Friday, February 26, 2010

Steve Swell's Slammin' the Infinite - 5000 Poems (Not Two)

One of the frequent recent criticisms of free jazz argues that there’s just too much of it available on record. Musicians who work within the idiom are accused of placing fecundity above quality control. Trombonist Steve Swell candidly cops to the charge in the brief notes accompanying this fourth release by one of his working bands. Employing a Walt Whitman essay as inspiration, he uses the analogy of sowing many seeds in the hope that at least a fraction will yield a nourishing crop. Passion and personal commitment are cornerstones of Swell’s music. He conveys these traits nakedly through his horn without reserve and is perfectly comfortable with the probability that not all of what he comes up with will hit the mark. That stripe of honesty can be off-putting and easily confused with ham-fisted self-indulgence. Close attention to his music counters that conception by exposing a degree of detail and diversity at odds with the typical free jazz stereotypes.

Swell’s colleagues in his quintet are all long-standing. Multi-reedist Sabir Mateen is the elder of the ensemble and adds a vibrant array of tonal colors on saxophones, clarinet and flute. Pianist John Blum, just recently recipient of renewed exposure via handful of new recordings of his own, has a performance resume dating back decades. Bassist Matthew Heyner, Mateens’s comrade in the erstwhile quartet Test, comes out of his mentor William Parker’s shadow. Lastly but not least, there’s drummer Klaus Kugel whose credentials are similarly ironclad with a percussive approach that balances muscle with poise. All five favor long-form collective improvisation and Swell’s seven compositions are geared toward just that. His writing isn’t just window-dressing to hang wooly solos on and there’s a natural flow between most ensemble and individual statements.

“Sketch 1” divides the band into pairings with Mateen’s flute dancing in extended concert with Blum’s kinetic piano. Swell and Kugel follow for another conversation. Far from the odd man out, Heyner concludes the piece with a solo statement steeped in stirring extended arco techniques. Heyner’s strings are also instrumental in setting the mood on “Where are the Heartfelt?’ and “My Myth of Perfection”, setting up a turgid ostinato on the first and scything high harmonics on the second to set off a slow boil. “Sketch 2” sprawls to six minutes shy of a half hour and it’s here where a little self-editing could’ve been beneficial, but the players otherwise make the most of the space and time accorded. At nearly eighty minutes all told the program isn’t a short trip, but true to Swell’s stated intent there’s plenty to see and hear along the way.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tom Harrell – Roman Nights (High Note)

As a proud proponent of the “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” philosophy to music-making, trumpeter Tom Harrell reconvenes his working band for this latest release. It’s the same quintet on his last several records for High Note and a compelling example of the sort of dividends divisible from longevity with such an aggregation. These players know each other well and that camaraderie breeds a constructive shared confidence.

While both the instrumentation and music could easily construe as conventional, Harrell hardly seems bothered by the potential summation. He’s been in the game for so long and paid more than his share of dues, personal and professional that proving himself at this point in his career isn’t even of peripheral importance. Dig it or don’t, I’m going to do it the way I want to, seems to be his working credo. Fortunately, with the financial and artistic stability afforded by a continuing arrangement with High Note, any dark days seem well relegated to the rearview.

Tenorist Wayne Escoffery, who leads his own groups on the label, recalls a certain elder Wayne in his propulsive phrasing, which spools in close concert with the leader through melodically-charged serpentine coils. Harrell’s long been enamored of hard- and postbop forms that reached their apex in the mid- to late-Sixties and as with the past albums, those harmonic idioms directly inform his compositions and playing. Heroes Hubbard, Dorham and, perhaps most prominently, Baker are audible in his argot but Harrell is still very much his own man. Pianist Danny Grissett officiates the rhythm section on mainly to acoustic keys, but also breaks out the Rhodes on four numbers. Bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jonathan Blake complete the band and exude enthusiastic energy analogous with the others.

“Storm Approaching” and “Let the Children Play” work off vibrant hardbop structures, following familiar paths but offering winsome music on the passion and purpose of delivery. The title piece speaks to Harrell’s sublime facility with ballad form, his burnished exploration of a Milesean melody bracketed by warm comping from Grissett. Other standouts include the descending line “Agua” and the modal minefield “Bird in Flight”. While this album is certainly of a piece with the passel that’s come prior in Harrell’s recent discography, it’s still a satisfying listen and proof that playing what you know intimately needn’t be an instant recipe for redundancy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sylvie Courvoisier - Mark Feldman Quartet - To Fly to Steal (Intakt)

Partners in both music and in life, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman share the marquee on their latest collaboration. Drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Thomas Morgan aren’t just along for the ride and receptive to a deep rapport, the four create music of superlative communication and cohesion. Their configuration invites immediate chamber associations and much of the interplay leans closer to classical than jazz in general cast, but extemporaneous expression remains an integral element with starched-collar propriety left at the door. The co-leaders contribute two compositions apiece and the remaining three tracks unfold as collective improvisations. As is common credo with Intakt, the fidelity of the recording is dazzlingly clear with everything audible down to the most minute gesture and inflection.

Courvoisier’s “Messiaenesque” finds Feldman in full-bloom virtuosic form, his bow play a blur of pitch-perfect swoops and glissandi complemented by the pianist’s close commentary. The name-checked composer comes to life in the violinist’s sweeping baroque scribbles that arc and angle against a tumbling pulse of bass and drums. Courvoisier and Morgan converse in minimalist increments on conclusion of “Whispering Glades” as Feldman and Hemingway bear silent witness. On Feldman’s “The Good Life”, Hemingway and Morgan converge on a wobbly snippet of jazz swing later annexing much of the piece for extended improvised dialogues punctuated by fleeting theme statements by violin and piano.

Feldman’s “Five Senses of Keen” if full of space and quiet. Courvoisier strums delicately at the interior of her instrument, generating a delicate zither-like cascade at the edge of audibility. Hemingway again sits silent for much of the duration, adding muted accents on shakers and light-touch sticks in a canny less-is-more fashion. The collectively improvised “Fire, Fist and Bestial Wall” unfolds as an impish dance between the participants that becomes feverish in its final minutes but falters in an oddly reticent finish, one of the rare moments where the players don’t sound in accord. Courvoisier’s closing title piece takes wing on a dark-tinged Old World theme, winding down in a tinkling denouement of pattering sticks and keys. Fearlessly willing to explore practically every permutation of its instrumentation, Feldman and Courvoisier have found a vehicle with Hemingway and Morgan brimming with further possibility.

ROW: The Staple Singers - Great Day (Milestone)

Culled from three early-Sixties Riverside platters and originally released in 1975 as a double LP, this compilation visits the Staples in iterations before their Stax ascendancy. Roebuck’s ringing, tremolo-rich guitar-picking is front and center assisted by several small rhythm combos that include either bass or organ and drums. Sister Mavis handles the leads with her father while siblings Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne cover back-up and interject syncopated handclaps. Most of the cuts clock in the 2-3 minute range, short and irrefutably sweet in their synthesis of stripped down gospel, R&B and blues elements. There’s not really a bum track in the bunch and none of the production excesses that would erode the edge on some of their later forays into sanctified funk and soul. The harmonies positively soar on heartfelt songs like “Gloryland” and “Do You Know Him” and even shibboleths like “Swing Down, Chariot” and “Motherless Children” get fresh coats of consecrated paint. A dubious bonus is the long-winded liners scripted by one Stanley Crouch circa ‘75 who just can’t help himself in using the Staples’ music as a springboard for his predictable polemics on race, politics and African American artistic superiority. Fortunately, the inclusive and uplifting sounds summarily stuff a welcome sock in Stanley’s self-serving screed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Jon Irabagon - The Observer (Concord)

Dream session fantasies are still favorite fodder of many jazz players and interviewers alike. In the case of saxophonist Jon Irabagon a fantasy came true thanks to well-deserved win at the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone competition. Part of the prize purse was a Concord recording date with the players of his choosing. Irabagon, an improviser renowned recently for his various freer leaning projects, chose fittingly against type. A closer examination of his biography reveals that such a move is hardly out of character considering his eclectic resume includes past gigs with artists as disparate as Tom Harrell, The Pointer Sisters and Billy Joel.

Pianist Kenny Barron heads up his chosen rhythm section also comprised of bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis. Having participated in countless sessions the three veterans embody a gold standard in the postbop milieu and are well up to the challenges Irabagon poses for them. Bertha Hope replaces Barron for a duo interpretation of her husband Elmo’s “Barfly”. Further bucking stylistic prejudices, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a player in a position similar to Irabagon’s a decade ago, guests on two tracks, the lovely “Joy’s Secret” and the hardbop “Big Jim’s Twins”. Irabagon plays mainly alto, hoisting tenor for just two out of the ten pieces. As icing on the laudatory cake, Rudy Van Gelder handles the recording chores though his presence isn’t a completely propitious one.

A few minor foibles mar what is otherwise a marvelous session, namely Lewis’ clumsily intrusive hi-hat on the opening “January Dream” and the heavy compression Van Gelder assigns to Barron’s keys on tracks like Tom McIntosh’s “Cup Bearers” and “Acceptance” that make them sound akin to a narrowly-applied Rhodes. Listening to Irabagon repeatedly put his partners through a playful but demanding set of paces brings to mind Eric Kloss and his youthful meeting with Miles’ crew of Corea, Holland and DeJohnette. This date conveys a comparable excitement as the elders bear proud witness to a delegate of the younger generation blowing the hell out of his horns and doing so in a manner cognizant of the pantheon that precedes him. Most importantly, it blows apart any attempts to place Irabagon in an idiomatic box and discloses the breadth of talent at his disposal.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ari Roland - New Music (Smalls)

Bassist Ari Roland doesn’t mince words with the title of his latest disc. The summarizing phrase is succinct just like his preferred style of soloing on his instrument. While the seven compositions are indeed fresh creations, they still align quite closely with the extant occupants in his songbook. That familiarity extends to his sidemen as well, players who are equal-footing peers rather than subordinates. Saxophonist Chris Byars fields both alto and tenor to the session, playing each in the by turns darting and droll, dry-toned language that is his common parlance. Pianist Sascha Perry and drummer Keith Balla don’t break with established character either, Perry, in particular, showing his prowess when its time to comp. The pleasingly executed program is a jazz corollary to comfort food, warm and comparatively conventional in a positive connotation like a plate of home-cooked meat and potatoes.

As with past outings, Roland sticks to his stock strategy of pizzicato in the ensemble passages and arco for the solo improvisations. His sharp, see-sawing strokes on the latter passages still manage to swing despite the relative rigidity of their implementation. Balla switches deftly from sticks to brushes for such occasions, enhancing the beat with swishing accents. Despite the reliable musicianship, the tunes tend to follow similar structures and pacing. The first three pieces cycle smoothly from head to solos, concluding with slight variations on a series of drum-tight exchanges between Balla and the others. His breaks are crisp and propulsive and his comrades respond in kind, but by the third iteration of the basic itinerary on the cleverly-titled “The Finder of Horsehair” the set starts to tip toward tedium. Fortunately, “Station Blues” slows the tempo and open things up, Roland bending bow with leavened urgency and achieving a less astringent tonality in the process.

While the program doesn’t depart dramatically from Roland’s previous records, it still constitutes a satisfying listen. The affinity these musicians share, built from countless hours on the bandstand together, is something of an endangered quality in today’s jazz. The sad news that the Smalls label is also imperiled makes it even easier to ignore the slight sense of déjà vu that pervades the session. Better to have a new date by these players that follows established protocols than none at all.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Michaël Attias - Renku in Coimbra (Clean Feed)

New York-based saxophonist Michaël Attias has a sound steeped in a somewhat unexpected amalgam of sources. He’s obviously enamored of the free jazz canon and players like Jimmy Lyons and John Tchicai, but there’s also a feathery, aerated inflection to his phrasing that obliquely recalls the Cool and West Coast schools of 50s jazz and specifically players like Lee Konitz and Art Pepper. This set, recorded during a three-night stand in Portugal by his quintet in the summer of 2008, pares that group down to a trio for an exploration of six originals as well as Konitz’s “Thingin’” and Lyons’ “Sorry”.

The collaborative Japanese poetry form referenced in the disc’s title is a handy analogue to the ensemble’s dynamic and sound. Bassist John Hébert is Attias’ shadow, his accompaniment and counterpoint so closely aligned with the saxophonist that borders on the extrasensory. Drummer Statoshi Takeishi plays his kit with an ear and touch aligned towards nuance and pacing. Gongs, shakers and other percussion regularly inform the foreground of his patterns, enhancing with color and shading the supple rhythms he sculpts with sticks. The pair’s repartee in the initial minutes of “Do & the Birds” coalesces into a loping processional of bulbous and brittle bass manipulations and muted percussion play that Attais eventually glides across.

Pianist Russ Lossing pops up on fleeting “Fenix Culprit”, changing the chemistry quite dramatically with increased density and momentum. Attias hardens his attack as Takeishi and Hébert work up a heavy rhythmic froth, but the four retreat into pallid tension and release in the piece’s finale. That taste of more aggressive interplay also informs the comparatively tumultuous Lyons’ cover and a genuine groove builds out of the lush back and forth that propels “Universal Constant” but much of the set adheres to a conversely temperate itinerary. Tenorist Tony Malaby, the last member of the quintet, is absent and it’s hard not to pine for his presence given the spark Lossing brings with a brief cameo. Summing up this appraisal with a superficial sports metaphor, the set’s not a slam-dunk, but rather a solid basket from the post.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lee Konitz & Martial Solal - Star Eyes 1983 (hatOLOGY)

Outside of a solo performance context, memorable jazz improvisation hinges heavily on interpersonal chemistry. Lee Konitz knows this recipe better than most. He’s been a professional improviser for 60+ years and participated in recording sessions numbering well into the triple digits. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you don’t. Who have with you plays a large part in the outcome.

I had the misfortune of catching him several years ago on an off night in the company of a lackadaisical Twin Cities rhythm section that couldn’t light an improvisational fire to save their skins. They gamely ventured through a book of standards, but Konitz clearly outclassed them from the onset. He could hardly mask displeasure through a series of truncated solos and a frustratingly succinct set time. This German concert with French pianist Martial Solal, now in its third iteration on the Hat label, represents the opposite end of the quality spectrum. It’s one of the highpoints of each man’s discography and a disc I routinely seek out when in need of a platter to initiate a skeptical jazz novice to the pleasures of superlative improvisation.

The exact count on how many times Konitz and Solal have recorded together is difficult to quantify, but their performances, dating back to the late-60s, are likely several times as many. At the time of this 1983 meeting the well of shared experience ran deep and it shows from the opening rendering of “Just Friends” onward. Konitz had played these standards so many times they were practically in his blood. Even the solo original “April” springboards from familiar chord terrain. Solal’s given name is such a playful misnomer when juxtaposed against his ebullient and inviting piano style, particularly on his own “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur”, which he realizes sans his partner. Residing benevolently over eighty-eight keys he creates orchestral-rich accompaniment for Konitz’s melodic musings that never fails in its innate musicality.

Both players actualize their ideas with the dexterity and accuracy of surgeons, cutting through the familiar connotations of the tunes and getting at fresh harmonic viscera beneath. Even with the supreme skill on near-continuous display, there’s nothing sterile or academic about their clever variations and interpolations. “Body & Soul” embodies a chestnut cracked countless times, but Konitz somehow finds something new under the wizened shell through his unraveling of the theme. Solal practices similar resuscitative powers on a 10-minute safari through “What’s New”. The awestruck condition referenced in the disc’s title is a natural payoff of each and every audience with this superb set.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Charles Evans & Neil Shah - Live at Saint Stephens (Hot Cup)

Friends for over fifteen years, Charles Evans and Neil Shah have a shared history that extends well beyond the musical. Their rich rapport rests at the core of this sublime duo concert recorded within the capacious confines of a church in western Pennsylvania in January of last year. Evans supplied the open-ended compositions, the first two broken into parts, but Shah’s role isn’t simply supportive. The two musicians work in keenly close collusion, leading and receding as both the music and the moment dictate to create a recital that transcends the economy of its instrumentation.

Evans’ disposition on baritone saxophone is all-inclusive. An earlier solo release of his carried the title King of All Instruments and in his hands the controversial claim comes across as no idle boast. At various junctures he references the genteel purr of Mulligan, the bluesy brashness of Adams and the pan-register facility of Bluiett. His sweet, aerated lines on the first part of “On Tone Yet” could almost be mistaken for an alto or a clarinet. The resonant surroundings of the performance space act as a natural amplifier for his woollier guises, imbuing sporadic bleats and honks with a grand sense of girth. Shah conveys comparable range at the keys shifting from a skeletal cadence on the piece’s second part to a dense, pedal-boosted display of emotive lyricism in its final third.

The concert’s second half gives way to a series of shorter pieces starting with “Mono Monk”, a ruminative dialogue that taps the titular composer much more in spirit rather than sound. Shah brings to bear more canny pedal sustain for the lovely ballad “An Die Fliegenden Fische” while Evans traffics in the smooth tenor register through his big horn. “What Worked, What Didn’t, What Wouldn’t, What Would’ve” caps the set in humorous fashion though its title is a summation of the set as a whole only in the first phrase. Adding to the poignancy of the performance, Evans and Shah’s high school music teacher was in the audience and would sadly pass away soon after. The set is a fitting tribute to his influence and proof positive that he did a fine job in mentoring both players on their musical paths.

ROW: Joe Pass & Niels-Henning Ørsed Pedersen - Chops (Pablo)

Shorthand I use more than I should, it’s still one that succinctly encapsulates a musician’s skill comparative to his or her peers. A person would be hard-pressed to find a guitarist and bassist with more conventional chops than the pairing on this particular Pablo disc. Pass and Pedersen were so formidable on their respective axes that critics used it as slight to suggest repeated cases of flash sacrificing substance. That charge is certainly arguable, but this set summarily torpedoes it in my opinion. Setting up shop in a London studio in the winter of ‘78, the dynamic duo stride, glide and spar through ten tracks, all standards save for the improvised “5 pound Blues”. Blue plate bop specials “Oleo” and “Yardbird Suite” find them chasing each other’s tails with split-second reversals and having a ball. The ballads “Have You Met Miss Jones”, “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” dial back the daring displays of dexterity for more contemplative stripe of communion. Pedersen’s strings exude that fat, viscous amplification that was a Pablo staple of the era and the two are frequently the aural equivalent of Laurel and Hardy in terms of relative tonal girth. Both men participated in their fair share of phone-it-in sessions where partners weren’t up to par and they were free to coast. This certainly isn’t one of them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ernie Krivda - November Man (CIMP)

Saxophonist Ernie Krivda remains something of a lonely outlier in the CIMP catalog. Where the majority of the label’s nearly three hundred releases to date favor freer leanings, Krivda hews closer to older conventions in his improvisational style. Postbop-derived melody and rhythm are regular components of his extemporaneous language and his working quintet wouldn’t be out of place on an imprint like Steeplechase or Criss Cross. All this isn’t to categorize his music as colorless or quotidian. To the contrary, Krivda funnels a very personal philosophy through the mouthpiece of his horn, one that welcomes experimentation and risk while retaining fealty to structure and linearity.

Case in question, his eleventh album for the Cadence family, a solo affair that finds him wrestling with the challenges of expression sans accompaniment and coming up with a testimony completely his own. Twelve pieces explore a dozen themes and several magnitudes more in the way of variations. There’s a quaver to Krivda’s tone, not quite a cry, but a translucent vibrato that curiously recalls Ayler at his most tame. His phrasing veers purposefully from lush legato arcs to sharp staccato asides though even at his most expressive there’s an underlying structural integrity to his improvisations. Titles like “Joe, Dave, and the Weasel” and “The Buckeye Road Dance” hint at evasively at intimate referents behind the imagery and Krivda offers brief explanatory tidbits in his portion of the notes, but the music dispenses poignancy through dry-toned, gradually-paced peregrinations.

If there’s a drawback to set it lies in the length of the recital, a robust and occasionally taxing 70-plus minutes that ultimately begins to take on the feel of a hermetic experience. After a good hour, Krivda’s themes start to blur together and it takes a bit of patience to stay the course in a single sitting. Krivda hardly sounds concerned, his concentration devoted instead to getting it all out. His first stab at a solo session three months prior reportedly yielded useable results, but Krivda opted to shelve it in favor of this second attempt. That admirable sense of wanting to get it right pervades the music and it’s a direct reflection of his staying power as an improviser.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Joëlle Léandre & George Lewis -- Transatlantic Visions (Rogue Art)

A conversation between double bass and trombone might seem like a dubious combination at first glance, but in the hands of Joëlle Léandre and George Lewis the instruments are anything but oil and water. Their meeting was one of the most inspired ideas of the 2009 Vision Festival, an annual gathering that has fielded accusations of insularity and programmatic repetition over the years. This set is handy ammunition in shooting down those slights since neither Léandre nor Lewis is a regular member of the improvising community at the festival’s core. The speed with which the recording acquired circulation is another indication of its enduring quality.

Léandre and Lewis engage in five duets and a single solo piece apiece. One of the most striking facets of the performance is the vocal elements inherent to their improvisations. Lewis filters his voice directly through is instrument, trading in eructative polyphonics and metallic mutterings. There’s a delightfully capricious segment of his solo piece where he even approximates beat boxing. Leandre’s voice usually works above and around the resonating body of her instrument, blending with the striated harmonics set into play by her blurring bow or floating apart in a vernacular of constricted cries and sighs. There’s a segment in the pair’s second piece together where her husky exhalations almost sound like Native American chant.

Another remarkable commonality is the complete control of pitch each player commands in relation to instrument. Léandre’s long been one of the most accomplished arco improvisers in existence and her bow work in this context is predictably stunning. Her purely plucked patterns are comparatively fewer in number, but no less varied in their timbral breadth, reaching from skittering high fingerboard patter to deep rumbling thunder. Lewis’ embouchure is impressively malleable in its pursed precision; he blows whinnying chortles and gossamer gusts with equivalent surety. At eight minutes short of an hour, the dialogue feels just the right length, giving room for the players to expound without wearing their animated conference into the ground.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jeremy Pelt - Men of Honor (High Note)

A near-perfect contender for Blind Fold Test bait, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s latest disc is at cursory listen but a half-step removed from the sort of music Shorter and Hancock recorded for Blue Note circa 1963. Bassist Dwayne Burno’s “Backroad” could almost be mistaken as a lost outtake from Night Dreamer. Saxophonist J.D. Allen’s “Brooklyn Bound” sounds like a close cousin to the modal-minded fare on Maiden Voyage. The clincher on the comparisons comes with the realization that Rudy Van Gelder’s fingers are at the studio controls.

Those cosmetic similarities immediately position the band for potential evisceration by those still brandishing knives for the Marsalis brand of jazz classicism, now thankfully on the wane. Initial exposure may even make less biased listeners do a double take in wondering just what exactly Pelt and his partners think they’re bringing to the table in the way of the new. The thing is, new isn’t the name of this particular game.

Once the sense of déjà vu settles in, the music does an exemplary job of dismissing its importance. Pelt and his crew are consummate players, obviously versed in the work of their jazz elders, but also open to influences outside the idiom. Burno joins pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Gerald Cleaver in building a rhythm section of uncommon parity. Pelt and Allen are similarly synchronous as the frontline, harmonizing, sparring and soloing with speed, grace and equal aplomb.

The tunes exude a hardbop pedigree, but the sheer joy and professionalism that the band communicates when playing them quickly becomes the reward in and of itself. Pelt apportions the music in just the right amount so as not to feel staid or overwrought. Several of the pieces challenge the musicians from a technical standpoint with numerous sharp twists and turns, particularly on the heads, but they sustain an overarching mellifluousness and effervescence that counterbalances any semblances of showing off.

Jazz is rife with repertory-influenced projects that mine the past for present-day pleasures. What separates the ore from the pyrite is precisely what Pelt focuses on, playing with personalized verve and precision in a manner that transcends associations while remaining cognizant of their prominence. It’s a philosophy directly reflected in the disc’s title. The Blue Note classics aren’t in any peril of being replaced and most remain readily available. Considering that reality, who outside the curmudgeonly and picayunish would argue against the peaceful coexistence of faithfully constructed progeny?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Free Unfold Trio - Ballades (Ayler)

Three Frenchmen undertake that most familiar of jazz vehicles, the piano trio, but being on Ayler, their findings forego the ordinary in an attempt at something else. EP-sized in length and loosely broken into halves like a vinyl record, the program’s four pieces, though discretely indexed, unfold more like a medley with differences clouded instead of clearly delineated. Theirs is an incremental music, largely free of any kind of countable tempo and gradual in its progress. The pieces approximate ballads more in feel and temperament than actual form or content with themes sketched and stippled rather than expounded in passionately drawn strokes.

Texture factors heavily in the communication, with each man working willingly under self-imposed restraints. Jobic Le Masson fingers his keys in muted stops and starts, sifting over fragments of melody with a gestural deliberateness. Drummer Didier Lasserre scrapes his cymbals and worries his snare with brittle brushwork, his bridled sound here starkly constrastive with the combative persona he adopts on Snus, another recent Alyer release. Bassist Benjamin Duboc tugs hanging tones from his strings that float between wide intervals. The effect is like Bill Evans if refracted through the minimalism of Morton Feldman with space and silence holding as much import as the actual staggered and stunted notes sounded.

The album’s brevity actually works in its favor. Any longer and the restrictive nature of the trio’s agenda would likely begin to wear and abrade. Undertaken on its own terms, the music is an interesting experiment in pinioned improvisation, but in terms of enticing repeat exposure it’s slightly less than successful. One Aymeric Leroy pens an ode of admiration in his liners to the release likening them to soldiers in the shadows. These particular ears don’t completely share the sentiment, wishing for a bit more from what is in the end a rather thin musical gruel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ralph Lalama - The Audience (Mighty Quinn)

How many times has a tenor saxophonist fronted a rhythm section comprised of guitar, bass and drums? When does a particular instrumentation cease yielding interesting results? These are sticky questions unintentionally brought to the fore by this latest outing by veteran saxophonist Ralph Lalama’s quartet. Like their employer, guitarist John Hart, bassist Rick Petrone and drummer Joe Corsello are all solid players. The all complement one another with keen sensitivity and concentrated creativity. Each brings his respective A-game to the session and spurs Lalama to some splendid tenor work that’s at once relaxed and incisive in its dry-toned distillation of past masters. Enthusiastic liner notes by Joe Lovano also help measurably in proving the band’s bonafides.

Still, there’s the persistent realization of a scene that has countless counterparts in the vast annals of jazz. Lalama hardly seems hindered or bothered by that history. He comes to blow and blow he does on a ten song program that touches on hardbop, balladry and even Motown soul. Interspersed between these pieces are opportunities for the leader to dialogue in improvisation with each of his partners. “Jome” and “Ricme”, the pieces with Petrone and Corsello respectively, are particularly effective in this regard, loosening up the participants and sliding over into a loose, quasi-free dialogue.

Hart enjoys equal footing in the solo department, a standing intimated early in the way Lalama defers to him on Wayne Shorter’s “Marie Antoinette”. It’s a rendering that curiously brings to mind Bill Lee’s arrangement in his son Spike’s She’s Gotta Have It, though the melody is explicit in only the opening and closing sections. Hart’s thickly amplified chording on Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For the City” almost sounds like a Hammond B-3, but he dials it back to an almost acoustic delicacy for the disc’s centerpiece “Portrait of Jennie”, a tune that also allows for a gorgeous unaccompanied cadenza by Lalama. The saxophonist nods to Rollins in the finale reading of “I’m an Old Cowhand”, but his version has rounder edges and a more overtly soulful burnish. Quartets of this type may be quantifiably numberless, but Lalama and his colleagues point convincingly to that truth as moot when it comes to possibility of quality music.

ROW: Harvey Scales & the Seven Sounds – Love-itis (Tuff City)

Nearly ubiquitous in his influence, James Brown begat thousands of imitators the world over. One of Milwaukee’s answers to the JB juggernaut was Harvey Scales, a local soul-cum-funk impresario who fronted the alliterative Seven Sounds in the Godfather’s shadow for years. Scales recorded a string of 45s for the local Magic Touch imprint spanning the decade between ’67 and ’77 and this convenient Tuff City comp gathers them all. Many of them promote titular dance crazes with colorful sobriquets like the “Get Down”, “Broadway Freeze”, and my personal favorite “The Yolk”. Scales doesn’t shy away from a playful “flavor of the month” disposability openly denigrating earlier dances in later songs. For instance, “Get Down 1970” summarily relegates the earlier “Get Down” (from ’67) to the dust heap without a second look. Scales seven-piece band is tight and groove-versed starting out in deep JB soul bag and flirting with disco funk on later cuts like “Groove on Sexy Lady” and “Love Thief”. Snatches of the signature Stax sound and even a little bit of Curtis-era Impressions also enhance the agenda. Taken piecemeal or in a single feast, it’s quite a satisfying menu and a damn fine party platter to boot.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Connie Crothers & Michael Bisio - Session at 475 Kent (Mutable)

Considered something of a Tristanoite in her early years, pianist Connie Crothers has long since supplanted the mantle of her mentor for a style all her own. This challenging and worthwhile session, recorded at her loft space in the company of bassist Michael Bisio, summarizes just how far she’s come from those formative stages. Bisio might not seem like an apposite partner at first blush, but his full contact, “kitchen sink” approach to his instrument is exactly the sort of creative foil Crothers thrives on (cf. her ’82 duets with Max Roach).

The duo engages on four lengthy slabs of improvised music, the shortest two clocking in at over a dozen minutes apiece and the final consuming third of an hour and what has to be a kilo of horsehair burned up in Bisio’s bow. Each spools out like a stream-of-shared-consciousness conversation and even when the pair peels off in separate directions for stretches, an underlying anatomy of continuity perseveres. Artist Jeff Schlanger’s cover painting (a welcome return of his Music Witness work to a circulation forum it’s well-suited too) gives a handy visual analogue to the combination dynamism and prismatic color on display.

There’s always been density and loquacity to Crothers playing and both traits are in full bloom in these intimate, highly resonant surroundings. Her pedal-swollen patterns on “Improvisation #7”, the disc’s third piece, fill up her corner performance space as Bisio builds a complex ostinato via furiously perambulating fingers. A sawing drone he sets up on the second excursion, “Improvisation #5”, complements Crothers alternately pellucid and opaque clusters and stabbing accents. The brooding clouds break halfway through with Bisio turning to stampeding, reverberating pizzicato and Crothers crafting lyrical right hand motifs amidst rumbling left hand anchors, losing nothing in the way of temerity in the bargain. By the track’s ominous end it’s hard not to imagine Bisio’s digits bleeding profusely and Crothers at risk for repetitive stress injuries.

The two move together at speeds and moods varying from blur to crawl, but allow no dust to settle in the cracks of their communication, each quickly adjusting to the other, but refusing to become bogged down in diverting niceties or affectation. Every shift in their dialogue is audible and mappable, but it soon becomes preferable to simply allow the music’s immersive effect to take hold. With close-knit and demanding interplay of this caliber the mind naturally wonders about the unaccounted for improvisations that fall between the numbers ascribed to those issued. With luck they’re of comparable quality and will see release sometime soon.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Omri Zeigele Where's Africa Trio - Can Walk on Sand (Intakt)

Altoist Omri Ziegele’s Where’s Africa project could easily be renamed “Here’s Africa” what with the inspired addition of drummer Makaya Ntshoko to its ranks. Ntshoko was a member of the celebrated cadre of South African expatriates that included players like Louis Moholo, Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyani. Breaking ranks with his countrymen, he ended up settling in Stockholm and became house drummer at the Café Montmarte for a time in the late-60s. In the years since, he’s gigged around Europe, most recently releasing an excellent set by his working band The New Tsotsis on Steeplechase last year. Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer, herself no stranger to the variegated musical traditions of the Europe and Africa, completes the core trio and comes across with some of her most melody-minded playing of recent memory.

The name of the game for this intensely enjoyable outing is ebullience and effervescence. Ziegele selects an eclectic songbook to accompany three of his originals that spans Oliver Nelson to Chris McGregor to Dollar Brand. Most, like the 39-second sprint through Ornette’s “Giggin’”, are mere morsels, but others like the sumptuous duo rendering of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” have plenty of meat on the bone. Ziegele sounds little like Lacy, but his treatment of the tune, mirrors the composer’s famous forays with the former Steve Lackritz in structure and temperament. Solos by he and Schweizer bookend an elegant middle passage of close colloquy. Saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder guests on three of the pieces, his piquant soprano and alto especially effective enhancing harmonies on the two slices of Dyani-penned township bop that close the set out.

Fidelity is bright, clean and intimate in its capture and there are moments when Ziegele’s colorful phrasing almost borders on the shrill, so sharp-toned is his sound. Ntshoko is a valuable rhythmic rudder, switching smoothly between mallets and sticks and swinging with a supple balance of power and restraint. Schweizer is similarly suited and sounds as if she’s having a ball negotiating the structures of the songs. The one potential sore-thumb piece is Ziegele’s solo reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime” where he interjects sung-shouted snatches of the song’s initial two verses between oblique variations on the theme. It’s a raw, emotions-on-sleeve performance, partly at odds with the polished beauty that’s come prior, but that’s probably the point. The three wrap up their conclave in well under an hour and that decision for relative brevity works in their favor too, priming the palate for what's hopefully more to come.

Friday, February 5, 2010

McPhee/ Brötzmann/ Kessler/ Zerang – The Damage Is Done (Not Two)

A lesser-noted boon of the Brötzmann Tentet is the several smaller groupings born out of the larger long-standing aggregation. Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit III with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang is one such collective. This pairing of the Poughkeepsie Powerhouse and the Wuppertalian Warhorse with a pared down version of the Tentet engine room is another. The group’s two previous recordings on hatOLOGY and Okka Disk were studio and concert affairs, respectively. This one captures them again in concert at Krakow’s Alchemia, March of 2008, in a program that sprawls and caterwauls noisily across two discs. It’s a notable conclave for several reasons; foremost for the focus it accords Brötzmann’s alto and McPhee’s trumpet, though other instruments in each man’s arsenal also come into productive play.

Running contrary to McPhee’s lead listing in the line-up, Brötzmann dominates much of the set and is even more obstreperous than usual. On the 30-minute title piece it sounds as if a swarm of bees has nested in his facial hair, his shrieks and howls on alto spraying the audience with some of his most unhinged playing of recent memory. McPhee trails close at his flank on trumpet, adding crenellated textures from a slightly recessed position. The stack-blowing German hardly seems to notice and the two arrive at fleeting snatches of harmony almost by accident as Kessler and Zerang churn and boil beneath them.

Practically chomping at the bit, Brötzmann muscles in on his colleagues’ subsequent solo passages with no compunction. They wisely capitulate and despite a few asides into comparative contemplation, it’s a bruising nosebleed of a piece for much of its duration. Two thirds in, opposing altos exchange salvos over a roiling rhythm until Brötzmann abruptly goes silent, leaving McPhee to dig deep into his spiritual bag sans accompaniment. It’s a startling reversal in tack, especially in light of the reed savagery meted out earlier, and evidence that even after a half century in the free jazz frontlines, the German still has the ability to pull the rug out on listener expectations.

“Alchemia Souls” initially pairs Brötzmann’s recalcitrant tarogato with McPhee’s trumpet and opens up valuable space for the rhythm section. The German eventually turns to fulminating tenor and McPhee joins him on same for a jousting close. “A Temporary Trip” starts the second disc as the frontline hoisting clarinets and twining on a vaguely North African kernel of melody. “With Charon” pulls liberally from the Ayler Brothers playbook, alto and trumpet blasting through a martial folk rondo as the partners converge on a lurching akimbo groove. The finale, “Into the Hades” is oddly subdued compared to much that transpires prior, the two reedmen rejoining on tenors through a sorrow-laden threnody. Kessler and Zerang are troopers throughout, meeting the onslaught head-on, but also adapting beautifully to the periodic interludes of brooding quiescence. Even with the aforementioned skew, this band is at heart an association of equals.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Jesse Stacken & Kirk Knuffke - Mockingbird (Steeplechase)

If a Mount Rushmore for jazz is ever erected, Ellington and Monk will surely be among the countenances carved in the rock. Practically every player who chooses the idiom tackles tunes from one or the other at one time or another. That Everest-sized edifice of precedence makes the prospect of devoting an entire album to the composers’ works all the more prone to redundancy. Pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke greet any warnings against such an action with a collective shrug. Both have valuable experience playing in free settings, Knuffke in particular on a string of albums for Clean Feed, 577 and KMB labels. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking serves them well in this context as they interpret ten tunes, seven by Monk and three pulled from Ducal suites, in front of an audience at the Bloomingdale School of Music where Stacken teaches.

The duo configuration of piano and trumpet is hardly novel, having its recorded jazz inception in the Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines masterpiece “Weatherbird”. Other partnerships have followed, perhaps most notably and prolifically through the pairing of Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins in an initial 1955 meeting and subsequent reunions over the following decades. The has even greater similarities to Braff’s later modernist-leaning conclave with Roger Kellaway given the Jaki Byard-like breadth Stacken brings to his constructions on the keys. Knuffke echoes Braff too in a warm, rounded tone and supple phrasing that parallels the elder man’s preferred parlance on cornet. Reference points are superficial though as Stacken and Knuffke speak their own shared language devoid of slavish regurgitation.

Both men are avid conversationalists in counterpoint, their colorful layering on a reading of “Teo” evincing just how complete their rapport. They rightly take clever liberties with the tunes, fixing Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder” with stark tango-style syncopation and slowing “Misterioso” to a languorous crawl. The lyrical rendering of “Reflections” is outright gorgeous and the pair follows it perfectly with the bouncing joviality of “Skippy”, Stacken’s off-handed slide into rambunctious stride beneath Knuffke’s burnished staccato. Most importantly, they take their time with the pieces and that unhurried pace pays huge dividends in the amount of space it opens up for the repartee. At just south of 50-minutes the set’s a bit short by Steeplechase standards and as Stacken notes in the notes, a few mistakes occur, but damn if they don’t matter a whit when the give and take that surrounds them is this good.

[Steeplechase titles are available direct through Stateside AT prodigy DOT net]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Various - New England Conservatory - ART-I-FACTS (NEC)

Jazz education remains an embattled institution. From perpetual under-funding to the dogged belief that improvisation is better learned on the bandstand than in the lecture hall, obstacles endure. The New England Conservatory is one of the few academic bastions to weather the prevailing storm relatively unscathed. The school’s sterling reputation rests largely on the quality of its faculty, an eclectic roster that has employed some of the guiding lights in the music over the past 40 years. This recent sampler presents an audio scrapbook of some of the highlights of their work over that span and it makes for an edifying experience, start to finish.

The biggest treasure amongst the fourteen tracks for my biased ears is “Zeibekiko”, a Greek folk song given the royal microtonal treatment by Joe Maneri and small ensemble accompaniment of piano, acoustic guitar and dumbek circa the winter of ‘76. Maneri glides through the joyously keening theme, lathering on tangy vibrato with his licorice stick in an ebullient display of barely-tethered enthusiasm. Hearing him revel in the sort of rustic fare that was a staple of his youth makes me pine immediately for more as well as wonder what other wonders are stored in the NEC library.

Solos by Steve Lacy, Jaki Byard and Ran Blake, each plying idiosyncratic renditions of Monk tunes, tie for a close second. Lacy’s performance poignantly dates from shortly prior to his passing while Byard’s genie-in-a-bottle version of “’Round Midnight” is anything but another Seventies artifact. Blake tackles the same tune nearly three decades later and makes for a fascinating A/B comparison of impressionist versus expressionist approaches. All three performances are commedable examples in how the best jazz is personal.

The NEC Jazz Orchestra does Byard the honor of covering his “Aluminum Baby”, though it’s more a feature for band’s bassist rather than drummer Harvey Mason as stated on the tray card. Fellow faculty members Rakalam Bob Moses and Bob Brookmeyer also receive nods with stirring renditions of “Reverence” and “Cameo”, respectively. Rounding out the large ensembles represented, the school’s Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra and Ragtime Ensembles each conducted by Gunther Schuller, make book-ending forays through “Cottontail” and “Maple Leaf Rag” and demonstrate viable alternatives to the starched-collar Lincoln Center route.

On the small group side, George Garzone fronts a trio with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Moses, deconstructing Coltrane’s “India” while students tenorist Sam Decker, guitarist Will Graefe and bassist Nate Therrien pay tribute to Jimmy Giuffre in a stirring trio translation of “The Train and the River”. The only track that falls a bit flat through pop jazz proclivities is that of vocalist Dominique Eade, the first student to graduate in the school’s Third Stream program. In sum, this collection does just what a successful sampler should: it effectively maps its subject matter while whetting listener appetites for more.

ROW: Trio San Antonio (Arhoolie)

Norteño music saved my marriage! Well, not really, but it did get me in tight with my father-in-law, an Irishman enamored of all things Mexican and an unabashed accordion fanatic. Our mutual love for conjuntos worked as instant common ground and a painless bonding agent. This set by Fred Zimmerle’s Trio San Antonio just might have been the clincher. Recorded by Arhoolie’s indefatigable Chris Stratchwitz in Zimmerle’s living room in 1974, it’s 22 hard swinging slices of stripped down cancions and polka. Zimmerle’s a decent technician on the accordion, but the real sparkplug of the band is Juan Viesca on bull fiddle. Nicknamed, El Rayo de Contrabajo (The Thunderbolt of the String Bass) he more than lives up to the moniker, slapping the strings and body of his instrument with a piledriver fervency that approximates a love child of Cachao and Mingus weaned on classic rockabilly. Neither Zimmerle nor his compadres are much in the way of polished crooners, preferring to belt out lyrics of loves lost and life’s travails in their best cantina-friendly unisions, but its that unvarnished energy that gives the music its unassailable charm. Just add tequila and lime.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chris Greene Quartet – Merge (Single Malt)

The ancient conundrum “What is Jazz?” crops up in my consciousness whenever I come in contact with an album like this one by Chicago-based saxophonist Chris Greene. Largely unanswerable, it still serves as a sobering reminder that even though I fancy myself an avid and open-minded listener, there are still vast swathes of the genre that fall outside the scope of my taste and expertise. Greene has a lot going for him. The informative liners penned by one of his former music employers that delinate many of the particulars including a strong sense of self, a solid work ethic, and a serious dedication toward developing his craft. Not surprisingly, his working band contains players with compatible priorities. At least on paper they seem like a lock for listener time investment.

The specifics of tracks like the album’s opener “Good Riddance!” swiftly summarize my chief stumbling block. The overarching mood of the piece is closer to David Sanborn than Dave Koz, but the tune still strikes a sour note to these synapses as overly evincing a steep debt to urban contemporary fusion. Sanded down funk rhythms, heavy R&B-inflected repetitions and watercolor synth washes ultimately sink the song despite some strapping blowing by the leader and some sharp retro-Rhodes work by Damian Espinosa. Following in short order comes strike two. “You’ll Thank Me Later” is almost metronomic in its lockstep beat and strictly down the center tenor lead.

Things improve markedly with “M. Tati”, which reveals Greene as both a French film fan and a proficient purveyor of acoustic postbop. Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” is stocked with a similar pantry of standard-friendly jazz chops that give Greene’s gentler ballad interests free rein and the original “Coffee ‘n’ Scotch” mimics the palate-pleasing mixture of its title, moving from Latin meter to a loping straight blues. Applying more weight to the negative end of the scale is the saccharine soprano poundcake “In Confidence”, baked with another custom backbeat by drummer Tyrone Blair that leaves little space for nuance and the closing arrangement of Madonna’s “Borderline” finds the band regrettably channeling their inner early-80s lounge act. With pros and cons counted, the conclusion is Greene isn’t my preferred musical pigment, but if the liners are an accurate affidavit of his prospects he doesn’t need me in his corner anyway.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dave Stryker – One for Reedus (Steeplechase)

Who or what is Reedus? It’s a natural question when registering the title of guitarist Dave Stryker’s latest date for Steeplechase. Those in the know will recognize the surname of the original drummer in Stryker’s organ trio, a colleague who sadly passed away suddenly just prior to the session. Steve Williams took over kit duties and the date went forward with a newly dedicatory focus.

A quick tabulation reveals it as Stryker’s 16th session for Steeplechase, proof again of the Danish label’s stalwart stewardship of those players selected for membership. Much like tenure in academia, the downside to that security can sometimes manifest in a difficult to resist tendency toward water-treading. Stryker’s process with plectrum is a model of modern mainstream jazz guitar: a pleasant admixture of Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino that jibes fluently with the eight-song program under the trio’s scrutiny even if it hardly ruffles any collars.

Stryker is no stranger to organ trios having recorded with the likes of Larry Goldings and Joey DeFrancesco on the Danish label alone. Digging back a bit deeper into his weighty discography uncovers sessions with Jack McDuff and the Smiths Jimmy and Lonnie. Jared Gold, the cat handling the keys on this date, is at least a generation or three younger than those acknowledged masters but counts impressive sideman work with the likes of John Abercrombie and Oliver Lake among his credentials. Williams’ bonafides are a bit harder to quantify, but his loose, canny stick play fits in right in with the relaxed “blowing session” demeanor of the date.

A borrowing from the Wonka fake book, “Pure Imagination” is easy pickings in both senses of the phrase and Stryker parses the sing-song melody without breaking a sweat. His own “Burn for Ern” ups the stakes slightly with a faster tempo and an extended display of single-note dexterity. The title track siphons from the trio’s soul jazz tank with Gold coming on like vintage Don Patterson and Stryker slathering on gravy-thick chording against Williams’ feather-touch backbeat. “For All We Know” is similarly outfitted, but cooking commences at a comparably slow simmer.

The session’s best cuts are the trio’s readings of Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan” and the Wayne Shorter showpiece “Nefertiti” where ripe modal structures open up the playing considerably. On the ballad side of the session ledger, Wiliams lithe brushes and Stryker’s sterling scalar runs pull “Make Someone Happy” out of otherwise banal surroundings. A practically somnambulistic “Alone Again” doesn’t fare as well despite some pretty playing by all involved. In the context of its contemporaries, the album is a mixed success. As a thoughtful tribute to a fallen comrade it works just fine.

[Steeplechase titles are available direct through Stateside AT prodigy DOT net]