Friday, April 30, 2010

4 months, 100 posts...

Just a quick note to celebrate a pair of modest milestones. Master of a Small House is now four months old and continues to serve as a welcome outlet for me to sound off on recordings. My original goal of publishing one review per weekday quickly proved more daunting than expected so I’ve resorted to “back-filling” when life gets in the way. Cheating? Guilty as charged, but a necessary evil sometimes. With spring here and summer nigh I’m hoping my schedule opens up a bit and the posts align better with real time.

Thank you to everyone who’s stopped by and especially to those who have commented. Please continue to do so. As always, feedback of any stripe is greatly appreciated!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Barrett Deems - Deemus (Delmark)

Fame is an ephemeral condition, especially for sidemen in jazz. Drummer Barrett Deems spent a decade stretch with Louis Armstrong. He also served as the engine room for bands under the leadership of Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman. Today, he’s barely a footnote outside his Chicago stomping grounds yet Delmark honcho Bob Koester doesn’t hesitate in likening his raw talent to the legendary surnames Dodds, Rich, Clarke and Roach. There’s not much immediate evidence supporting that stature on this debut, a small slice of vinyl released in the late-Seventies that reportedly sold out its pressing within a year, reissued with a pair of trio-only bonus tracks. Instead, it’s the congenial work of colleagues having a ball in the studio with songbook of swing-and-prior standards.

During his lengthy career, Deems also garnered rep as one of the fastest drummers around as well as an irrepressible comedian. Satchmo is reported as observing, “Deemus makes coffee nervous”, and his nickname apparently derives from Demuskrotis, a mythological drum god presumably of his own devising. Backing the septet heard here, those traits aren’t at the fore. Fills and accents flow readily from his kit, but flash-and-burn fireworks fall away in favor of fleet precision and nuance. The band sits a bit outside typical small group swing instrumentation as well with guitarists Bob Roberts and John Defauw joining the conventional rhythm section on in lead and rhythm roles respectively. Former Down Beat editor Don De Michael handles vibraphone and clarinetist Chuck Hedges, another Windy City doyen, serves as the sole horn.

Deems and his crew sweep cobwebs off the tunes with lively arrangements that cater creatively to their instrumentation. His dapper brushwork on “Deed I Do” and “Six Appeal” are just two instances of him selecting just the proper tool for the job. Hedges, Roberts, DeMichael and Behr settle into roles as principal soloists, but Deems doesn’t seem to mind a bit. His is the accompanist’s temperament through and through and the music’s all the better for that enduring deference. “New Orleans” flowers almost like a tone poem, Defauw’s Freddie Green-style strumming locking with bassist Wilson McKindra and the leader in a light, but luscious swing as the others solo gracefully and gregariously atop. Even up-tempo numbers like “Shine” and “After You’ve Gone” carry that gravitas-defying effervescence while also curtailing bombast or hyperventilating grandstanding. Any disappointment at not having the hype surrounding Deems’ storied attributes supported by his chosen demeanor here vanishes summarily under the sustained potency of music.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jimmy Bennington Trio - Symbols Strings and Magic (CIMP)

A decade’s worth of demos. Such was the gauntlet drummer Jimmy Bennington describes that led to his CIMP debut. Where others might cling to lingering frustration or ire in the wake of such a rigorous set of paces, Bennington’s sketch of the anecdote is almost matter-of-fact. Part of that might be because his patient persistence paid off, but there’s plenty of evidence that an even-keel attitude is simply indicative of his make-up. The last demo actually became a release on sister label to CIMP, Cadence Jazz and producer Bob Rusch tapped Bennington for this companion disc well before the street date for the first. Bennington’s sidemen on the date, clarinetist Perry Robinson and bassist Ed Schuller evince a comparable confidence in his capabilities. Both men are experts on their instruments and leaders in their own right, but each readily defers to his direction in this unadorned setting.

Bennington presents a set list rich in stylistic flavors. Freer leaning pieces like the opening title track and the Sunny Murray cover “EMOI” coexist with a fairly faithful rendering of the ironically wizened standard “What’s New”. Robinson and Schuller take to both contexts with enthusiasm to spare, responding to Bennington’s subtle kit cues while keeping him on his toes. The referential “Cadence Blues” pivots on both place and named idiom, Robinson at register-leaping best as the other two cobble a brisk-chugging groove. Two other tracks pull from Robinson’s father Earl’s songbook. “Now” contains brooding Klezmer overtones while “Side by Side” comes across as a congenial contrafact of the old spiritual “Down by the Riverside” with the three slipping easily into a New Orleans street band jocularity. Schuller’s resonant arco intro to Bennington’s ballad “Susanna” is almost a free-standing composition in itself.

Bennington’s dynamic reach behind the kit gets full service under the stark CIMP engineering aesthetic. His polyrhythmic approach tips off to the two-year stretch he spent as road manager for Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine. Loose and responsive, his sturdy strokes vary from whisper soft caresses to bruising thwacks. Schuller’s eccentric tendency to hum and vocalize in tandem with his bass complements rather than compromises the deep elastic snap he coaxes from his strings. Well over half a century emoting on the licorice stick and Robinson’s command of his reed remains undiminished whether the moment calls for heated improvisation or mellow ensemble accent. Minor miscues and collisions are present in the risk-taking the three regularly engage in, but that’s part and parcel with the CIMP program and, when it boils down to it, what creative improvised music is truly all about.

ROW: Şükrü Tunar (Halan)

The undisputed clarinet king of 20th century Turkish music, Şükrü Tunar came from incongruously modest beginnings. His first instrument as a child was the kaval (tin flute), though he switched to G-clarinet after pestering his parents to buy him one at the age of seven. At fourteen, Tunar’s father and uncles joined the army and he took up arduous work in the stove business, playing music in local ensembles on the side as time permitted. An auspicious audition for Istanbul Radio in 1928 led to a meteoric rise in his notoriety and the rest is history. I first got hip to his music through the 3-volume Masters of Turkish Music released on Rounder. The selections available there overlap somewhat with this collection, but fidelity is a bit cleaner here. Solo taksims (improvisations) alternate with more structured ensemble pieces of varying vintages (mainly the 1930s and 40s). It’s on the former pieces that Tunar’s genius truly abounds. He glides and soars through the Ottoman-grounded scales, voicing intricate microtones as easily as he might his native Turkish. The band pieces aren’t far behind and offer an encapsulation of the popular repertoire of his nightclub gigs with boisterous accompaniment by oud, violin, kanun and dumbek accentuating the rhythmic malleability in his technique. In a tragedy echoing that of Warne Marsh decades later, an aging Tunar was felled by an on-stage heart attack mid-taksim in 1962. These sterling sides live on and continue to serve as source of intense study for students of Turkish music the world over.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Brian Charette - Upside (Steeplechase)

The hoary Hammond organ is an instrument oddly resistant to revolutionary application. A survey of its history in jazz yields only a comparative handful of players who have taken it to truly new places. Brian Charette isn’t among that select few, but he does have something valuable to say as evidenced by the pleasures and strengths indicative to this debut. It’s no coincidence that he counts Steeplechase label mate Gary Versace as a colleague. Both men take the lineage of Jimmy Smith through Larry Young as their starting points and build a personal voice from there. Johns Patterson and Patton are also prevalent progenitors in Charette’s approach through the audible affinity for modal forms and knotty harmonic contours that informs his eight originals, starting with the high protein swing of “Yolk”.

Guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Jochen Rückert are sidemen in a sense, but Charette involves the former in equal footing on most pieces. Monder employs a welcome versatility in timbre and attack. His thick, viscous amplification on Charette’s boppish burner “Public Transportation” echoes the sort of corrugated tone preferred by classic Smith confreres like Thornel Schwartz and Gene Edwards. Monder’s far more nimble with a plectrum than either man could ever claim. His switches from chordal and octave play to driving single note runs are often dizzyingly deft. A satisfying piece on several fronts, it’s also a rare chance for Rückert to slip outside his creative time-keeping role for a spate of blistering breaks. The alternately lithe and lilting “Look Elsewhere” shows off his adroitness with a bouncing bossa beat.

Charette nearly falls foul of the more sentimental side of the organ vernacular on “Silicone Doll”, but the other ballad features on the program keep an even keel. A solitary exploration of “You’ve Changed” demonstrates a Smith-degree of dexterity as he juggles bass pedal swells with converging counter melodies advanced by both hands. The trio navigates the romantic straights of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” with similar aplomb and attention paid to Rückert’s fluttery brushwork. “Furthering Adventures”, “Altered Waltz”, “Girls” and particularly the closing “Wish List” veritably ooze with late-Sixties postbop experimentalism. All benefit from a near even balance of solo space for organ and guitar and plenty of devious twists and turns. Charette’s arrangement of Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” swings nearly as hard. In the accompanying notes, he describes this set as slightly more traditional than the trio’s typical fare. Given the galvanizing level of adventurousness on hand, here’s hoping they opt to document that status quo on a second outing.

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

John Hicks & Frank Morgan - Twogether (High Note)

The passing of pianist John Hicks and altoist Frank Morgan within a year of each other was a sad blow to the High Note roster and the jazz community writ large. Both men had enjoyed a late career renaissance via the label and Morgan, in particular, experienced an artistic renewal through a series of critically-acclaimed recordings capped by a three-volume document of a stand at The Jazz Standard. This set is something of a posthumous swan song for each player, coupling pieces from a duo performance at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, November of 2005 with selections from a solo Hicks recital roughly a year later.

Pun-saddled titled aside, the program delivers tradition-savvy post-bop plied by experts of the form. The tracks unfold in an ear-pleasing sandwich sequence with solo cuts bracketing a pair of duo pieces on either side of the program. Hicks’ solo investigations, starting with a rollicking rococo investigation of Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare”, accord him the freedom to range through themes and variations at an easygoing pace with plenty of space for loquacious elaboration. All of the pieces save the closing solo rendering of “Passion Flower” ring in near the eight-minute mark and that last still clocks generously just shy of seven. Sound on both dates is intimate and faithful in the capture of twosome’s toothsome conversations.

Compared with the introspective cast of Hicks’ solo ventures, the numbers with Morgan convey an even greater degree of urgency and complexity. “A Night in Tunisia” gives Hicks’ left hand a strenuous work out in the construction of romping chords, Morgan slipping and sliding through elisions on the familiar theme in aerated tone that approaches Paul Desmond territory. Hicks follows his partner’s extended statement with a delightful stride-inflected foray stamped with staggered switchbacks and a dizzying rhythmic pliability that primes the audience for the altoist’s lissome return and a handful more melodic permutations.

The choice of “’Round Midnight” would appear to pull the partnership even further into the realm of jazz orthodoxy, but instead they effectively underscore why it remains a perennial favorite for improvisers the world over through an elegant cerulean deconstruction. By contrast, Kenny Dorham’s bop-structured “N.Y. Theme” trades strictly in fun fisticuffs between the partners, Hicks’ hands building decorous layered chords as Morgan lets fly his inner-Bird with unabashed brio. The music of Hicks and Morgan is now a regrettably finite commodity, but their shared artistic import remains undiminished in this delightful meeting between justly-venerated musical souls.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Luther Gray – Lawnmower (Clean Feed)

Drummer Luther Gray, an always reliable sideman in the ensembles of others, makes a welcome debut in the driver’s seat on this date for Clean Feed. The underlying significance behind the album’s title isn’t self-evident so Gray helpfully elucidates it in his succinct liners. The tandem of Walkman listening and mower pushing formed the primary conduit by which he digested music for years. The music is meant to limn the arc of his listening evolution over those inumerable solitary hours. It’s an instantly engaging concept and one that resonates in the singular instrumentation of he chooses for his ensemble.

Guitarists Geoff Farina and Dan Littleton divide down stereo channels, each wielding amplification in a precision painterly fashion. Altoist Jim Hobbs, who counts Gray as a regular colleague in a number of aggregations is the fourth participant in the quartet. Gray conceives of the pieces in a very organic fashion and they unfold. “One” and “Glass” sound like narcotized variants on Sonny Sharrock as the guitarists construct undulating coils of reverb-saturated texture that spool out and recede. The percussive bell-like tones that open the second piece come from guitar on drum kit, enveloping Hobbs’ raspy melodic lead in a lush, dreamy patina further bolstered by a muted tribal beat built painstakingly by Gray.

Gray is often remarkably understated, almost recessed in the mix, his churning rhythms guiding the forward momentum of the pieces, but also applying an odd vertical weight. Hobbs threads the middle, sounding melodic trills and legato swathes. The shared sense of atmosphere and mood evokes open desert vistas and the spacious canopy of a star-studded night sky. After the stark magnificence of these opening pieces, “Prayer of Death is something of a return to terra firma as Littleton shapes a folksy repeating Fahey-reminiscent line and the four move forward in an easy-loping unison. “Giant Squid” brings a sharper edge to the collective, both guitarists cranking the feedback for a craggier sound. Hobbs unleashes his inner-Ornette, darting and dovetailing between the amplified slabs and even openly quoting “European Echoes”.

The overly minimalist and ambient-minded “Dan” loses the forest for the trees a bit, but the foursome find their shared footing again on the delightfully somnambulistic “I Love”. Hobbs laces a velvety line through an eyelet of bowed and shimmering guitar strings as Gray keeps loose-limbed cymbal/snare time. “Two” sums the set beautifully through yet another inspired braiding of Americana-tinged guitar striations colored by Gray’s percussion and the tender lyricism of Hobbs’ horn. Playing reliably outside of the box, Gray gracefully subverts assumptions based in his past work with this one. It’s a pleasure joining him on the highly personalized journey, a trip that immediately engenders the question, what’s next?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beat Kaestli – Invitation (Chesky)

Swiss singer Beat Kaestli may seem a bit obvious, not to mention presumptuous in his sobriquet, but that’s no reason to be bothered by an implied affinity with hipper times. Formally trained in voice at a number of prestigious academic institutions, he also received an education gigging on the road for the better part of decade. Performance in pop and R&B settings naturally led to an abiding interest in jazz song. This Chesky debut delves voraciously into the Great American Songbook and demonstrates implicitly how Kaestli differs from his immediate peers. First there’s the definite Chet Baker influence that pervades the deliberately plaintive and delicate way he’ll voice a lyric. Baker’s subdued style of singing is an enduring wellspring of critical contention and Kaestli’s decision to build on it is a brave move.

The disc’s nine cuts clock to a modest three-quarters of an hour. Accompaniment is oft sparse, but supportive with a trio of guitarist Paul Meyers, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Billy Drummond constituting the core. The other ace in Kaestli’s deck is the Chesky signature sound that qualifies the music, a style of engineering that combines high end technology and methodological simplicity to yield stunning clear results. From the opening nylon-string strains of a bossa-inflected “Day in Day Out” the difference in fidelity from the typical jazz session is a striking one. A palpable sense of depth and crystalline clarity characterize Meyer’s lithe strums, the breezy pizzicato of Leonhart and the rain-on-corrugated-roof pattering of Drummond’s brushed snare. Trumpeter Kenny Rampton sidles up with a smoothly-phrased solo and Kaestli glides across it all with a relaxed and amiable flair.

Several other numbers starting with “It Could Happen to You” parse the particulars down Kaestli and Leonhart, plump bass strings percolating against the singer’s easygoing articulation. Meyers and Drummond enter and Kaestli steps back for concise and cogent solos from his colleagues. Saxophonist Joel Frahm, the other session guest, lends his sultry tenor to the title piece and two other numbers. Once again the fidelity does everyone involved strong favors and the prevailing feeling is that of being right in the recording space with the band. Kaestli’s clean and mannered approach to a song can be a shade cloying in a Harry Connick, Jr. sort of sense, but for the majority of the album all of the pieces at his disposal fall into place with near perfection. As a jazz vocals album for listeners not necessarily smitten with the more extroverted and flamboyant purveyors of the idiom, I’ve found myself coming back to it far more than expected.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rosario Giuliani – Lennie’s Pennies (Dreyfus)

Italian altoist Rosario Giuliani isn’t reticent about running down his influences. The title and lead track on his latest quartet disc sounds an appreciative salute to Lee Konitz. In the liners he checks off thanks to a handful of others including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins, though these seem influences more in spirit rather than letter. Conversely, Konitz comes across prominently in the agile glide of his phrasing and tart intonation. Pianist Pierre de Bethmann plays Rhodes on the twisting theme statement of the opening number, mimicking the timbre of a guitar before dropping out and leaving the leader to dance with bassist Daryl Hall and drummer Joe La Barbera, the latter keeping a percolating beat with brushes. An effervescent string of exchanges rounds the performance out with an emphasis on insouciant velocity, Giuliani capping the cut with a playfully coarse trill.

Ballad selections like the lovely “Love Letters” illustrate Giuliani’s abiding romantic bent. La Barbera demonstrates the mellow versatility he first honed under the employ of Bill Evans with subtle accompaniment that caresses the corners of Giulliani’s gossamer lead. Bethmann fields acoustics ivories here and his delicate right hand touch complements the lush mood of the piece alongside Hall’s understated pulse. “How Deep is the Ocean” ticks the tempo up a notch while keeping things low key. Hall sneaks in a concise solo early and the comping from Bethmann locks beautifully with La Barbera’s steady brush play. Giuliani’s left to improvise at will on the theme and to pleasing effect.

Joe Zawinul’s vamp-grounded “74 Miles Away” brings the band songbook decades forward in provenance with Giuliani hardening his tone and bringing the funk through a spate of rhythmic honks and flutters. Hall and La Barbera respond to the more open-ended structure in like fashion. A trio of originals follows, fitting right in with the rest of the program, starting with the plush ballad “Picchi” and Bethmann again on atmospheric Rhodes giving the piece a pleasant retro flavor. The quartet’s reading of the Jimmy Rowles classic “The Peacocks” captures the moody brilliance at the tune’s core, opening with Giuliani and Hall in isolation before La Barbera’s mallets enter with Bethmann’s skeletal comping. It’s a highlight of a program bolstered by strong performances nearly start to finish. Konitz may be a starting point for Giuliani, but the endgame on this date is wholly his own.

ROW: R.L. Burnside - Mississippi Hill Country Blues (Fat Possum)

Summertime is Burnside time at Rancho de Taylor. Seeing as spring only lasts but a handful of weeks here in the seasons-challenged Midwest I’ve already got this sucker primed for regular rotation. Originally circulated on the Dutch Swingmaster label in 1984, the bulk of the album originates from a ’82 session recorded in Groningen, Netherlands, three years into Burnside’s Big in Europe” phase curtailed only with his passing in 2005. Three cuts cull from a ’67 field recording trip by George Mitchell to the bluesman’s home in Coldwater, MS. At nineteen tracks all told it’s a definitive acoustic set, predating Burnside’s descent into near self-parody and laurel-coasting. No sipping whiskey out of a headless kewpie doll here, nor the tired catchphrase “Well, well, well…” uttered ad infinitum. This is the man at his middle-aged zenith running down a personal repertoire built from two equally magnetic edifices of the blues, Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Lee Hooker. My favorite tracks include the hill country “Hey Joe” variant “See What My Buddy Done”, the topically-similar and equally harrowing “Lost Without Your Love”, and the deliciously innuendo-laden “Mellow Peaches”. There really isn’t a faulty song in the bunch and wicked slide-inflected guitar-picking abounds.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ran Blake & Christine Correa - Out of the Shadows (Red Piano)

Cinema and music are inextricably entwined in Ran Blake’s creative consciousness. He’s a pianist though, not a filmmaker and his taste in moving picture media filters through a far narrower lens than that of the aural, fixating on noir and vintage musicals. Musically, he’s all over the map. Practically anything and anyone is fair game and the subject of delightfully disconcerting mash-ups from Debussy and Horace Silver to Michael Jackson and Mahalia Jackson. As an erudite student of American song, duets with vocalists remain one of his favorite outlets of expression. This set marks his second collaboration with singer Christine Correa though it’s been nearly two decades since their first. The program is expectedly idiosyncratic, roping in tunes associated with Blake’s aforementioned filmic interests along with left-field selections that prove ready for his pan-stylistic improvisations. As with other of his efforts it requires a bit of acclimatizing to get fully into Blake’s groove.

An adjunct professor of music at Columbia University, Correa’s academic grounding in no way hinders her chance-taking impulses. Keeping company with Blake is a guaranteed way to keep on ones toes. Her ways of phrasing a verse are just as variably “out-of-the-box” and sometimes invoke the spirit of Billie Holiday in the way she plays with a line. Blake’s patterns range freely from a delicate softness to stabbing stridency. Two versions of the title track bookend the set, the first rendered as a duo and the second as an a cappella feature for Correa. She also takes “Una Matica De Ruda” sans Blake’s support, turning in an onomatopoeic performance that echoes the pianist’s old partner Jeanne Lee in dynamic reach and rhythmic urgency. Correa sits out on the dark-to-light rendering of “Goodbye”, a Blake performance typical only in its atypicality.

The duo’s comparatively brief exploration of the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln anthem “Mendacity” cuts to the biting political quick of the piece. Correa conveys the indignation inherent in the lyrics as Blake pounds out a similarly stark pedal-weighted mood at the keys. The merging of “The Band Played On/Little Yellow Bird” isn’t really a medley. Blake refracts the first tune through a fractured prism that retains the beauty of the melody while adding an aura of odd menace and mystery. Correa runs down the lyrics of the second with lush vocal inflections that echo that of a lullaby, Blake tinkling elegantly at her side. They interpret the swing-schmaltz of “Fine and Dandy” and “Hi Lili Hi Lo” with a shared straight face curled knowingly at the mouth, Blake popping the corn contained in the song kernels with jaunty staccato flourishes. The pianist’s sound world is an intimate and eccentric one. As with much of his past work this set presents a welcome share of brow-raising challenges. Most memorably, it’s a session continues to reveal secrets with each new audition.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Brötzmann/Drake (Brö/Eremite)

Duets with drummers remain one of Peter Brötzmann’s most reliably rewarding formats for expression. An active percussive partner accords him the opportunity to shuck down to his primal self in a manner larger ensembles often don’t allow. Of the dozens of drummers he’s engaged in such conversations only his old colleague Han Bennink matches the rhythmic diversity and acuity that Hamid Drake brings to the equation. This set, recorded at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, spring of 2004, shows off another side of the reedist personality too, his willingness to gig at virtually any venue. Released in a limited pressing of 525 copies on the occasion of the pair’s 2010 tour, a nine date itinerary that finds them playing pizza parlors and bars along with art galleries and cultural centers. Clear a space set up some folding chairs, pass the hat for a nominal guarantee and odds are the road dog reedist will consider holding court for your crowd.

This disc is a warts-and-all affair compared to the pair’s 1994 studio session for Okkadisk, but it also illustrates the level of rapport the two have built in the decade between Packaging is minimal, but functional featuring monochromatic screen-printing and a thin cardstock case. They even dispense with track titles and the recording initially carries a slightly dodgy balance that favors Drake. Brötzmann sounds the charge on alto, Drake swiftly closing ranks at his flank. The drummer’s ensuing solo demonstrates a pervasive Blakey-by-way-of-Denis Charles influence, with volcanic press rolls erupting around a sturdy hi-hat metronome. He slips seamlessly into a funky backbeat for Brötzmann’s ululating re-entry and it’s as if he’ll exhaust all his aces on this first track. Listeners familiar with the deep playing deck Drake has at his disposal know better.

Recording balance improves on the second piece for frame drum and tarogato. Drake works fingers and palms against stretched animal skin, exploiting the natural resonance of the surface to create layered, dancing rhythms. Brötzmann is initially at his most tender on the Hungarian reed, switching to his usual abrasive argot in a circular improvisation that wears on a bit too long before returning briefly to a disarming lyricism. Hoary, hard-bitten tenor of the sort the surname Brötzmann is synonymous with dominates the third piece with Drake deferentially silent at his kit for the first three-and-half minutes out of eleven-and-change. The drummer’s explosive solo more than makes up that difference as does the start-stop call and response that closes the cut. Alto returns for the finale and the duo takes the set out in much the way they came in with a melancholic, melody-girded dirge. This one’s a keeper and well worth the asking price, but an even better idea is to get it from these two in person on tour. There’s still time!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Joe Chambers - Horace to Max (Savant)

The arc of drummer Joe Chambers’ recording career hasn’t matched the magnitude of his merit until relatively recently. Blue Note used him in a sideman capacity on a number of its seminal Sixties sessions, but never tapped him for the leader’s chair until decades later and then summarily dropped him after just a single album. A checkered stint for Muse in the Seventies suffered alternately from over-ambitiousness and date-stamping catering to commercial concerns. Enter Savant in 2006 and the release of The Outlaw and a new lease on recorded expression. The critically-lauded album highlighted his creative concept on mallet instruments as well as conventional cans. Four years later, this follow-up builds on that foundation in fine fashion.

The disc’s title gives away the ghost(s) with Chambers nodding to past masters (and colleagues) Horace Silver and Max Roach. He also pulls in tunes from the songbooks of other colleagues starting with swinging version of Kenny Dorham’s “Asiatic Raes”, a staple of the classic Jazz Messengers repertoire under Silver’s joint leadership and the pianist’s own contemporaneous “Ecaroh”. Seven of the nine pieces feature Chambers vibes and marimba. The leader’s canny approach shares welcome common ground with his old Blue Note confrere Bobby Hutcherson through melodic pattern drawing and close attention paid to his instruments’ chromatic properties. Pianist Helen Sung and bassist Richie Goode pinch hit for regulars Xavier Davis and Dwayne Burno on Roach’s “Lonesome Lover.” Steve Berrios alternates kit duties on a few of the cuts where Chambers fields mallets, otherwise sticking to percussion.

Chambers’ compositional and arranging talents remain on par with his instrumental skills. His renderings of Roach’s “Man from South Africa” and Wayne Shorter’s “Water Babies”, in particular, are ripe with harmonic contours and fertile solo space. Tenorist Eric Alexander takes to these open-ended modal surroundings especially well. His agile, emotive lines immediately erase any conjectures as to cookie-cutter playing. Guest vocalist Nicole Guiland lends her expressive pipes to Roach’s “Mendacity” and “Lover” and works particularly well in concert with the leader’s tumbling mallet play. Abbey Lincoln comparisons are ascribable in the regal mien she adopts for the pair of pieces with a velvety cerulean articulation and strategic wordless ornamentations enlivening the lyrics. Canonical Monk and a like-minded Chambers original sans piano and kit cap the set off in short order and take the session tally to a definitive win.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Adam Rudolph & Ralph Jones – Yèyí (Meta)

Subtitled “A Psalm of Prototypical Vibrations”, Adam Rudolph’s latest project for percussion and partner is firmly ensconced in the guiding spiritual philosophy that has long informed his playing. Under his conception, rhythms are a conduit and connective tissue for life. Percussive instruments, referred to here as membranophones and idiophones, are but one family of vessels through which these healing and sustaining vibrations travel. Rudolph’s partner Ralph Jones handles a variety of reed and wind instruments, referred to collectively as aerophones, as another complementary means to communicate said vibrations. Each man crosses over into the other’s area of expertise, but for the most part adheres to his respective corner and arsenal.

Conceived of and executed as a continuous collaborative narrative the hour-long piece contains ten track demarcations to aid aural ingress. Whether the listener embraces the spiritual underpinnings of the duo’s dialogue is largely secondary to the overarching efficacy of the shared act of sound creation itself. Rudolph has honed an accomplished and creative approach to rhythm and percussion over four decades as an improvising musician. Jones’ presence isn’t quite so high profile but he holds his own in shaping pliable and engaging melodic lines against his partner’s shifting and undulating curtain of percussion. Arabic, African and South American elements all occur as thematic referrents.

The conversation commonly transpires with Rudolph sculpting a porous rhythm on some variation of hand drum and Jones improvising atop and against it. Opening sections for conga and djembe coupled with flute and an extended improvisation by Jones on bass clarinet are particularly effective in this regard and the meditative cast of the resulting melodic-rhythmic braid combines both calmative and propulsive elements. Brief interstitial detours into silence arise at various junctures, but the music-making is mostly uninterrupted. Several of the instruments, particularly in Jones’ camp, wear their tonal limitations prominently. Another danger is onset of self-indulgence with patterns that follow familiar spiritual tropes. The pair negotiates these potential pitfalls with aplomb and while the music sometimes feels unduly spare and loose, it largely sustains cohesion over the challenging duration of the set.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Paul Motian Trio - Lost in a Dream (ECM)

Few partnerships between label and musician remain as felicitous as that shared by Paul Motian and ECM. Described in certain circles as an anti-drummer, a back-handed reduction also ascribed to Shelly Manne back in the day, Motian’s language at the kit is commonly the epitome of economy and nuance. Bombast and obviousness are his adversaries. Spaciousness, an overriding melodicism and preference for implication rather than explication as communicated through his stick and brush play can frustrate audiences expecting the momentum and excitement of more conventional players. ECM has long favored a parallel attributes in its production values and sound.

The venerable Village Vanguard makes perfect sense as venue for this live date considering how often Motian’s performed there over the years. Pianist Jason Moran and tenorist Chris Potter jibe beautifully with Motian’s moody musical motifs. Potter sounds a bit as if he’s been studying Motian’s longstanding colleague Joe Lovano, both in the grainy legato voicings he funnels through his reed and the floating manner in which he deploys them. His tonal versatility coincides beautifully with the naked emotions at the core of Motian’s compositions and he capitalizes on his instrument’s registers from a burnished purr to a keening cry, sometimes within the same phrase. Moran mostly leaves his more athletic tendencies at the stage door and traffics instead in impressionistic territory more akin to Motian’s old employer Bill Evans.

As with Motian’s usual wont, tempos are often slow and tune structures mirror the sentiment of the album title in their gradual, open-ended development. “Drum Music” and “Abacus”, are revelatory exceptions. The free jazz-friendly first piece advances on roiling rhythmic patterns from all three players. Moran strikes staccato clusters and Potter resorts to heated spates of clipped honks and scribbles underscored by some wicked hard-spun sticking by the leader. The second is a largely a solo piece for Motian that echoes the mathematic connotations of its title. Outside of passionate bookending theme statements, Motian has the piece to himself, calmly and confidently reveling in the textural and colorist capabilities of his kit. Five minutes of percussive bliss tick by couched in tumbling tom-tom rolls and effervescent cymbal splashes. Both pieces are cogent reminders that while Motian’s prevailing style as a romanticist is well established, it’s hardly a set of shackles when it comes to celebrating more overtly animated sides of his musical personality.

ROW: Wheeler/ Konitz/ Holland/ Frisell - Angel Song (ECM)

The surnames of four principals generously adorn the album spine, but this sublime set identifies easily as a Kenny Wheeler session. Nine compositions of the trumpeter’s devising constitute a program. All exemplify the caliber of creatively-conceived balladry that’s long been his operating standard. Quiet, conciliatory counterpoint and a floating conception of harmony are common denominators between the pieces, all which hang together in spacious, but cohesive congruity. Lee Konitz is a kindred spirit with Wheeler as a melodic improviser nonpareil. The altoist pockets his customary improvisatory speed and intricacy for a decorous delivery ripe with sentiment and emotion, sketching in textured charcoals rather than sharp graphite. Guitarist Bill Frisell jibes equally well with Wheeler’s pastoral melodic forms, a cleanly ringing amplification on his strings magnifying the dream-like demeanor of the set. Bassist Dave Holland is a free-ranging anchor, his pliable, unassuming bass patterns padding over any rhythmic and harmonic lacunae. As a paragon of the ECM aesthetic there are few sessions that surpass this one. Many of the quartet’s musical constructions flirt with edges of excessive sentimentality without crossing them. That kind of quietly daredevil tightrope walk is Wheeler’s specialty.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

OM - Willisau (Intakt)

Forbearers in the fringe mergers of free jazz and rock in the early the Seventies, the Swiss quartet OM blazed a trail in Europe for the better part of a decade before disbanding in favor of solo careers. For those listeners who weren’t around for that heady first go round this summer of 2008 reunion set recorded at the titular annual jazz event suggests that while time may have passed, the foursome is still fearsome as a collective. The potential foibles of undertaking such an unstable stylistic alloy remain extant and evident in the risk-taking program the ensemble decides upon.

Saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and guitarist Christy Doran have similarly pan-glossal approaches to their instruments. Leimgruber plies soprano and tenor from a post-Evan Parker perspective, moving comfortably from minimalist to maximalist and bringing in a host of extended techniques from slap-tonguing to circular breathing. Doran uses an array of devices on his strings to create a rainbow of a/tonal effects. Coupled to a conceptual creativity that rarely stays rooted in one spot for so long, his heavily embroidered-playing can occasionally be a chore though there’s no denying the craftsmanship behind in his creations. Bassist Bobby Burri also uses electric and acoustic modification on his upright. Drummer Fredy Studer sustains a dynamic range from whisper to roar behind his kit and is particularly adept at a signature staccato cymbal pattern that’s an aural approximation of humming bird wings, which he employs whenever the tension requires ramping. A rock backbeat serves as fallback at various points in the program, cueing plectral firepower from Doran’s corner.

Comprised of a dozen parts, the performance segues between guiding themes in a largely seamless fashion. The four accord the audience no quarter from the start, opening with a madrigal-like exchange of Dadaist verse and voice effects. At just over three-minutes it feels thrice as long and gives way to a relay-structured free exchange that spans the next several segments until the chugging, fractured groove of “Part IV”. The set’s middle sections, Parts V-VII specifically, are most satisfying to my ears, but then again they’re also arguably the most accessible in terms of form. Leimgruber latches on a mournful minor-key motive reminiscent of Fred Anderson’s cerulean style of phrasing and the others shape atmospheric embellishments around him. The next section builds on this prevailing mood, Leimgruber growing agitated against an undulating accompaniment hinging on Burri’s corpulent bass ostinato. The delicate soprano and guitar dialogue at the center of “Part VII” offers yet another permutation on the ensemble’s inclusive playbook.

As is usually the case, the free improv and rock elements aren’t the most complementary bedfellows, but it’s that tension that feeds the performance’s unpredictability. Rather than shy from those moments of collision and potential implosion, the quartet embraces them. While not all of what transpires sticks as memorable, the shared courage present in throwing it all at the audience to begin with elicits easy admiration.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things - Stories and Negotiations (482 Music)

The last tine in drummer Mike Reed’s three-pronged exploration of Chicago jazz history, this disc is appropriately climactic in its inspired variation on the project’s guiding theme. Reed conscripted three living legends with deep ties to the Windy City scene - trumpeter Art Hoyle, trombonist Julian Priester and multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, heard solely on tenor – to augment his working quartet. Trombonist Jeb Bishop is also on board to further enliven the ensemble. The music was recorded in concert at Chicago’s Millennium Park and the slightly washed out sound is side effect of those open air surroundings. Rather than hindering the performance though, it actually accords the music fidelity in common with the original recording circumstances of some of the chosen tunes.

Reed’s canny arranging skills are at full muster on the five covers that complement three originals co-composed by altoist Greg Ward and dedicated to each of the venerable guests. Grand gestures and intimate moments abound. The variety imbued in the pieces is evident from the onset of “Song of a Star”, a hardbop number originally composed by 50s altoist John Jenkins, where the horn section punctuates a solo by tenorist Tim Haldeman backed only by Reed’s deft brushwork. The closing “Lost and Found” has a similar section where Reed’s lively ride cymbal propels a stripped down swinging dialogue between Hoyle and Priester. Earlier in the fully-packed five-minute piece tenorist Tim Haldeman and Sullivan hearken back to the classic tenor jousts of yore, trading a spate of heated choruses. The clarity and touch of Reed’s drumming here and throughout the set is comparably accomplished. Critic Larry Kart likens him to Dannie Richmond in the liners, and it’s an astute analogue along with that of Max Roach or Shelly Manne in the way Reed’s able to advance and enhance the action without overwhelming his colleagues from behind the kit.

Easily distinguishable from the younger, often-brasher Bishop in his gliding French horn-like tone and measured phrasing, Priester holds the spotlight on Reed’s “Door #1” and his own “Urnack”, a hard swinging burner that was a staple in the Sun Ra songbook of the mid-50s. The hungry octet also devours Ra’s contemporaneous “El is a Sound of Joy”, imbuing it with a Mingusian fervor in its final minutes. As with several other pieces, Reed affixes a fully-conceived preamble prior to the theme statement that primes both players and audience for the fireworks to follow. Jason Roebke is something of an unsung hero on the date, his vibrant bass lines covering the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic bases while retaining with a Ronnie Boykins-like bounce whether at an ambling walk or an expeditious sprint. As satisfying as the previous two entries in Reed’s auspicious series are, it’s this final one that earns the encomium pick of the three.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Stephan Crump - Reclamation (Sunnyside)

Echoing the ancient cross-textual applications of its namesake, Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio is something of a departure in contemporary jazz: A string ensemble that translates the chamber connotations of its instrumentation into a strong rhythmic versatility more endemic to American folk forms. Crump leads the group from a position of quiet authority on double bass. Guitarists Liberty Ellman and David Fox assume equal footing at the flanks, the first fretting acoustic strings while the second picks electric. Their first outing (on Papillion Sounds) set the framework on which this second set adroitly elaborates.

“Memphis” name checks both the capital of Crump’s native Tennessee and (perhaps unintentionally) the Ptolemaic variant of the translating stone that yield’s the band name. The piece develops as a folksy loping dialogue, the sort of pastoral rap session that expert string benders like Joes Pass and Pisano used to specialize in the Seventies. Ellman and Fox layer gently ringing tones as Crump’s cushy pizzicato saunters up the middle. “The Leaves, The Rain” and “Toward Fall” are of similar cast, the first a delicate ballad with Crump taking on a prominent melodic role on par with the guitars while the second trucks in warm contrapuntal picking around the bassist’s robust center.

“Silogism” is the first of several pieces emphasizing the trio’s rhythmic spontaneity. Crump’s strings are big, round, resonant and grooving. Ellman etches spiky syncopated strums while coiled scrapes emanate from Fox’s corner. On “Overreach” Fox’s loose chording hardens into a tight groove anchored by Crump’s elastic stops and embellished by Ellman’s textured picking. As is often the case throughout the program, agile counterpoint once again drives the action. “Shoes, Jump” compels a contrastive mood with a breezy swing atop a bobbing samba-derived beat. Crump threads in some wordless vocalizing between his syncopated slaps and plucks.

Bowed bass makes an initial appearance on the somber ballad “Escalateur” where Crump shaves scintillating harmonics against a convergence of mellifluous guitar tones. At 14+ minutes, “Pernambuco” spools out suite-like, starting with an assemblage of quiet rubbing sounds and expanding through a passage of dour arco flanked by filigree picking into revolving leads and a pair of stellar solos from the guitarists. Alternating genteel lyricism with gritty, risk-taking immediacy, Crump and his colleagues arrive at another winner that wears its few blemishes without chagrin. Theirs is fearless string play of the first order and comes easily recommended on such grounds.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ari Ambrose & Stephen Riley - Tenor Treats Two (Steeplechase)

Resuming right where its companion volume left off, this disc delivers another stimulating hour-plus colloquy between its co-leaders. Tenorist Ari Ambrose gets top billing on the tray card, but it’s very much an affair of equals, onset to finish. Stephen Riley is the more overtly mercurial and idiosyncratic of the two frontline partners. His lushly-conceived tone and phrasing are instantly recognizable, a post-millennial alloy of Lester Young disciples running from Don Byas through Teo Macero to Warne Marsh an on to Wayne Shorter and beyond. That hollowed-out huskiness frequently contrasts swimmingly with Ambrose’s often more straightforwardly athletic sound.

On the previous volume, Ambrose playfully aped his partner at several junctures, adopting a grainy timbre and fluttery doppelganger inflection when voicing a line. He keeps that mimicry to a minimum here. This set also stands apart in the greater degree on interplay between the horns. Several of their spiraling chases recall the sort of near-telepathic harmonic congruity between the aforementioned Marsh and Lee Konitz. Solos are still the frequent conveyance for forward momentum, but the heightened willingness on the part of the principals to engage each other directly gives this volume a distinctive and definitive edge. There numerous are moments where their overlapping lines become an organized tangle of free-flowing counterpoint.

Bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Matt Wilson aren’t simply window-dressing. Both men actively feed and respond to the tenors with shifting backdrops and move to the foreground for improvisations when situation permits. The tunes don’t offer much in the way of surface surprises, though it is a treat to see Jimmy Rowles “502 Blues” amongst the other bop and earlier familiars. It along with El Gaucho, Riley’s just-released quartet record (also on Steeplechase) are oblique hints to the saxophonist’s abiding affection for Shorter’s Adam’s Apple. A 13+ minute foray through Jobim’s “Wave” departs from the predictable through the tenors’ close dissection of the dog-eared bossa theme, itself a melody seemingly custom tailored to Riley’s romance-ready vernacular. Listeners with a yen for tandem tenor that treads reliably off the beaten track are strongly advised to check this and the earlier volume out without compunction.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Ullmann/Swell 4 - News? No News! (Jazzwerkstatt)

Finding chemistry in a frontline partner, let alone a band writ-large, is no easy task. German reedist/flautist Gebhard Ullmann has an uncanny knack for doing just that. His rewarding association with trombonist Steve Swell dates back over half a decade to a fateful quartet session for CIMP. Bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul were the other members on that date and they bring a comparable acuity to this new studio outing. As a finely-tuned foursome they have a clear understanding of each other’s capabilities and a shared determination to make the most of them in collaborative fashion. The kinetic cover painting by Music Witness Jeff Schlanger is a fitting visual analogue to their collective sound.

Ullmann and Swell divide composerly duties on eight of the album’s ten tracks. The two others in the program, tagged with the titles “GPS #1” and “GPS #2”, unfold as group improvisations. Several distinctive traits separate the music and its execution from standard issue stack-blowing so common to ensembles of comparable instrumentation. Scripted heads are starting points on several pieces, but neither Ullmann nor Swell is content to sally the safe route of predictable loud-to-soft passages. Switchbacks and detours are frequent. The rhythm section even drops out completely on and “Berlin 9:35” leaving the horns to dance and dive in a free-associative dialogue.

Greene is an unflagging pillar on bass and works well with Altschul in keeping canvas from going static. Altschul, a pioneer in blending dynamic polyrhythms with textured free pulse at the cusp of the Sixties in the company of Braxton and Corea, is still going strong half a century later as his at once voluble and inventive solos that close out “Planet Hopping on a Thursday Afternoon” and “Airtight” assert. Swell wears his Roswell Rudd reminiscent-ruddiness proudly through frequent improvisations that rely as much on braying and whinnying timbres as they do on thematic development. Ullmann’s flute is nowhere to be found, but there’s plenty of tasty tenor and bass clarinet play to dine on in its stead. To risk a cliché, this is a quartet that stops to smell the roses, so to speak. Energy abounds in their conversations, but it’s never of the unfettered abrasive sort. That unerring fealty to musicality leads to eminent listenability and an immediate impulse for repeat exposure.

ROW: Patato y Totico (Verve)

Much like conguero Sabu Martinez’s self-titled album for Blue Note released over a decade earlier, this 1968 slice of authentic Afro-Cuban street music stands distinctively apart from the remainder of its label’s catalog. Verve was home to various popular purveyors of Cuban jazz including bandleader/composers like Chico O’Farrill, Willie Bobo and Machito. Principals Carlos “Patato” Valdez and Eugenio “Totico” Arango were pundits of progenitor rhythms, players enamored of the Yoruba-derived rituals of the island-indigenous Lucumi. Coupled with that guiding appreciation, they possessed the keen insight to conscript living legends of the idiom to help bring the music to contemporary audiences. Chief among the cast of chosen ringers were tres-master Arsenio Rodriguez (who also held court on the aforementioned Sabu outing) and pioneering son-bassist Cachao. Conguero Patato fronts a modest-sized percussion section. Totico directs a small cadre of vocalists. The songs are the equivalent of street music standards and highly infectious due to pervasive polyrhythms and stinging strums from the aging Rodriguez’s whose wizened digits still carry an impressive deftness. Now that the great thaw has officially commenced around these formerly-frigid parts, this platter makes a welcome return to my regular rotation. It’s an apposite aural accompaniment to a snifter of Sailor Jerry’s and a backyard strung hammock.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Geri Allen - Flying Toward the Sound (Motema)

As with Mary Lou Williams before her, Geri Allen is a pianist unencumbered by extrinsic stylistic boundaries. Williams’ influential music ran a gamut from pre-swing to free, pulling in blues, gospel and folk facets to form a compositional language resolutely of her cast. Allen occupies a comparable space in her philosophy toward the ivories. This latest disc, a solo recital funded through a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, presents her broad creative spectrum undiluted by extraneous collaborators. Even so, it’s a program guided by an abiding dedicatory focus. Allen touches upon three specific influences in the eight-part suite that dominates the set. A final closing composition, “Your Pure Self (Mother to Son)”, written in honor of her son, is the only piece marred slightly by a somewhat anticlimactic end.

The title piece, reprised at suite’s terminus, evokes the musical mien of McCoy Tyner in its vibrant melodicism and propulsive lyricism. Sun Ra’s spirit also sounds alive in the tinkling descending flourishes that punctuate Allen’s runs and are reminiscent of the Saturnian’s work on such solo reveries as “Advice for Medics” and “Space Towers”. Herbie Hancock receives an extended nod on “Red Velvet in Winter”, a densely-organized piece imbued with a verdant rolling left-hand groove. “Dancing Mystic Poets at Midnight” tips its honoree Cecil Taylor in the colorful verbiage of its title as well as the percussive collisions of its construction. Allen’s active interpolations of Taylor are closer in construction to the iconoclastic pianist’s Fifties experiments than the more unbounded structures of his European-influenced later work. The set’s centerpiece is the 16-minute “God’s Ancient Sky” structured much like a mini-suite in itself and ripe with improvisatory detours.

Allen’s prodigious technique figures prominently throughout the set though it never feels as if she’s merely showing off at the expense of the larger themes imbedded in the work. The congruity between her hands borders on the preternatural as her left-hand figures frequently match those of her right in terms of complexity and speed. The effect is like a thrilling relay race, her scuttling digits tandem trajectories that and leaving trails of resonant notes. Her pedal work is exemplary as well. On the lush reprise of the title piece robust right hand patterns tumble expressively against an undercurrent of swelling left hand fills. This is a gorgeous and emotion-rich record, one that bonds its overarching beauty to rich pianistic history as seen through the prism of Allen’s ever-evolving art.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Thomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult - Lonely House (Covers) (CIMP)

Covers seem natural grist for the creative music mill that is cellist Thomas Ulrich’s Cargo Cult. The cleverly-coined chamber ensemble evinces a flexibility of form and function that invites investigation of a myriad of compositional sources. Ulrich and his bandmates, guitarist Rolf Sturm and bassist Michael Bisio, are voracious musical consumers. Combine that collective appetite with comparably broad commands of their instruments and the result is a reliable recipe for far-ranging songbook interpretation.

This set, their third for the Cadence family of labels and the first in a slated pair of releases, centers on just that, the songs of others. Jazz standards vie with eclectic tunes from other styles and eras. “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, a lush romanza pulled from the Italian opera L'elisir d'amore, wends along on a plump Bisio ostinato and Sturm’s shimmery chording. The trio’s take on Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” comes from a completely different corner of the stylistic compass, coupling old school swing to passages of languid free improvisation. The laidback sum captures the original in spirit if not complete letter and is curiously reminiscent of the sort of chamber jazz interplay common to the vintage Red Norvo Trio with Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell.

The reading of Stevie Wonder’s “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” by way of a Jeff Beck’s(!) cover of same is even more lateral in its thinking. Sturm adopts a warm, aqueous amplification as Ulrich wrings the arcing swathes of pathos from his strings, dipping deliriously close to melodrama in the bargain. It’s a tack he approximates on a late program foray through Ahbez’s “Nature Boy”. A more subdued variant on that abiding sentimentality informs later renderings of the standards “September Song” and “Lonely House”. “Night and Day” and “Days of Wine and Roses”, serve as the set’s other two dyed-in-wool standards, the former laced with lilting island flavor while the latter pivots on callus-abrading counterpoint. Sturm abstains from amplification in both cases, favoring instead an acoustic picking style akin to Howard Alden or Charlie Byrd where he occasionally strikes harp-like overtones in his strums.

“Goodnight Irene” and “Come On in My Kitchen” collectively scratch two sides of the folk blues coin with plectrum, fingers and bow. On the first, the mood and delivery is rural and wistful, a back porch lullaby. For the second, Bisio sits out leaving Sturm to sound off on brittle slide-inflected banjo as Ulrich to runs down raw-fingered pizzicato abstractions on the Robert Johnson-appropriated theme. “Cortez the Killer” is similarly left-field in its presence and design. Sturm pays tribute to the grandfather of emotionally-employed amplifier reverb while Ulrich bows the mournful theme in a surprisingly effective distillation of the Neil Young classic. Theirs is a stripe of chamber jazz that resolutely refuses the pinions of the phrase. The set’s eventually-to-be-released companion piece, Discovers, promises more fire, this time lit with compositional tinder from within.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Jeremiah Cymerman - "Under a Blue Grey Sky" (Porter)

Clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman caps his licorice stick in favor of composer’s quill on his latest disc. The album-length titular piece comprises six acts and an interlude for string quartet. Cymerman’s hand is also active in the electronic “treatments” he adds to the strings players’ interactions. His picks for participants prove inspired choices with Jessica Pavone and Olivia De Prato handling viola and violin, Christopher Hoffman hoisting cello and Tom Blancarte fielding the bottom register on double bass. Each member is intimately-familiar with both conventional play and the avenues of expression available through extended techniques.

The initial minutes of the opening act almost sound like a classic John Carpenter score in the convergence of synth-saturated swells and tension-building string drones. In the second act, Cymerman simulates the soft crackle of a dry brush fire beneath the by turns heated and pensive communication of the strings. His careful manipulations complement rather than contradict, adding industrial overtones to the already dynamic arco layers and heightening the gravitas. John Zorn registers in the Old World inflected theme that drives the third act on the back of Blancarte’s bulbous ostinato and the flanking swirl of violin and viola. Cymerman’s presence here is minimal and the dusky beauty of the commingled strings needs no enhancement.

On subsequent pieces the composer’s involvement is more invasive. Whirring sustains and amplified creaks create a haunted atmosphere on “Act IV” with the strings flirting with full-fledged conflagration amidst interludes of humming confluence that carry over into the following track. A penultimate interlude sounds almost completely electronic as fragments of fluttering static scurry by above a grounding oscillating buzz. Hoffman’s cello opens the final act with an ominous plucked ostinato to which the other instruments respond to in gradual melancholic succession. Cymerman’s presence is again minimal at first, leaving the rich sonorities of the overlapping strings to their conversation until a wash of echoing electronics arrives to enhance the drama. As with the rest of the program, it’s an uncommonly astute merger of acoustic and electronic elements and an affecting performance by all involved.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

David Binney - Aliso (Criss Cross)

Over the past decade, altoist David Binney has accrued accolades as one of the most in-demand saxophonists operating out of New York City. His dance card is often enviably full with projects of various stripes and persuasions under his own leadership and those of his many peers. Criss Cross is a regular conduit for some of these vehicles of expression. As Binney recounts the relationship, “It keeps me doing things that have been part of my life since I was a kid.”

That level of near-autonomy accorded to artist on the part of label is a relative rarity and a boon that Binney doesn’t take for granted. He describes the session as old school in that rehearsals were minimal with the band convened during an opportune convergence of breaks in touring schedules. The tunes reflect an overriding informality with four Binney-scripted blowing numbers complementing five jazz carbuncles that the players could easily play blindfolded. Two Blue Note-vintage Wayne Shorter pieces, “Toy Tune” and “Teru” speak to the subtle obliquities in Binney’s phraseology while remaining true their source incarnations. Binney also wins immediate points for his arrangement of the Sam Rivers far-too-rarely referenced chestnut “Fuchsia Swing Song”. A 14-minute explosive explication of Coltrane’s modal workout “Africa” signs the set off.

Binney’s sidemen are all regular associates well attuned to his Named by Binney as one of his favorite musicians, guitarist Wayne Krantz is also an occasionally distracting force on the date, particularly when he pulls from a derivative fusion bag. Despite some tight unison-play on the head, his rock-inflected solo on title piece devolves into near-wankery, coming across as Larry Coryell-lite and only serving to emphasize the piece’s leaden backbeat underpinning. Chunky wah-wah effects in the closing minutes of “A Day in Music” and shimmering atmospherics on “Strata”, accomplish similarly hobbling outcomes. Fortunately, these questionable sections occur sparingly and Binney’s incisive alto lines in concert with the expert rhythm section contributions repeatedly counterweight the scales back into welcome ensemble balance. Several of his pieces are riddled with metric suspensions and staggered beat constructions, all of which drummer Dan Weiss revels in bringing to life. No new ground broken, but rather familiar fertile soil tilled, this session sustains Binney’s positioning as one of the more accomplished stylists of his generation.