Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wayne Brasel Quartet - If You Would Dance (Universitetet Stavanger)

Self-released but hardly rough-hewn in production design or packaging appearance, guitarist Wayne Brasel’s latest is a smooth listening experience from start to finish. The dancing feet that adorn the cover give a visual clue to Brasel’s basic aesthetic. Lightly swinging with clean rounded corners in common with what follows, the opening “Lightgiver” revolves around his grit-free plectral approach. Pianist Alan Pasqua comps behind the shimmering single note leads while bassist Tom Warrrington jogs the middle with plush but unobtrusive pizzicato patterns. Brasel’s choice of luminous amplification almost gives his deft picking the semblance of chordal strums. Drummer Peter Erskine, alumnus of numerous ECM sessions is an copacetic pick for the drum chair. His relaxed, but busy, cymbal-dominate rhythms further aerate the pieces and give the music an effervescence in agreement with Brasel’s cozy compositional style.

Recorded in Santa Monica during the summer of last year, the date exudes a sunny optimism reflective of its site of origin. Brasel’s pieces hew closely to an easygoing delivery. The playing by all four principals colors within the lines prescribed by these parameters. By the onset of “Celebration” the album’s fourth track and an up-tempo romp built on another bouyant bass line and Erskine’s crisp ride cymbal, the homogeneity of Brasel’s concept begins to compromise the listening experience. A comparatively dramatic drum break upsets the figurative applecart for a moment, but the foursome is soon back to their collective brand of lustrous swing. Even a switch to acoustic strings for the Latin foray “Oleo de Mujer con Sombrero” does little to shed the pinions of sameness that bind the session. The closing “The Hermit” is a notable exception as the quartet welcomes guest tabla player Satnam Ramgotra and navigates moodier, modal territory that sheds the sunny cheefulness so prevalent on earier pieces.

Seemingly Windham Hill-ready, this fare falls outside my usual taste preferences and likely has a large part in my construing it in a negative light. The musicanship by all the participants remains solid. It’s the material that settles too often into the soporifically safe and subsequently comes across as unsatisfying in sum.

ROW: Judee Sill (Rhino Handmade)

Shamefully late to the Sill party, I still find myself completely smitten by her otherworldly charms. The signifier singular is perfect in qualifying her aural allure as a singer-songwriter who transcends time with her cosmic and religious preoccupations. Her 1971 debut has the aura of instant classic about it from the stage setting “Crayon Angels” onward to the enigmatic album-capstone “Abracadabra”. Sill’s lilting voice has a disarming simplicity, occasionally inflected with a slight warble and a matter-of-fact delivery even when she’s plumbing dark psychological depths. Joni Mitchell is an obvious analogue, but I also hear Sill’s vocal influence in another unexpected source, Liz Phair. Her acoustic guitar picking and gospel-grounded piano weave through a series of baroque folk arrangements that incorporate sweeping strings and coloratura horns. Seven live cuts from a well-recorded Boston gig the same year offer insight into song origins. “Enchanted Sky Machines” has its roots in Sill’s stint at the church organist in reform school while “Jesus was a Cross Maker” details her recovery from a scorched earth relationship through the titular realization that everyone carries with them the possibility for redemption. Sorrowful that it’s taken me so long to get hip to Sill, I’m now seeking all I can by her. Even sadder, is the sobering cognizance that her catalog is so slim.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Odean Pope Quartet - Fresh Breeze (CIMP)

Odean Pope records are old reliables. Such shorthand is not meant to argue anything safe or rote about the entries in his discography. Rather it’s meant as an assertion of principled dependability across the board. Put on a Pope album and you’re guaranteed some gold-standard tenor playing at a minimum. Fellow Philadelphian Bobby Zankel has a comparable reputation earned in similar fashion. Both men have benefited from a long association with the Cadence stable of labels. Zankel, in particular, has the bulk of his catalog ensconced on CIMP and CJR. This new set isn’t their first conclave. That distinction goes back nineteen years to Zankel’s debut on CJR.

Pope’s ostensibly in the driver’s seat this time out and contributes all of the date’s eight compositions, but the performances reveal an equal opportunity mindset amongst the players. Bassist Lee Smith and drummer Craig McIver, each regular Pope associates, share equal footing with the horns. Smith, in particular, is a minor revelation. Past employers as varied as Mongo Santamaria and Roberta Flack illustrate his stylistic versatility, but it’s the earthy sense of groove and rhythm he brings to his pizzicato play that truly stands out. McIver’s polyrhythmic propensities jibe beautifully and there are frequent passages where the rhythmic interactions are just as catalytic as the harmonic and melodic ones issuing from the frontline.

Several of the pieces are familiar friends from past Pope ventures. “Rejuvenate” works off a springy second line rhythm with Pope and Zankel digging in. The leader’s scalar approach rooted in Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” is in full effect. Zankel’s tarter-toned, but no less agile alto makes for an excellent foil. “Limu” spreads out on a modified samba beat, opening space for some of Pope’s signature circular breathing. The closing series of exchanges on “Fresh Breeze” contain what sound like a pair of aborted entries by the horns, but the muscularity of the McIver’s breaks makes the near-mistakes negligible. Pope and Zankel continue unruffled, both secure in the knowledge that those sorts of calculated risks are what jazz is all about.

On the Ornette-ish “Off If Not”, one of those aforementioned time-tested numbers, Pope’s solo is bursting of highly-personalized little moments. A hardening of his tone into legato honks here, a succession spiraling glissandos there. His phrasing may be built on a bedrock of Coltrane, but the improvisational edifices he erects off the foundation are wholly his own. Zankel zooms in and follows suit, bouncing and bobbing atop the choppy accompaniment of Smith and McIver while voraciously chewing up notes at comparable speed. A delicate syncopated dialogue between brushes and bass follows as gravy on an already savory performance. With this opportune set Pope’s reliability record remains intact.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tommy Babin's Benzene - Your Body is Your Prison (Drip Audio)

While sharing a name with a highly flammable industrial hydrocarbon, Canadian bassist Tommy Babin’s Benzene has an explosive bent its own. There’s plenty to dig about the project from the freebop-meets-spacerock pedigree of the sounds to the curious non-sequitur illustrations that adorn its packaging. Babin and his colleagues, baritone saxophonist Chad Makela, guitarist Chad MacQuarrie and drummer Skye Brooks, build a continuous suite of compositions in front of a Burnaby, British Columbia crowd.

Divided into nine tracks but usually segueing lubriciously from one to the next, the music takes off in a number of intriguing directions. On the opening piece and elsewhere Makela’s big horn sounds a bit the odd man out despite its weight and reach. Several of the compositions rely on comparatively conventional vamp-like structures that recall early Vandermark groups with Makela riffing against the crunching chording of MacQuarrie while Babin and Brooks ply shifting beats. The more engrossing moments overall grow out of the interplay independent of these pinions, as on the atmospheric opening minutes of the title piece. The coalescing of a groove and Makela’s blustery riffing in unison with MacQuarrie’s fast picking almost feels like an affront to the measured textures that have come prior. The saxophonist experiences an easy redemption in boisterous concert with Brooks on the tumbling freebop somersault that is “Citizen Kang” and the melancholy ballad “Les Trous du Ciel” in gentle dialogue with a luminously-toned MacQuarrie.

Babin is a marvelously athletic bassist and a natural in the leader’s mantle. He pummels his instrument with ferocity and precision that brings to mind the audacity and resonant clarity of Adam Lane. He also has a way of laying in the cut before dropping in a sudden solo that emboldens the tack of a piece without undercutting the contributions of his colleagues. These statements, as at the onset of “Damaged”, are models of melodic and rhythmic perspicuity. MacQuarrie’s fret-borne fireworks cut both ways. The Hendrixian flameout that initiates “The Thing and I” embodies the positive while the languid near-noodling later in the piece feels lax by comparison. Brooks gives a lesson in suspended brushed beats on “Pretty Boy Floyd” prior to the entrance of Babin and the others giving another bulbous vamp the business. Again the Vandemark corollaries ring loud. All four men are new names to me and I’m looking forward to investigating their work in additional contexts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Brandon Wright – Boiling Point (Posi-Tone)

Over four decades after his premature passing, Coltrane is still a near-inescapable force for jazz saxophonists who opt for tradition-minded playing. Twenty-something Brandon Wright certainly sounds under the master’s spell. From the bright, soaring unisions of “Free Man” the opening number on his new release, the tracks of Trane are a primary method of melodic travel. That observation may read like a slight, but it’s not indended as one. After all, if a player is going to cop a sound to build on, it might as well be that of the heavyweight champion.

Subsequent pieces in the program betray other indelible influences. “Drift” sounds shorn from a cloth similar to that of Wayne Shorter’s Sixties tune-smithing in the warm enveloping harmonies and dusky overriding melody. “Here’s That Rainy Day” has etchings of Ammons in the robust rounded tone Wright rings from his horn’s reed. A capable band of conscripts aid him in his cause starting with his canny frontline partner,Alex Sipiagin. Morgan and Hubbard weigh heavily as ringers in the trumpeter’s lithe phraseology and there are moments in his animated interplay with Wright that intimate stimulating frontline partnerships so common to the classic Blue Note-ear. Pianist David Kikoski, bassist Hans Glawischinig and drummer Matt Wilson also make fine company for the leader.

Tune-wise no true surprises present themselves in what is galvanizing, but ultimately somewhat generic hardbop fare. Wright was the 2009 ASCAP Young Composer award winner so the manner in which he limns close to convention in most of the contexts here is slightly disappointing. Five originals balance against a pair of jazz standards and the left field choice of the Stone Temple Pilots “Interstate Love Song”, reconfigured here as a ballad with muscle. All pieces prove able-bodied blowing vehicles and Wright and his crew tackle them wih equal aplomb. There’s a pleasing consitency between compositions and a solid album coherence to the set.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Champian Fulton - The Breeze and I (Gut String)

As is the current lot of jazz writ large, singers in the idiom rate comparatively low on the public awareness and consumption charts. There are arguable exceptions like Diana Krall and if the definition is particularly inclusive, Norah Jones, but most of the time vocalists are in the same boat as their instrumental brethren. Even that waning bellwether of pop music celebrity, American Idol, gives the deep jazz vocal tradition only passing notice, usually hidden in the colloquial-hinged platitudes of erstwhile arbiter Randy Jackson.

Champain Fulton has a few things going for her that improve the odds. First, she’s a competent instrumentalist herself, playing piano in an energetic two-handed touch that harkens back to classic stylists like Hank Jones and Horace Silver and not shy about stepping up for frequent solos. Next, there’s her pipes that while not spectacular have an insouciance and verve that exudes easy charm. Ella and Anita are obvious influences and she also names the great King Cole as the patron saint of her piano trio project.

Her taste in sidemen and songbook are also admirable. Bassist Neal Miner, a Smalls regular and leader in his own right who also does duty as co-engineer, lays down a supple walking groove on numbers like a strutting takedown of the Harold Land-scripted “Land’s End”. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka exercises a similarly elastic approach to time keeping working adroitly on both sticks and brushes. Neither man gets in Fulton’s way during her frequent forays up and down the keyboard and measures momentum in an exacting fashion.

Touching again on trio’s taste in material, the 13-song set list is weighted towards standards of varying vintages. Fulton refuses to treat any of them as relics or museum pieces. Her brisk exploration of “The Sheik of Araby” is a handy example, no dust-dappled swing heirloom to be found here. Tainaka’s locomotive brushes solo alone brings the hoary tune a new millennial finish. Fulton’s style of music isn’t my usual stomping grounds, but I found much to savor here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

RED Trio (Clean Feed)

An exact corollary between the RED Trio and the color crimson remains unclear. One possible connection is the manner in which this Portuguese threesome pushes the limits of their instruments as sound generators. The figurative effect is akin to a needle gauge tipping over thrillingly into the red, though that imagery is not to suggest that they’re obsessed with bombast, speed and bluster. The dynamic range mapped on the disc’s six pieces is cavernously deep and wide. Pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, who pens the brief liner essay, likens them to the post-Bill Evans/Paul Bley tradition on the basis of equanimity between each player’s input. They’re also partial to the long haul but adept at retaining the energy and economy of a short jaunt.

Melody is an afterthought to much of the trio’s conversation. Snatches appear intermittently, mainly through pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro’s pitch-precise plinks and plonks, but far more often its grain and weave that serve as topical compass points. Overdubbing sounds in play on the opening “Core” as Pinheiro builds cross-hatching lines from prepared and pristine portions of his piano strings. Karayorgis’ notes argue otherwise and the density of the converging sound sources is all the more remarkable for it. Bassist Hernani Faustino and percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini take a comparative backseat, but are hardly idle in stoking the forward momentum of the piece. For “Flat” its Faustino’s turn under the figurative klieg light in a solo that contains a welcome surplus of thrum and thwack.

“Coda, Static” skates by quick, but the aptly-titled “Quick Sand” is all about a gradually tugging textural build. All three players resort to rubbing and scraping at their instruments, at first just at the edges of audibility but eventually reaching an encompassing volume. Sections of the resulting bricolage sound like ambient captures from an underground metalwork factory. “Timewise” travels a similar trajectory narrowing focus to Ferrandini’s kit in its second half in a minimalist exploration of percussive patter. A barely more than a minute, “Burning Light” acts like a concentrated stentorian analogue of the earlier “Quicksand” as the three instruments blur in a coarse cavalcade of textured sound. Red traditionally means stop. In the case of this creative trio it unequivocally connotes go.

ROW: Explorations by Teo Macero and Wally Cirillo (Fresh Sound)

A studio Svengali to some and a certified genius to others, Julliard-trained Teo Macero is still perhaps best known for his high profile post as Miles Davis’ longstanding producer and collaborator. Macero’s earlier careers as a saxophonist and modernist jazz-meets-classical composer earn much less ink. This invaluable Fresh Sound compilation gathers some of the best of his output from those largely forgotten years. Seventeen tracks represent four separate Fifities sessions and the notes go into decent detail about the methods and intents behind the compositions. Some of the theory-related specifics are Greek to me, but Macero’s ambitious composerly goals are audibly evident even to the layman. On “Neally”, for example, from a September 1955 nonet session comprised of all-stars like Art Farmer, Eddie Bert and John LaPorta the band negotiates forward-thinking elements of counterpoint, polyphony, polyrhythm, atonality, and free improvisation all within the brisk span of just under five minutes. Several pieces also find Macero investigating the possibilities of overdubbing horn parts, like the Blindfold Test-perfect title composition where five separate Macero sax lines (3 tenor, 2 alto) improvise freely within the loose framework of a chromatic tone series. In addition to all the compositional heavy-lifting, Macero’s tenor beguiles with an aerated cool a/tonality that sounds like a possible progenitor of modern players like Stephen Riley and Mark Turner. The other MVP on three of the four dates is obscure accordionist Orlando DiGirolamo who takes to the musical experiments in textural dissonance like a duck to water, particularly on the first session in a quintet with Macero, bassists Charles Mingus and Lou Labella and drummer Ed Shaughnessy circa 1953(!). As far as protean Fifties free jazz/third stream goes it doesn’t get much better.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Matthew Shipp - 4D (Thirsty Ear)

Slings and arrows are something of a Matthew Shipp specialty. Whether he’s artfully lobbing them at others or absorbing the brunt of them himself, he’s never been one to shrink from candid expression or the lumps that often come with it. That kind of confidence also his informs his language on the piano. Stasis is his mortal enemy and his past work is marked by a continual yen to search out new ground while retaining fealty to foundations of his sound. Fortunately, he found receptive outlet for that restless creative impulse relatively early in his career through a reciprocal relationship with the Thirsty Ear imprint. This new solo disc celebrates Shipp’s tenth recording as a leader for the label and in a way it’s a fitting full-circle statement capstone on his career to date.

Shipp essays solely to acoustic keys for the program’s sixteen pieces. All of that aforementioned extra-musical baggage has a welcome habit of falling away when he sits down at the piano bench. He frontloads the intimate set with originals and a handful of standards and public domain pieces dominate the second half. Shipp’s leavened the lurching density so prominent in his early work with a heightened emphasis on lyricism. An ardent proponent of pedal play, he can still summon the thunder when the mood moves him, but there’s a variety to these pieces that speaks a general expansion in tone. The opening title piece is an early example of the dynamic as he works the pedals to usher a lush through theme filters of darkness and light. “Teleportation” starts in a stuttering, eliding form that obliquely recalls Monk, but whereas the elder’s emphasis was always economy, Shipp packs his clusters close to the brim.

The pieces play as discrete entities but also have a pleasing congruity about them. “Stairs” balances weight and space, sometimes within the span of a single phrase. It segues almost imperceptibly into “Jazz Paradox”, another piece ripe with roiling changes in speed and direction. Shipp devours the standards on his docket with little regard for traditional decorum. “What is This Thing Called Love” is recognizable in its initial moments before obfuscating storm clouds swiftly converge in a spate of more pedal-dampened rumbling. “Autumn Leaves” and “Frere Jacques” are old friends of Shipp’s oeuvre and he accords them little in the way of niceties, exaggerating the underscoring drama of the first with punctuating left hand stabs while the latter bobs by buoyantly under the aegis of eddying pedal swells.

Those individuals who’ve felt the sting of Shipp’s blunt opining might very well be waiting in the wings to diminish this set with their gestating ire. Shipp’s almost certainly ready for them with retorts of his own, but the strongest response still rests in the sounds themselves.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Léandre/ Houle/ Strid - Last Seen Headed (Ayler)

A concert counterpart to their split live/studio disc on Potlach from 2006, this Radio France-recorded document finds this trio of masters in fine fettle in front of French audience at the dawn of 2009. Bassist Joëlle Léandre has a personal command of her instrument rivaled by but a few and her arco artistry earns the admittedly over-applied signifier of virtuoso moreso than most. Taking Evan Parker as part of his blueprint, Canadian clarinetist François Houle has honed a circular breathing technique on the licorice stick that makes impeccable use of its liquid pitch properties. Swedish autodidact drummer Raymond Strid is at once the glue and corrosive behind his kit, tying the music together and tugging it apart at intentionally erratic intervals. Knee-jerk hyperbole aside, it truly is a satisfying meeting and one that presents the trio at the peak of their collectively improvisatory prowess.

The disc breaks down into seven distinct sections to better aid listener ingress. The first section finds Houle hoisting two clarinets and creating spiraling doppelganger braids as Léandre and Strid supply shifting dynamics on mercurial bow and a scuttling array of percussion. The timbral parity between reed and strings is often startling, the conspiring strains answered by a tidal cymbal wash from Strid’s corner in the closing minute. Houle’s hollow tone and fluttering temerity on the second part sounds decidedly flute-like, Léandre laying down a thrumming commentary pocked by clipping percussion high on the instrument’s bridge. Strid soon picks up the pattern with a skeletal stick-on-rim patter that expands to encompass peripheral percussive devices about his kit. Houle sounds off on sibling reeds before falling back into a clattery, heavily textured colloquy for bass and percussion.

Léandre leaves Houle and Strid to an intense dialogue on the third part, one that recalls the sort of aggressive chamber cascades Evan Parker and Paul Lytton used to specialize in. The set continues along an unpredictable, instant-composed itinerary that invites subjective description. Strains of Giuffre surface in Houle’s sirocco-dry phraseology during the second half of the fourth section with Léandre and Strid lighting little fires around him on bulbous bass and lightly pattering cymbals. The drummer has the initial stretch of the next section to himself, engaging in a controlled junk pile avalanche before Léandre’s oscillating bass commentary arrives in tandem with her highly animated brand of Francophonic vocalese and sonorous ululation. And so the performance progresses, the players pressing forward to repeated audience applause during the breaks. Along the way they give both listeners and each other reason for continual celebration at the uncommonly fine framework for freely improvised expression they’ve formed.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dan Aran - Breathing (Smalls)

Drummer Dan Aran chose the title to his debut disc with an eye toward metaphor and concision. His is a carefully-constructed percussive approach that studiously avoids bombast and ego in favor of naturalistic style that rises and recedes in a manner akin to respiration. For a leader and drummer that’s a comparatively rare tack to take, but one that yields immediate rewards. Born in Jerusalem, Aran was a fixture on the Israeli circuit until his move to New York in 2001. He soon came under the spell of Smalls and the tutelage of pianist Harry Whitaker. Nine years later, he still gigs frequently with his countrymen, a number of whom lend able assists on this disc.

The disc’s ten pieces present Aran in a number of invigorating contexts ranging from trio to sextet. Pianist Art Hirahara is the near constant, appearing on all but one of the tracks. Trumpeter Avishai Cohen (not to be mistaken with the bassist of the same name) and trombonist Jonathan Voltzok share the frontline on four cuts starting with the first two, which each develop in modal suite-like fashion. Bassists Matt Brewer and Tal Ronen divide duties down the middle with each supplying elastic support on an even number of cuts. Saxophonist Eli Degibri is on deck for three, his warm tenor a dominant voice on a sally through “I’m So Blue” while Eastern-influenced soprano holds sway on the Aran original “Riva”.

Aran leads from a position of restraint, his supple patterns guiding the performances, but just as often receding to background to allow his partners to dictate direction. He also shows affinity for colorful surprises, such as the sudden appearance of guitarist Nir Felder’s tasteful feedback-laced solo on the opening “Sun Bath” or the entrance of Gili Sharett’s bassoon as sole horn on the exotica-influenced rendering of “I Concentrate on You”. Accordionist Uri Sharlin contributes to the Klezmer-tinged “Gul Lihibib”, doubling on piano for a stage-setting preface in Hirahawa’s stead. The tune is also a showcase for Aran’s adroit dumbek play.

“Para Ezequiel”, one of two piano trio tracks, is a perfect example of Aran’s less-is-more philosophy. Hirahana and Ronen take the foreground as the leader lays back, inserting just the right brushed beat and accents around his partner’s more prominent lines. Aran decelerates the tempo and sands off the sharp angles on Ornette’s “The Blessing” for a smooth-gliding rendition that wouldn’t be out of place at a summer cotillion. Cohen and Voltzok negotiate the bluesy theme in lubricious concert and Hirahara comps with a clean balanced touch. With this varied and distinctive set Aran succeeds in presenting a series of appealing essays on his art that pique interest in hearing more.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Burton Greene - Live at the Woodstock Playhouse 1965 (Porter)

Woodstock was a creative refuge well before the music festival that bore its name signaled a culmination of counter-culture sensibilities. Pianist Burton Greene was among a number of jazz musicians who made the area a second home in the mid-Sixties. Separated from daily grind of city-living they were able to develop and express their music largely independent of distracting stressors. Part of the process included live performance and fortunately the tape machines were often rolling. This set by Greene’s working quintet gives a stimulating capsule view of the state of his art in ’65. Marred slightly by both the age of the medium on which it was originally preserved and an occasional tendency at certain points toward prolix exposition, it’s still a gratifying listening experience overall.

The first of three pieces, “Tree Theme II” is waltz-like in its opening minutes as altoist Marion Brown limns a lovely descending melody and Greene comps vibrantly behind him. Bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Rashied Ali amble along at the flanks, colluding to create an eddying shuffle rhythm that carries the piece through a rhapsodic Greene improvisation and on to cohesive conclusion. Despite a decent first half where the pianist and Brown once again work out a close rapport, “Cluster Quartet II” is nearly stopped cold by the excesses of Johnson. The bassist falls foul to an affliction common to free jazz players past and present, the short-circuiting of a self-editing impulse. After several promising minutes, his solo devolves to minimalist development and movement almost sounding like a student running through rudimentary exercises. A quick return by Greene and the track mercifully fades.

“Like It Is” gives over to more extended solo improvisations. Greene goes under the hood for some zither-like effects and Brown makes like a melodic acrobat. Johnson takes another extended and unaccompanied foray on strings, but his sense of pacing and structure Ali builds a propulsive solo from an edifice of loosely stacked and staggered press rolls in a manner presages his work with the Coltrane quintet in Japan a year later. Sound throughout is surprisingly balanced though signs of the recording’s antiquity are evident in a number of noticeable blemishes. Greene recounts various less than ideal storage situations over the years including a houseboat and a garden house the decent condition is even more of a minor miracle.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix)

Please excuse the prevalence of first-person commentary in this piece, but it just seems the smoother route to go in describing my personal reactions to this release. The commodification of Hendrix continues with this latest posthumous collection of odds and sods on the Sony-licensed Experience Hendrix imprint. I’ve lost track of the legal-wrangling within and without the Hendrix family and at this late date it really doesn’t matter that much. A few truly revelatory releases have surfaced under the Dagger Records offshoot that they started, most notably Morning Symphony Ideas, which documents informal and protracted improvised sketches by the guitarist and drummer Buddy Miles, and Burning Desire, which includes my favorite Hendrix studio performance, “Record Plant 2X”. On the flipside of that stewardship is the Vatican-worthy assemblage of merchandise that bears Jimi’s name and/or visage: everything from water bottles and diaper covers to incense and air fresheners. That arguable exploitation is fodder for a different screed so back to the music here.

The “previously-unreleased” tag attached to the disc as a chief marketing device is in actuality only valid in a loose-sense. Nearly all of the dozen tracks will be familiar to most Hendrix fans. All but one track originates from studio sessions in 1969. That song, “Mr. Bad Luck” is actually an earlier of version of “Look Over Yonder” (from South Saturn Delta) with later-recorded bass and drum parts added. Similarly, “Ships Passing Through the Night” is a reworking of “Nigh Bird Flying” (from First Rays of the New Rising Sun). “Fire” doesn’t diverge drastically from the original ’67 album take save for an extended guitar break as a positive, and a boost in Noel Redding’s warbly backing vocal as a minus. “Red House” fades out inexplicably and vexingly just prior to the punch line that makes the song such a feather in Hendrix’s hat to begin with. An instrumental breakdown of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” contains some decent guitar riffing, but it crumples in comparison to concert versions like the one recorded at Winterland four months earlier.

True to form, the powers that be have also licensed a limited edition expanded version of the set only procurable at Target stores. Two more instrumentals, “Slow Version” and “Trash Man” increase running time to just south of 75-minutes. Even with the Dr. Frankenstein-approach applied to much of the music in the set there’s no denying the thrill of hearing Hendrix running down his ideas in the studio, particularly in the company of kindred spirit Mitch Mitchell who handles cans on all the cuts. That pleasure goes a long way in alleviating any pangs due to the perceived cash-in elements underscoring this compilation. Hendrix fiends (and I count myself in this hopelessly-addicted cadre) will pick it up sound unseen. There’s enough killer blues fretwork on cuts like the Elmore James cover “Bleeding Heart” and “Hear My Train A’Comin’” to outweigh the cobbled-together construction of other tracks.

ROW: Iron Maiden - Best of the Beast (EMI)

The great thaw is in full swing in these parts and that means a return a regular running regimen for yours truly. Soundtracks to said exercise are essential and this set serves frequently in that capacity. At two discs crammed with 150+ minutes it’s probably far more than any casual fan needs. I spend most of my time with the second disc which leans heavily on the early-Eighties era when ostensible band leader Steve Harris’ song-smithing reached its zenith and singer Bruce Dickenson was at his operatic, bombastic best. Songs like “The Trooper”, “Aces High” and “Number of the Beast” sound dated in their pulp-saturated lyrics and topical numbers like “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “Run to the Hills” shave things down to the most basic of good and evil dichotomies. Melodrama runs high, but there’s no dismissing the layered guitar fusillades, chugging proggish bass and trip hammer kick and snare drum salvos that form the foundation of the band’s grandiose, fist-pumping sound. Even epic odes like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, which could easily sink into florid pretension, are saved by serious musicianship and the theatricality of Dickenson’s delivery. His wry preamble to the 13+ minute live version of “Mariner” pokes holes in any accusations of pretension at the outset: “And the morale of this story is this is what not to do when a bird shit’s on you.” It’s a synopsis of the Coleridge source that is at once hilarious and on point.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Curtis Clark Trio - Taagi (No Business)

As was the lot of his mentor Horace Tapscott, pianist Curtis Clark’s career continues to unfold largely outside the jazz celebrity limelight. That disparity in popularity relative to talent and activity hasn’t slowed him down over the years. Clark’s reliably sought out unconventional collaborators both domestic and abroad and managed to build a modest discography through the effort. An audience of those in the know exists for his work and it’s one that grows as the word continues to spread.

Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez assert a similar attitude toward self-promotion and the vagaries of prestige. With minds focused on music-making they would rather allow their work to speak for itself. Each has diverse roots branching from punk, metal and mariachi as well as jazz and brings a youthful brio to every musical setting they find themselves in. In common with their father, noted composer/improviser Dennis Gonzalez, they aren’t reticent about accepting invitations from every corner of the global improvised music community. That open door policy obviously includes those players, like Clark, who upon first consideration might not seem the most obvious candidate for an alliance.

Recorded at a pair of intimate recitals in Dallas and Austin in the spring of last year, this disc shows right from the onset that skeptical assumptions about compatibility of the three players are doomed to aural repudiation. The Gonzalez brothers leave Clark to his solo musings in the opening segments of the suite-structured first two pieces. The pianist uses that alone time to wax eloquently through a series of impressionistic extrapolations on malleable blues and gospel figures. The results curiously echo what an improvised variant of the music of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk might sound like in its mix of romantic and rootsy architectures.

The entrance of bass and drums on both pieces signals an increase in momentum and color. Aaron’s strings exude bulbous weight through the aid of amplification, but his prancing lines remain lithe and lively. Stefan’s sticks and brushes shed responsive rhythms with a speed and consistency that never feels rushed or crowding. The close attention each player pays to texture provides Clark a porous sounding board for a succession of dynamic right hand leads. The album’s distinctive title derives from the Apache word for three. The term summarizes exquisitely the artistic agreement at the essence of their collaboration. Limited to a pressing of a thousand copies, this set isn’t one to sleep on.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Brian Landrus - Forward (Cadence Jazz Records)

Caliber of teacher is often a reliable gauge for quality of student. Evidence of the truth in that relational adage, reedist Brian Landrus came under the tutelage of a number of jazz luminaries over the course of his educational endeavors. Several of those able to join him on this debut recording include saxophonists George Garzone and Allan Chase, pianist Michael Cain, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Rakalam Bob Moses. Heavy company to be sure, but Landrus is well up to reflecting the stock his mentors obviously place in him. They in turn show due deference by readily following his lead. Colleagues Jason Palmer on trumpet and percussionist Tupac Mantilla complete the talent pool on which Landrus draws for the session.

Landrus mixes and matches the players into a number of aggregations ranging from quartet to septet in size. The album’s nine pieces range from the canonical postbop of Monk’s “Ask Me Now” as opener to the closing improvised meditation “Destination” replete with soothing flute and aqueous percussion in the form of rain stick and thumb piano. The overarching mien of the set recalls the sort of “spiritual” and modal-mannered records released by labels like Muse and Steeplechase in the Seventies. The result is a retro feel that doesn’t feel rote and Landrus’ choice in reeds also varies the playing field. His languid baritone stroll through the Monk tune with Cain, Lockwood and Moses supplying canny accompaniment contrasts keenly with the pianoless, horn-weighted counterpoint of “Beauty of Change”. Garzone and Chase stick tenor and alto, respectively, further placing the leader’s horns and writing in the forefront.

Moses and Lockwood make for particularly inspired choices as rhythm mates. Colleagues at the New England Conservatory along with Chase and Garzone, both men convey very elastic conceptions of time-keeping with the former often elongating his beats at odd intervals while the latter inserts angular pizzicato accents with a thick bulbous tone. By comparison, Cain plays pretty for the most part though he does drop the occasional surprise with a florid flourish or about face into near dissonance. Landrus takes to it all like a duck to water, digging deep into the expressiveness available via both baritone and bass clarinet. Lush horn harmonies of the title piece accentuate his work on the big horn in concert with Chase and Palmer while the solo piece “Interpretations” serves up his deep vocabulary on the licorice pipe sans any distractions. Landrus is a new name to me, but one I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on based on the promising work here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tia Fuller - Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue)

Being Beyonce’s touring saxophonist may bring in bushels of bread, but it doesn’t exactly help with earning jazzhead street cred. Tia Fuller confronts the double-edged sword of her lucrative side gig on this follow-up solo album for Mack Avenue in much the manner she did on her first. Naysayers need not bother, there’s no sophomore slump to knock here. If anything the set is an even more cohesive product than its predecessor. Fuller’s working band consists of fellow sisters drummer Kim Thompson, bassist Miriam Sullivan and actual sibling Shamie Royston handling keys. The leader fields mostly alto, but turns to soprano and flute when the moods strike her. She also handles the majority of composing, with six out of the ten lively tracks springing from her pen.

The album starts strong with the a one-two postbop punch of the title piece and Royston’s “Windsoar”, both built on elastic tempos and galvanizing ensemble exchanges that spark energetic solos from Fuller. Thompson is periodically a bit bombastic in her parceling of beats, but her partners in the rhythm section do a good job of evening the dynamics out. Trumpeter Sean Jones brings some high caloric brass effects to the second, his first of four appearances in the set. Obligatory funk arrives with the circular-structured “Ebb & Flow” as Royston turns to liquid Rhodes and Christian McBride guests on electric bass, slapping out a juicy groove and engaging Sullivan’s acoustic strings in friendly fisticuffs near the tune’s close.

Fuller dives into the opening minute of “I Can’t Get Started” without a net and embellishes modestly on the theme before a lush ensemble entry enhanced once again by Rhodes, guest Warren Wolf on vibes and McBride again, this time nimbly negotiating upright. The subsequent light bossa fare of “Kissed by the Sun” and “Shades of McBride”, while decent vehicles for Fuller’s flute and soprano, doesn’t equal the incisiveness of the earlier numbers. The set culminates a romp through “My Shining Hour” where Thompson’s enthusiasm on the sticks proves an asset in prodding the leader into some of the most unfettered playing of the session. In her potent mixture of blues, gospel and R&B-inflected jazz, Fuller doesn’t stray outside what could safely be called mainstream parameters, but venturing beyond isn’t her intent. Laying down accessible expressive sounds is, and in that sense she certainly succeeds.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marcus Printup - Ballads All Night (Steeplechase)

What’s a Young Lion to do when he starts to grow long in the tooth? Only a few years past forty, Marcus Printup still has quite a ways to go until he reaches retirement age though he’s been in the game for several decades and paid a number of dues. One in particular ended up a lemons-into-lemonade affair. After a promising start on Blue Note stalled in the wake of waning corporate jazz tastes at the close of the last decade, the trumpeter found a new home on Steeplechase.

Stewardship from the Danish label continues to suit Printup and after four albums as a leader he’s still got his stride. Ge also maintains a mutually-beneficial relationship with his mentor Wynton Marsalis through a regular post in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The members of his band on this date share employment in the same umbrella organization and their resulting camaraderie allowed for a minimal of rehearsals.

As the album title denotes, the tune list has a pronounced ballad bent. Only the closing “Blues All Night” strays from the overarching romance-rich theme. Printup cops to an abiding affection for the form in the notes, claiming that it’s the avenue he expresses himself best through. The music bears out the contention, as his burnished, calm-inducing phrases glide against the conventional rhythm section and in warm collusion with the smooth articulation of his frontline partner, trombonist Chris Crenshaw.

Printup prudently varies the program, cognizant of the potential for predictability in such a measured and mellifluous setting. Pieces pairing him with Crenshaw alternate with others highlighting his interplay with harpist Riza Hequibal. Mandel’s “Emily” and “Jobim’s “Corcovado”, excise the other instruments altogether and allow for lovely dialogues of lush trumpet melody and dulcet harp accompaniment, the latter denuded of its signature bossa beat. Hequibal is also a dominant voice on her own “Lullaby for Nanay”, this time working in league with pianist Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez and drummer Quincy Davis for maximum grace and elegance.

Though Printup’s playing is never saccharine or saturnine, swallowed whole, this set is still a shade too sweet in sum. A sharp palate-cleanser of Peter Evans or Toshinori Kondo might be necessary for the more bellicose listener. As cogent and creative wine and candlelight jazz goes though this set hits its mark.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

David Haney Trio - Blue Flint Girl (CIMP)

Canadian pianist David Haney isn’t reticent about diving into the deep end when it comes to challenging settings for his instrument. He’s regularly explored novel combinations, notably a duo with trombonist Julian Priester, along with the conventional context of bass and drums accompaniment. Even in familiar piano trio surroundings, his approach avoids the easy or ordinary. Additional mitigating factors for this particular date included regional record highs in heat and humidity and a recording space that offered only minimal ventilation.

This disc is actually the second from a two-day session in Canton, NY, CIMP’s off-site source when a piano’s involved. The first, Blues Royale, focused on a cache of radically-retooled Pre-War rural blues songs. This one turns the lens to eight Haney compositions and a collective improvisation. The other elephants (or perhaps more accurately, panthers) in the room for Haney are bassists Adam Lane and Michael Bisio. Haney’s roots are in modern composed music and while he’s developed a formidable jazz-based improvisational language prior to and across a series of sessions for CIMP/Cadence his faculties in that area still aren’t quite on par with those of his partners. Such an observation is a hardly a slight given the superlative level at which Lane and Bisio usually operate and the fact that they’re each on their A-game here.

Haney seems to recognize the variance from the onset, holding down the stereo middle as Bisio and Lane race, cavort and hammer away at their instruments at his flanks. There are points where either or both bassists almost sound possessed when gauged by the energy and intensity they mete out through their strings. Lane, in particular, is a marvel, his shearing arco work on “Little Hat Stomp” and his pummeling pizzicato groove on “Coyote Learns to Whistle” representing peak performances on the bull fiddle. Producer Bob Rusch somberly notes in his liners that Bisio even experienced a minor heart attack two days after the session. Neither is content with a sideman’s role and Haney actively encourages them to assume the lead and pull out the stops on numerous occasions.

Buffeted between the twining and eliding typhoons and contending with the cumbersome air of the recital hall on top of that, the pianist’s perambulating lines are sometimes nearly subsumed. These are pieces best revisited repeatedly in order to even partly glean the all of what’s going on. In that sense Haney comes out ahead, his compositions gratifying grist for the ensemble’s super-charged scrutiny.

ROW: Dewey Corley & Walter Miller – The George Mitchell Collection (Fat Possum)

George Mitchell changed my life. More specifically, it was the catalytic agent contained in the veritable mountain of music he collected on dozens of criss-crossing trips across the rural and urban South. The best “one-stop shop” to hear exactly what I’m typing about is a collection released most recently by Fat Possum on seven compact discs (representing 47 volumes of artist-specific 7”s). Recognizing addicts like myself as easy marks, the FB folks have also released a number of single disc collections that expand on the samplings found in the larger set. Corley and Miller are in a very palpable sense antiques: the former contributing vocals, one-string washtub bass, harmonica and kazoo and the latter picking passable acoustic guitar. Their repertoire is right out of the Pre-War medicine show playbook with songs often ramshackle in construction, but every bit as rarified in world-weary feeling and prevailing idiosyncrasy. Corley actually coaxes a decent sound out of his tin kazoo, an irascible instrument that is usually more annoying than endearing thanks to its biting timbre and severely limited range, one that matches his wheezy croak of a voice. These tracks date from 1967, but the only thing that betrays their vintage as other than four decades prior is the clarity and intimacy of Mitchell’s field recording.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New York Art Quartet - Old Stuff (Cuneiform)

The title of this timely compilation is a true statement at face: Nearly half a century has passed since the sounds were ensconced on tape. Even so, sitting down with the disc yields the pleasing realization there’s next to nothing in the way of dust draping the music. The New York Art Quartet was at once of and ahead of their time. They directly put to pasture the notion popular in some circles that New Thing players placed instrumental prowess as of peripheral importance. Each of the cuts in this collection proves emphatically that these four could indeed play both independently and as a unit, at levels easily on par with peers operating in more conventional settings.

The particular iteration of the band documented here had a short lifespan compared to the stateside line-ups, but it burns brightly just the same. In late 1965, Saxophonist John Tchicai returned home to Denmark to drum up dates for the band. Only co-leader Roswell Rudd was able to make the jaunt across the Atlantic. Dane Finn von Eyben and South African expatriate Louis Moholo fortuitously fell into the pair’s orbit and joined for a handful of gigs. Portions of two shows appear here with the foursome running down a set lists dominated by compositions from the horn players. A loose version of Monk’s “Pannonica” from a Café Montmarte gig is the sole explicit nod to outside influences.

Recorded ten days apart, the two sets feature the band running through a generous selection of compositions pulled from the songbooks of the two horn players. Other than the opening minute of a quarter hour rendering of “Rosmosis” where the horns are off mike, the fidelity of music is mostly balanced and surprisingly clean. The later Copenhagen Concert Hall gig has a slight edge in sound, mainly due to the miking of Moholo’s kit on the Montmarte one, which sounds a brittle by comparison and accentuates the harshness of his already stentorian snare strokes. The drummer, who reportedly had his baptism to free playing within this context, sounds audibly more comfortable with the demands of the band’s style on the second date.

Rudd’s rambunctious antics are in full force out of the (tail)gate, with slurs, smears and mournful metallic whinnies regularly spilling in spouts from the bell of his bone. Tchicai isn’t quite so consistently on target in his alto improvisations, but the occasional faltering actually add to the verite feel of the sets. Von Eben often sounds akin to a free-enamored Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, his fingers scuttling up and down his strings in febrile patterns. Melody guides much of the action, particularly title track present in two delightfully shaggy versions, which sounds like Ornette by way of Cherry. Listeners familiar with the NYAQ will need no hard sell as prompting to pick this set up. That the music is as satisfying both sonically and artistically only underlines its cachet as an essential acquisition.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dan Pratt Organ Quartet - Toe the Line (Posi-Tone)

The Hammond organ is a hardy instrument, having weathered waxing and waning popularity since pioneers like Fats Waller and Bill Doggett brought it prominence as a viable jazz voice. Still, the number of players who opt to apply it to adventurous settings remains relatively few compared to the legion content to toe the line of convention. Saxophonist Dan Pratt and organist Jared Gold choose the less traveled path on this second disc by Pratt’s working quartet. Gold is an important part of a recent release by guitarist Jeff Stryker also reviewed in these virtual pages. The difference in his playing in that context compared to here is instructive as to just how well Pratt is able to press the best from his partners by giving them plenty to work with.

Pratt’s writing for the band is its principal asset. Each of the nine originals brims with ideas and novel avenues for execution. “Houdini” and “Minor Procedure” work of tightly wound heads and bright, bustling rhythmic structures. Gold builds throbbing bass lines and whirring fills that make the most of his instrument’s variable tone settings. “Wanderlust” opens with syrup-thick sustain and weirdly warbling effects that instantly place the tune apart. On “Star Crossed Lovers” and the closing “After” Gold traffics in luminous, church-appropriate swells that resist tipping over into treacle. The Brothers Ferber, Alan on trombone and Mark on drums, complete the band and are equally essential to the constantly shifting sound that reflects the players in nearly all manner of component groupings. Alan works like the cooling balm preceding the burning heat of Pratt’s improvisation on “Dopplegänger”, his rounded lines transmitting with an almost tactile smoothness.

Other pieces in the program cover different bases from the rock-inflected patterns of the title piece that works off another monster snaking bass line from Gold and a string of dynamic drum breaks to the vaguely Latin groove of “Stoic”, which again features the unflappable ingenuity of the drummer’s textured stick play. Trading in humor and tradition, “Uncle Underpants” gains momentum as a spiraling Pratt-penned head irons out into a stomping funk vamp. Ferber’s malleable backbeats soon reach street band fervency and he virtually steals the track with a galloping extended break. Pratt and his colleagues have been gigging quite regularly and the multiple merits of this release are certain to extend that employment streak. It’s a set custom-designed for skeptics who consider organ dates strictly old hat.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Jean-Michel Pilc - True Story (Dreyfus)

Possessing a technique suggestive of years of rigorous training, French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc is actually an autodidact. His self-honed skills at the keyboard are immediately impressive and evince Bill Evans impressionism by way of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. His left hand is very nearly as mighty and variable as his right allowing for overlapping runs of dizzying density and detail. Free playing in systemic manners akin to Michel Pettruciani and early Cecil Taylor also falls with in the scope of his oeuvre. Name-dropping carries over onto his “dance card” since moving to New York City in 1995, as he’s gigged with dozens of high profile players over that period. All of this looks exceedingly good on paper, but Pilc oddly leaves me cold as a pianist. He has since I first caught him in person at the Iridium five or so years ago in a performance that felt more flash than substance.

His latest trio effort for Dreyfus does little to change my admittedly counter-intuitive opinion. Regular sideman Boris Kozlov joins drum doyen Billy Hart as Pilc’s sidemen and their roles point to one of my chief problems. Pilc is in command of his instrument to a fault on occasion. He takes his positioning to practice, playing the hell out of keys but only rarely allowing his partners what sounds like equitable input into the pacing and direction of the pieces. Kozlov appears amenable to the dynamic, but consigning a player of Hart’s caliber to the figurative backseat almost seems an offense. Call it the Art Tatum Syndrome, though Tatum had the advantage of singularity of precedence to offset his tendency towards session monopoly.

The program is predictably Pilc-centric as well with only three of the pieces falling outside his compositional dragnet. He even customizes a Schubert tune to the occasion. The closing five-part title suite encapsulates the troublesome band differential as Pilc’s guiding patterns rise and recede between rumbling dissonance and lush lyricism. Hart and Kozlov dutifully follow the often two-handed forceful leads, but the dynamic feel vexingly out of balance much of the time, almost as if the pieces would’ve been better served in a solo setting. My stated biases aside, there’s still a fair amount of dramatically-charged playing here. It’s the part of Pilc’s powers that transcends my criticism and explains how he cultivated the enviable positioning he currently enjoys.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sharel Cassity - Relentless (Jazz Legacy Productions)

Despite the global proliferation of jazz, New York City remains the foremost proving ground for the music’s practitioners. Making it in the Apple still ostensibly means making it on the world stage. Classically trained, with diplomas from both the New School and Julliard, saxophonist Sharel Cassity’s credentials are not uncommon to the caliber of player competing for gigs. Cassity’s made the most of her residency by networking with a wide swathe of her peers. She convenes a cadre of their number on this leader date, running down a program dominated by her own compositions. Trombonist Michael Dease contributes a piece and the disc wraps with an arrangement of Charles Tolliver’s “On the Nile” that mirrors the instrumentation of its original Blue Note recording by Jackie McLean and the composer.

Wielding alto, soprano and flute, Cassity commands a warmly creative mien to each. Besides Cassity, the constant across pieces is the rhythm section headed by pianist Orrin Evans and completed by bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer E.J. Strickland. Dease is present on all but three tracks. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt accompanies Cassity for three tunes including with the smoking hardbop numbers “Call to Order” and “No Turning Back”. Flugelhornist Thomas Barber and tenorist Andres Boyarsky join Pelt on the shifting-meter obstacle course “Song of Those Who Seek” as well as two other tunes in his absence. Capping off the guest list, saxophonist Don Braden fields alto flute and enhances tonal color on the Cassity original “Still”.

The round robin approach to personnel enhances the session variety while keeping Cassity on her improvisational toes. As effervescent and focused as the playing often is, there’s still something slightly quotidian about the date. The tunes are durable in construction, but there’s little in the way of memorable surprises in either their renderings or the solos they foster. Cassity’s career likely has many more years ahead so the need for a homerun isn’t urgent. Her priority for placing creative integrity ahead of probable financial gain also speaks to potential longevity. Listeners with a yen for tradition-savvy sounds will find much to their liking here though others may wish for more in the way of singularity.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Various - Boogie Woogie Kings (Delmark)

As an idiom, boogie woogie seems an ideal candidate for sampler consumption. That’s a polite way of saying that for many listeners, a little tends to go a long way. Rhythmic and melodic protocols tend to follow relatively rigid parameters and most purveyors aren’t usually known for their ability to straddle other piano forms. That hasn’t stopped the good folks at Delmark from continuing to dust off classic sides by the leading lights of the style. This latest collection lives up to its title in surveying six in that celebratory fraternity, all now sadly long since deceased.

Provenance for the selected pieces ranges from a pair of late 30s Chicago sessions by “Cripple” Clarence Lofton, who makes up in enthusiasm what he might lack in digital dexterity, to a trio of later comeback dates by the likes of nearly-expired brand names Speckled Red and Henry Brown. Compiler Bob Koester wisely sequences with an ear toward diversity in the musicians’ methods of delivery as well. Meade "Lux" Lewis doubles on celeste to create a calliope effect on “Dollhouse Boogie” and threads in some mellifluous mouth-puckering on “Whistlin’ Blues”. Speckled Red sounds a little worse for wear on his four numbers and turns in a rushed rundown of his secretly salacious “Right String But the Wrong Yo-Yo”. He redeems himself on a galloping boogie-woogie that bears his name with shoot-from-the-hip verse-play straight out of the riverside barrelhouse.

“Boogie Woogie Prayer” ups the ante on the time-honored custom of the boogie duel by adding Pete Johnson to the popular pairing of Albert Ammons and Lewis. While a bit of a demolition derby, it’s still great fun hearing the three men try to not gum up the underlying rhythm with their fast dancing, crisscrossing fingers. Lewis ends the set with a sound-muffled sally through his own “Closing Time” that’s apposite in title, but otherwise a shade anticlimactic. Running time for the nineteen cuts clocks at a conservative 53-minutes and change, but in a setting such as this that relative brevity is arguably an asset.

ROW: Colombie – Le Vallenato (Ocora)

Living in polka country, as I do, naturally necessitates a love of the squeezebox. My tastes run fairly wide when it comes to the instrument’s applications and some of my favorite sounds are those of the vallenato, a Columbian cumbia progenitor that pares participants down to the potent combo of diatonic accordion, caja (conical hand drum) and guacharaca (bamboo shaker). Later variations added horns and bass coming closer to modern cumbia forms, but this mid-90s Ocora set contains field recordings of some of the elders of the art form including Nicolas “Colacho” Mendoza, Antonio “Toño” Salas and others energetically running down sones, paseos, merengues and puyas in the aforementioned stripped down set-up. The crossweave of often improvised, oscillating accordion leads and polyrhythmic accompaniment is watertight and instantly infectious to listener limbs. Several interstitial cappella songs spice up the flow of the program with the vocalists shout-singing the refrains. The is dance music at its most unvarnished and propulsive, impossible to ingest without experiencing a subsequent imperative to shuffle and stomp the feet. If I won the lottery, a complete Ocora collection would undoubtably be among my initial expenditures. Until that day, I make do with the dozen or so I have, this one being at or near the top of the stack.

* I’m not normally one to trumpet download sites, but Purayuca is a must-stop for anyone even casually interested in vallenato: Dozens of classic LPs and CD reissues, which are crow’s teeth rare in the States including the Ocora above. Swing by there and tell me what you think...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chris Kelsey - Not Cool (Tzazz Krytyk)

As playfully glib as ever, saxophonist Chris Kelsey couches his latest effort in an oppositional framework certain to arch a few eyebrows and maybe even roll a few eyes. His commentary to the disc commences with a caveat clarifying that his decision to sight Paul Desmond in his crosshairs isn’t strictly motivated by disdain. Sure, he still attaches signifiers like “sappy”, “wimpy” and “nerdy” to the much-lauded surname, but he’s also careful to concede the Caucasian altoist’s stature as “an accomplished and distinctive improviser”.

That’s where the compliments cease as virtually nothing on the album aligns with Desmond’s genteel sensibilities or singularly aerated style of improvisation. From start to finish, Kelsey and his colleagues favor fire-spitting free jazz fare of the sort that’s been idiomatic for nearly half a century. The saxophonist takes obvious pleasure in wrinkling and warping his delivery with liberal doses of raspy vibrato. One of his earlier sessions for CIMP carried the title The Crookedest Straight Line and that diametric phrase holds true here too, his dense patterns canting and slicing at sharp diagonals against the controlled rhythmic tumult generated by his regular confreres, bassist Francois Grillot and drummer Jay Rosen.

The date is also notable for a number of other reasons. First, there’s the presence of trumpeter Chris DiMeglio who boldly matches Kelsey in the frontline, doling out tonal unpredictability with a colorful array of brassy slurs and smears. Second, Kelsey’s addition of tenor and alto to his usual soprano playbook opens up fresh avenues of expression. His phrasing on the straight horn is curiously the cleanest of the three, the other two suggesting spiral staircases of oddly stacked phrases. The pieces follow similar schematics of knotty ensemble statements followed by bristling solos. Kelsey leaves little time for coasting and his puckish propensity is also present in the clever titles he hangs on the compositions (cf. “If Jazz is Dead (Can I Have Its Stuff?)). In a lone overt concession to the canon, the set signs off with a comparatively mellow stroll through Ayler’s “Ghosts” and the closest thing to Desmondian decorum on the date.

Kelsey is a provocateur in the best sense of the term: a player (and writer) who thrives on pushing buttons, but does so with both intelligence and an underlying respect for both the audience and art form he chooses to work within. It’s a thin tightrope to traverse sometimes and invites the occasional tumble, but Kelsey’s hardly one to wince at any resulting bruises. As enjoyable as this session is as a Desmond-antipode, I’m still half-inclined to airmail him a copy of Quartet and see if I can’t inveigle a revision in his opinion.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kirk Knuffke - Amnesia Brown (Clean Feed)

Most familial histories include at least one black sheep forbearer, a member who marched to the beat of his own drum at the expense of his or her loved ones. Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke pays wry tribute to one such outcast of his clan on this latest Clean Feed release. The eponymous individual was a great grandfather who abandoned his family and started a new one in a neighboring town. Upon discovery, he cited the affliction as his reason for leaving and the nickname stuck. The story passed into hereditary lore and became a handy thematic source point for a trio project Knuffke had been trying to organize with fellow New York-based improvisers Doug Wieselman and Kenny Wollesen.

Their instrumentation distantly recalls Shelly Manne’s “The Three” with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre, though clarinetist Doug Wieselman doubles on electric guitar rather than playing multiple reeds as Giuffre did and the resulting music is quite a different bag. Knuffke foregoes mutes, manipulating a highly malleable tonal palette with embouchure and valve effects instead. Wollesen is the rhythmic fulcrum, applying tenacious metered glue in daubs or full-fledged strokes depending upon the composition, all of which come from Knuffke’s quill. All three men are members of Butch Morris’ Nublu Orchestra and that large scale mindset to movement and color informs their small group interplay.

The sixteen compact pieces never stray over five minutes and most clock significantly shorter. They neatly divide along which axe Wieselman wields. Many of the clarinet pieces pivot on fluid counterpoint and communicate chamber associations as a result. The guitar tracks are often more rock-inflected in cast with Wieselman lathering on jangly reverb and carving out fanged arpeggios as he does on “Double”, “2nd” and “Hears It”. “Totem” sounds a bit like concentrated fusion-era Miles distilled of all distracting detours as quietly echoing plectral notes harden and intensify and a porous beat gradually consolidates into an incrementalized groove.

Knuffke remains his cool-toned, unruffled self in either context and his rounded, textured phrasing comes across like a cousin to other players like Tom Harrell and John McNeil. On clarinet pieces like the madrigal-minded “Practical Sampling” and the wobbly waltz-time “High-pants Bob” knotty heads allow for closely twining debate. Wieselman veers from heavy vibrato trills to birdsong chirrups and the variety again creates colorful contrast with Knuffke’s gliding lines. The lovely tone poem “Anne”, unfolding as an airy processional of simple construction, serves as an optimal closer. Amnesia really isn’t an option in the wake of these exciting sounds.