles as ambassadors of sound between instruments. It’s a colorful comparison point and one enhanced by the careful attention he and his colleagues pay dependable attention to detail in the music. Burk and drummer Michel Lambert bring in texture-tuned percussion and saxophonist Henry Cook regularly turns to flute, particularly early on, the quartet conjuring a line of improvisational inquiry that aligns with McCoy Tyner’s post-Coltrane experiments in spiritual jazz. Burk’s grand, pedal-buttressed chords on the opening “Sonny Time” and “In Pursuit of Matter” echo the free-wheeling, rhapsodic side of the elder pianist. The closer “The Spirit Will Take You Out” delivers the most concentrated example, Cook’s wailing soprano soaring against a swirling, seething accompaniment that cedes nothing in terms of each instrument’s audibility.

Lambert’s brushwork nearly steals the spotlight at several junctures, starting with his scampering on Burk’s “BC” though his stick work is equally adroit in combining agility with momentum as on the lush “Storm Cloud”. When the threat of over-sweetening arises as with the latter piece, Burk wisely counters with strategically-placed surges of gentle dissonance. Bassist Ron Seguin switches between acoustic and amplified strings and builds a big booming sound on both. “Particular” pulls the four into floating free improv, Cook consigning to fluttery reed pops and keypad patterings while Burk goes under the hood and Lambert’s brushes tumble assiduously at the flank. Working within the most quotidian of jazz instrumentation with only minor tweakings, Burk and his band mates still manage to arrive at something definitively apart from the commonplace.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Godforgottens – Never Forgotten, Always Remembered (Clean Feed)

A starkly-sketched close-up of a crucified Christ and a band name that suggests a motley covey of heathens wandering in the wilderness offer two abstruse clues to the Godforgottens concept. Comprised of Magnus Broo on trumpet, Sten Sandell doubling on Hammond B3 and piano, Johan Berthling on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, the quartet earns instant cachet with those who follow European free jazz. Their work in this context, while certainly related to that parent idiom, strikes off on a boldly different tack. The disc’s three pieces appear collectively improvised and are slab-sized in form and length. Themes and variations surface and sink, but the performance has the loose feel of a fusion-era Milesean exploration with open ends and a porous itinerary. The four players rectify any ruts in trajectory that occur with quick reorientations in direction and design, masked in part by the fluidity of their interplay.

Sandell’s orchestral methods on the B3 pull in equal parts Atlantis-era Sun Ra and religious-minded Messiaen, veering from ominous burbling abstractions to baroque pipe organ-like swells. His piano playing comes off as comparably dynamic, spanning the majestic, pedal-augmented block chords that arrive in the final minutes of the opening “Always Forgotten” and the kind of minimalist key plinking that opens up chasms of space in the second piece “Never Remembered”. Broo takes another page from the book of Miles on the latter track where what he doesn’t play is often as important as what he does. His grainy aerated tones make for excellent contrast with Sandell’s denser constructions.

Berthling’s presence suggests a certain redundancy at first glance in light of Sandell’s access to bass pedals but he’s hardly so, especially on bow building striated drones and in churning pizzicato ostinatos that reliably make him heard. Nilssen-Love is a master of the organized avalanche, particularly on the closing piece, “Remembered Forgotten”, the cascades from his kit adhering to complex rhythmic codes against overwhelming his compatriots. Sandell and Berthling complement perfectly, carving a braiding bass register groove that recalls the best of Ra and Ronnie Boykins while Broo blasts and bleats above. Sandell’s Tuvan-style throat singing, yet another left field ingredient, coupled with whirring organ sustain accords the piece a heightened incantatory feel. This is heady, uncompromising improv, refreshingly apart in both instrumentation and tactics. Forgotten in name, this band’s music invites the opposite with its immediacy and creativity.

Sounds of Liberation (Porter)

All praises to Porter Records and producer Luke Mosling for dusting off and disseminating this treasure from Philadelphia’s long defunct Dogtown imprint. Mosling has shepherded other of the label’s offerings back into circulation but this 1972 album just might be the crown jewel of that exceptional and rarified catalog. The line-up in the septet goes a long way toward illustrating its worth. A group portrait reproduced on the back cover depicts all but percussionist Omar Hill leaning casually against a graffiti-speckled wall. There’s also a helpful rundown of the members’ astrological signs along with their instruments (altoist Byard Lancaster, vibraphonist Khan Jamal, and bassist Billy Mills are all Leos, represent!).

Several of the session’s cuts would sound right at home on the Spiritual Jazz compilation Jazzman released a few years back. The ensemble comes out of a similar post-Coltrane, black empowerment bag with hungry ears wide open to all strains of African American music. Lancaster serves as sole horn and principal soloist, though Jamal and guitarist Monette Sudler also feature prominently in the playful pecking order. Sudler, in particular, shapes memorable patterns that straddle jazz, funk and rock stylings while threading in freer leanings too.

The catch phrase “rhythm section” is unusually apposite in describing the rest of the ensemble as the grooves they generate are some of the most memorable and pervasive of the era. The side-long starter “Happy Tuesday”, kicked off by conguero Rashid Salim unaccompanied, builds into a Richter magnitude vamp rivaling that of the Art Ensemble’s “Theme De Yo-Yo”. Mills’ amplified strings accord his corpulent lines a rich elastic resonance in concert with the percussion section rounded out by Dwight James sturdy, at times strident, traps play. Sudler is largely lost in the friendly melee during the first half of the piece, but asserts herself in the second with an extended display of striking fret play.

“New Horizons” comes in two distinct and galvanizing versions, each working from a sibling percolating groove. After a declarative drums preamble from James, “We’ll Tell You Later” is all Lancaster’s and he attacks his horn with free-associative fervor, reeling off some of the most ferocious blowing of the date. Sudler soon joins him with jagged scalar accompaniment and the rest of the band follows in quick succession. With the finish line in sight someone shouts a sudden count off and the band turns on a dime into another rugged funk workout. The bite-sized closer “New Life” sounds ideal for jukebox consumption, another funky-minded morsel that’s even closer in kinship to the aforementioned “Yo-Yo”.

At the height of their popularity, Sounds of Liberation apparently played a gig opposite Kool and the Gang at the 6th Annual Miss Black America pageant. Based on the gravity and superiority of the grooves here it’s not hard to imagine them schooling those Jersey funk icons in swift fashion from the stage.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ROW: The Langley Schools Music Project: Innocence and Despair (Bar-None)

There was a time not so long ago when anyone with a few bucks in his or her pocket could press a record on any number of boutique labels. This fascinating collection culls from that era, specifically the mid-Seventies when an enterprising elementary school music teacher named Hans Fenger sought fit to record his students in a Canadian school gymnasium. Rather than resort to the musty choral songbooks of the curriculum, he opted instead for a program of popular songs that the kids were familiar with. Decades later, rescued from the thrift store bins they ended up in, the results carry the unintentional intrigue of outsider art. Like The Shaggs before them, these kids get by largely on naiveté and charm. The choir-plus-band’s rundowns are rickety and frequently tune-challenged, but the brio and earnestness in abundance works as a fine ballast. Fenger’s arrangements are an instant trip too, varying from the spare piano accompaniment of “Desperado” sung by one Sheila Behman, age 9, in a wistful, fragile falsetto that easily beats out the Don Henley original by my Eagles-allergic ears, to small orchestras of xylophones, drums and steel guitar, as on the arrangement of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”(!) Three other standouts are the versions of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” and Michael Murphy’s AM-radio staple “Wildfire”, and Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The recognized anthem of World Contact Day)". A little goes a long way, but taken in sparingly, these songs have the satisfying sweetness of aural truffles.

Seabrook Power Plant (Loyal Label)

The Seabrook brothers are either on to something or on something or both. Hand-drawn imagery of rodents in gasmasks and toxic green fumes floating above dandelions adorns the album art on their trio’s self-titled debut, calling to mind the ingredients of a bad acid trip coupled to one too many readings of The Lorax. Their shared band moniker name checks a New Hampshire nuclear facility and while it leaves out bassist Tom Blancarte, he’s hardly second (bull) fiddle when it comes to the sounds, which are striking and unequivocal from the onset.

A misplaced press sheet precludes me from parsing their stated particulars but the music speaks loudly and succinctly for itself. “Peter Dennis Blanford” leaves the birthing canal like a manic love child of Mick Barr and Uncle Dave Macon, Brandon Seabrook’s banjo chattering and clattering amidst a staccato fusillade generated his brother, Jared’s drums and Blancarte’s turgid bass stomp in a manner that approximates shattering glass. “Ho Chi Minh Trail” yields not a sliver of speed as another shower of claw hammer arpeggios rains down on a compressed string of math rock detonations underscored by a tamboura-like banjo drone. Punctuating rock breaks are hermetic and bruising alongside by turns snapping and slashing bass. The piece culminates in a dizzying dervish cloud of sawing strings that disperses abruptly.

Brandon switches to brittle amplified guitar for “Waltz of the Nuke Workers” deploying a razing assemblage of riffage in claustrophobic arcs against another barrage of punishing beats by his brother. Several brief interludes of comparative calm intersperse, but an overarching aura of menace sustains. “Base Load Plant Theme” breaks up pogo-stick guitar and bass with pummeling syncopations as Brandon tries on different shambolic riffs for size in short succession. The threesome metal proclivities really show through on “I Don’t Feel So Good”, which opens on a monolithic, Sabbath-worthy riff that sounds oddly like a distant cousin to a Toho Studios theme announcing the lurching onslaught of some radioactive prehistoric beast.

This kind of music invites florid, fanciful description and sets of ears willing to take a creative beating. While I’ll admit to beginnings of a headache by disc’s end I’ll also readily cop to the fact that outcome isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The parts aren’t quite in complete alignment yet, but this promising debut and one that bodes well for the Powerplant’s next meltdown.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Charlie Apicella’s Iron City – Sparks (CArlo Music)

Plucking its name from a plum 1977 Grant Green date, guitarist Charlie Apicella’s trio embodies much of what makes that record so great. Green’s trio with organist John Patton and drummer Ben Dixon operated like a souped up Booker T & the MGs, covering popular fare like “Samba de Orpheus” and “High Heeled Sneakers” and plugging in a strong soul jazz sensibility along the way. Apicella’s crew adopts a similar strategy toward soul jazz workhorses by Green, Lonnie Smith and Lou Donaldson though they curiously steer clear of the tunes on the original album.

Organist Dave Mattock and drummer Alan Korzin demonstrate a keen affinity for both material and approach with Mattlock building up some very meaty basslines, but the aspect that truly sets the session apart from others of its ilk are the guests lending assists. Violinists John Blake, Jr. and Amy Bateman each lend their arco talents to a tune apiece, giving the vamps on the opening Green-associated “Sookie Sookie” and Apicella’s own “Sweet and Sounded” a sharper edge along with a pair of vibrato-accented solos. The real draw for me though is the suprising presence of saxophonist Stephen Riley, who’s feather-toned tenor enhances five of the eight cuts. Riley’s fluttering, mercurial phrasings fit unexpectedly well into the unabashed funky surroundings of the opener and Apicella’s title piece. He clips and pinches lines to jibe with the tightly drawn grooves, maintaining equal footing with the leader and Mattock on the solo front, though there are moments when it does sound like he’s holding back.

In light of the fine playing, the material suffers by comparsion and the disc registers at a relatively slim LP length, Again though, what’s here holds true to the source of inspiration. Apicella’s only misstep is a bromidic rendering of “Billie Jean” tacked on to the set’s end, presumably in a hat tip to Green’s original investigation of popular songs of the day. Riley isn’t on board for the outing and the Michael Jackson melody can’t help but sound trite in such an obviously ‘jazzed up’ state. Additonally, the performance leaves the question hanging as what sort of serpentine variations on that ubiquitous theme the saxophonist come would have come up with given the chance.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Agustí Fernández & Barry Guy – Some Other Place (Maya)

Two instruments in conversation for the length of a recital can tax a person’s patience if the pair operating them isn’t up to par. Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández and British bassist Barry Guy encounter no such hazard in the conclave captured on their latest disc for Guy’s Maya imprint. The two have been collaborating together for at least a decade in a host of groupings and that strong rapport is evident from the openings strains of “Annalisa”, a composition from the bassist’s book that boils down their seamless union of improv and springboard chamber notation. The disc’s other nine pieces cover substantial ground with Fernández contributing twice the number of Guy. Only “Dark Energy”, the disc’s penultimate piece, is jointly composed though its density and zeal suggests a large degree of improvisation.

Guy easily encompasses the timbral territory of cello and guitar on his bass. Or at least he makes it sound easy, his complete command the outcome of five decades spent in the upper echelon of doyens on his instrument. He leaves bow scabbarded until minutes into the third piece, “How to Go Into a Room You are Already In”. It comes out more frequently later in the program, in rumble-meets-drone tone poem “Crab Nebula”, merging with Fernández’s stentorian string manipulations, and during the dark to light pedal-weighted title piece, though first half of the set favors the consummate joys of Guy’s pitch-perfect pizzicato.

“Rosette” ventures into dissonance of a more violent and percussive persuasion, packing a potent and prickly donnybrook of pounding keys and thwacking strings into just over a minute’s span. “Blueshift”, composed with Guy’s wife Maya Homburger in mind, couldn’t be more different in temperament. Lush and mellifluous and laced with a patina of delicate melancholy, it brings to mind the best side of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio sans the ego so often evident in that ensemble’s numerous outings. Past recordings may give a reliable gauge of the kind of close communication in evidence here, but they don’t intimate the added benefit a meeting without the diluting effects of additional collaborators brings. At six minutes south of an hour it’s also an ideally sequenced set, intensely satisfying in itself while still leaving the ears primed for renewed exposure.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Jason Stein – In Exchange for a Process (Leo)

Doesn’t sound like Dolphy. That’s high praise for a bass clarinetist in this day and age when the dearly departed trailblazer’s shadow still looms large and invasive. Chicagoan Jason Stein has the added arguable advantage of not being a doubler. The long and lanky reed instrument is his sole chosen means of musical expression, leading to an airtight embouchure with a laser focus. Stein embraces the whole of his horn on this bracing solo recital. He plays pretty and raucous, taciturn and ebullient, bouncing confidently between a spectrum of emotions and dialects. There’s the pursed lips, breath-through-tube texturing of “Paint By Number”, where gentle slap-tonguing yields percussive punctuations to aerated gusts, and the comparatively linear lyricism of the opening “For the Sake of Edgar Pollard”. The initials in “E.P. and Me” make a possible nod in the direction of another potential influence, but it’s the subsequent “Hysterical Eric” that contains corkscrew multiphonics that echo the vernacular of Evan Parker.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the set is the lack of artifice or ego in it. Solo albums often involve ample displays of the artist’s exhibitionist tendencies. The endgame becomes one of one-upsmanship with those who have played prior on the instrument with the listener caught in the crossfire. Stein’s chops are massive, but the pieces he devises stay free of pretension and retain a winsome organic flow. Even in the moments when he’s dealing in minimalist fragments devoid of distinctly discernable structure an underlying musicality maintains in his musings. The impression that he’s found the ideal vehicle for his musical imagination lingers. “Murray Flurry” and “Handmade Chicago” delve deeply into the instrument’s delicious tonal roundness, the former making explicit mention of its inspiration source in title and lush timbres. “Temporary Framing of Dr. J” aims opposite for rafters-register in a string of keening whinnies and brays. All of the tracks adhere to modest durations and the disc’s refreshing brevity works in its favor rather than to its detriment. What Stein exchanged to acquire his own particular process isn’t clear, but the impressive aural results here suggest that he got the better deal.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dave Rempis & Frank Rosaly – Cyrillic (482 Music)

Past commentary on saxophone/drums duets often pivoted off the relative rarity of the configuration. That tack is difficult to take in the present day given that most improvisers on either instrument have at least one such encounter to their credit. Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly certainly do. Cyrillic marks their first recording together in the format, though they have plenty of shared experience together in Rempis’ longstanding Percussion Quartet. The music mirrors the disc packaging in its directness and absence of distracting ephemera; it’s just reeds and drums running down a generous number of ideas and directions. Rempis is a rhythmically astute player. He’s also blessed with split-second reflexes and command of melodic improvisation that allows for high speed thematic extemporization. Rosaly doesn’t have quite the same skills set, but his artistry manifests in the percussive variety and careful calibration that informs his playing. Only on a few occasions do they sound like they’re hesitating as what to say next.

The pair gets into their fair share of affable fisticuffs and a good amount of the kind of rigorous blowing conducive to the combination. Rosaly settles into a sweet second line groove halfway through the opening “Antiphony” with Rempis trilling expressively on top. Full of angular inversions and clipped phrasings, the following “Tainos” feels a bit like a wrestling match between Rempis and horn and seems to run out of steam in its final minute. “Thief of Sleep” rights things through a loose-limbed shuffle balanced on the legato strains of Rempis’ baritone. Rosaly’s spatial sense is especially effective here with lots of breathing room present between his delicate accents and a finely sustained sensitivity to tension and release. The by turns dancing and wailing alto that opens the centerpiece “How to Cross When Bridges are Out” contrasts pointedly with the prior piece. Rosaly alternates tidal snare and tom-tom rolls with exacting stick play while Rempis muses between Konitz-like coolness and McLean-style heat at length. The remaining three pieces run from the slow-coalescing free textures of “Still Will” and “Don’t Trade Here” to the bob and weave baritone bluster of “In Plain Sight”.

Is this a set on par with Interstellar Space or The Long March? Such a loaded question is both unfair and irrelevant. Rempis and Rosaly deliver the goods in their own fashion, taking what is fast becoming a familiar framework and applying their own indelible stamp.

Record of the Week

My favorite feature of the now-shuttered Bagatellen (aside from the perpetually ebbing & flowing review section) was the Record of the Week. Over the years of the site’s operation, I had a terrific time picking platters from the four corners of my collection and posting brief blurbs about them. After all, man (and woman) can’t live on a strict diet of jazz alone. I’d like to start something similar here but I’m sadly still trying to figure out how to build the right architecture. Until that particular light bulb gets lit, I’ll be posting them as entries in this main blog area starting with the pick below.

Ozel Turkbas – How to Make Your Husband a Sultan (Traditional Crossroads)

I’m something of a Traditional Crossroads completist (at least I aim to be), though it’s taken me some time to finally get around to picking this disc up. It’s a straight reissue of belly dancer Ozerl Turkbas entre into the U.S. vinyl market and a blatant attempt to cash-in on the craze she pioneered. From chauvanistic title to cheesecake cover the target demographic obviously isn’t so much wives as their husbands. Fortunately, under those garish trappings exists a fairly faithful slab of traditional Turkish music. The big draw is the presence of clarinetist Mustafa Kandirali in Turkbas band. Kandirali was the heir apparent to Sukru Tunar whose microtonal taksims (improvisations) set the bar for the art form during the first half of the 20th century. He’s in terrific form here, shaping soaring ululations and register-leaping trills that easily give Western heroes like Buddy DeFranco and Benny Goodman runs for the money in the virtuosity department. Also on board are kanun (Anatolian zither), violin, hand drum and, to a peripheral degree, a Western rhythmic section of piano and bass. No recording date is documented in the notes, but the provenance seems to be the early Sixties. The album’s centerpiece is a fourteen and half-minute suite designed to ostensibly accompany a full bellydance routine. The notes reproduce a photographic step-by-step by Turkbas on some principal moves and she also lends lilting vocals and finger cymbals to the effervescent folk tune “Tin Tin”. Sales were reportedly upwards of 150K domestically (and one million in Turkey), so it’s hard to levy fault with this successful Trojan Horse that brought these traditional sounds to suburban stateside ears.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Memphis Nighthawks – Jazz Lips (Delmark)

Delmark’s Bob Koester remains the jazz genre’s Rock of Gibraltar. Septuagenarian and by reliable accounts (yours truly included) a congenial curmudgeon, he’s cultivated a set of musical tastes at once abiding and responsive, catholic and inclusive. Such contradictions aren’t lost on him so much as he hardly seems to care. He knows what he digs and what he doesn’t and his continued stewardship of traditional forms right alongside Chicago’s community of cutting edge free jazzers is testament to this sort of enduring broadmindedness.

Jazz Lips, the latest addition to Delmark’s trad jazz ledger, exposes a comparable kind of irreverent reverence. It’s an augmented reissue of recordings made between 1976 and 1977 by the Illinois-based Memphis Nighthawks. The source of their moniker is reportedly a 1932 Vocalion acetate by an eponymous band that wasn’t from Tennessee either (chalk another tick in the contradiction column!). Their instrumentation is similarly idiosyncratic, disposing with drums (in part) and piano and turning to Dave Feinman’s corpulent bass sax for the rhythmic punch customarily plucked out by string bass. Drummer Bob Kornacher of the Dixie Stompers (another Koester affiliate) joins the action on seven of the cuts and brings a nimble Cie Frazier-like flavor to his accent-underscored syncopations. Completing the ensemble are banjoist/guitarist Mike Miller and a sharp three-pronged frontline of trumpet, trombone and reeds led by classically-trained Ron DeWar on clarinet, soprano and C-Melody sax.

The band’s book toes a line typical of their peers on the surface, leaning in the direction of the Armstrongs and Jelly Roll Morton and roping in ringers like “Tishomingo Blues” and “”Beale Street Mama”. The surprises surface in how the players filter the tunes through their configuration and stress pants-seat licks over starch-collar chart reading. Koester’s liners relate a plum anecdote of Mingus swinging by to hear an entire night’s gig only to head out with Feinman and DeWar the following morning for breakfast. Endorsements don’t ring much more resoundingly than that.

Open for Business

Welcome to a work in progress. The foundation is poured. Walls and roof are in place. The last of the floor boards accepted its final nail. I hope to be adding amenities like figurative lights, carpet and plumbing as my layman’s understanding of web design allows. In the meantime, I thought I’d christen this edifice with a brief preamble so as to clarify both my identity and intent.

I’ve been writing about music since mid-1997, focusing primarily on jazz and improvised music though touching on most other major genres along the way. My longest tenure was at Cadence Magazine where I learned the delicate art of the negative review and honed an appreciation for the four corners of the improv compass. I’ve also punted for online publications like All About Jazz, One Final Note and Bagatellen over the years and still contribute regularly to Dusted Magazine. The recent shuttering of Bags is partly what prompted the launch of this place.

Writing and music remain among my chief passions, but a string of positive life changes has placed time for the first pursuit at a premium these days. As Frank Lowe was wont to say and I’m always willing to quote: “addiction ain’t fiction”. Fortunately people continue to patiently send me things for exposition. Toward that end, self-publishing seems the easiest avenue to go and with blogging software streamlining the way it is, even a luddite like me can figure out the basics. My goal in the New Year is to significantly erode the backlog of terrific music that I’ve yet to formally comment on. Fingers crossed.

The blog’s title will no doubt be easily deciphered by most folks who find there way here. It just seemed apposite given the feel and scope I’m aiming for, namely reviews and the occasional longer thought piece. Thanks for joining me in this venture and I hope you’ll stop back frequently to see how this joint develops.