Monday, May 31, 2010

Ideal Bread - Transmit (Cuneiform)

Steve Lacy was a student of Monk for much of his lengthy musical career. Ellington and Herbie Nichols offered other areas for avid study. Lacy was a prolific composer in his own right, but he never lost sight in of the worth in investigating and interpreting the work of his elders. That philosophy of inclusiveness passed directly on to his pupils and fans. Six years since his passing a number of bands are following suit by turning to his songbook for repertoire and inspiration. Operating under the nominal leadership of baritonist Josh Sinton, a former student of Lacy’s, Ideal Bread is one of the best and brightest in that number.

This professionally produced and recorded Cuneiform set represents the ensemble’s second release. Their self-titled first released on KMB, pressed as a limited edition CDR, swiftly fell out of print despite garnering a smattering of encomiums among critics. The quartet picks up right where it left off, tackling seven Lacy tunes of varying vintage and origin in a fashion that relies evenly on all four participants. Sinton is in a somewhat unique position given the years he spent under Lacy’s tutelage and as his copyist. Transcribing tunes en mass after Lacy’s passing he amassed a formidable songbook on which to draw. The pieces balance Lacy’s often arch, cyclic writing with roomy passages for personal and collective improvisation. Bassist Reuben Radding’s richly rendered solo preface to “Clichés”, which narrows into a thrumming ostinato in the ensuing ensemble entry, is but one notable instance among many of Lacy seeds giving rise to original individualized tendrils.

“As Usual” opens the program and the foursome devours it with vigor. Sinton is especially forceful in his solo, bringing the full brunt of his big horn to bear on the shuffle theme but falling short of bombastic parody. Radding and drummer Tomas Fujiwara balance tension and swing in a swaying hammock rhythm. “The Dumps” trucks in humor too, the band pausing for raucous Robert Altman-worthy recitation of the title as mantra before leaping collectively into the corkscrew melody. There’s a section of “The Breath” where the Stinton and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke forgo their usual timbral territories and climb into high perch so often occupied by Lacy’s straight horn. Puckered expulsions contrast with Radding’s steady bass throb and the trickling textures of Fujiwara’s mallets. It’s a fleeting stretch, but one that conveys both esteem and independence within its span. “Papa’s Midnite Hop” flips back to Lacy’s 1976 quartet with Roswell Rudd and even further to the pair’s roots in progressive Dixieland, a fitting full circle closer for a band well-steeped in the vibrant continuum of its inspiration.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pete Robbins - Silent Z Live (Hate Laugh Music)

Concert versus studio. That enduring dichotomy of setting is a driving factor in altoist Pete Robbins’ fourth release. His third was a studio affair; one that while deemed an overall success by the altoist didn’t quite muster the intensity of his live work. This set, pulled from a pair of dates at Brooklyn venues, has intensity to spare thanks in no small part to the colleagues convened for the occasions. The other obvious determinant is Robbins’ songbook, an eclectic assemblage of compositions influenced in part by Tim Berne’s work, particularly in the context of Bloodcount. Robbins’ puzzle board pieces a similar metric complexity, highly malleable harmony and an embrace of prog-rock and fusion elements. These are compositions that resolutely avoid stasis and rarely cede an often exhilarating and occasionally dizzying forward momentum.

Of Robbins’ band mates, Tyshawn Sorey is arguably the most integral as a drummer whose rhythmic versatility and perspicacity is seemingly impossible to surpass. His constantly active and pan-directional stick play hardly falls under rubric of subordinate accompaniment, Rubik’s Cube beats coming fast and furious from his kit. Cornetist Jesse Neuman and guitarist Mike Gamble each make ample use of electronic effects with varying degrees of success. Neuman’s horn almost sounds like a chromatic harmonica on the opening “edit/revise”, expanding into Milesean watercolors for his solo. Gamble’s florid rock-inflected runs are sometimes spill over into excessive distraction, but there’s no denying the precision he applies with plectrum and pedals. His rippling melancholic chords in the opening minutes of “his life, for all its waywardness” feature him at his best and the entrance of the others almost feels like an intrusion.

Bassist Thomas Morgan isn’t often a foreground presence, but his contributions are just as essential as his more gregarious partners. The rubber band ostinato snapping gently between Sorey’s chattering syncopations on the flowing “some southern anthem” and the oleaginous unaccompanied introduction to “Bugle Call” are just two example of his sturdy pizzicato placement. The latter is the first of four final pieces that trade Neuman for pianist Cory Smythe and the added ‘acoustic’ presence subtly alters the ensemble dynamic without undercutting its guiding characteristics. Intricate meter investigations and free-spooling melody are still prominent preoccupations, Sorey lighting brushfires beneath Robbins’ and Gamble with his sticks even in the closing tightly-wound collective improvisation. This one took me some time to warm to, but once it clicked the rewards were ongoing.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bryan & the Haggards - Pretend It's the End of the World (Hot Cup)

Country and jazz have rarely been congenial bedfellows. Sure, there’s the heyday of western swing to consider and much more recent cross-pollinations like the Blue Note-backed collaboration between Wynton and Willie, but more often the genres reflect and oil and water dynamic. Cue Bryan and the Haggards, a hardcore honky-tonk freebop collective who aims to mend any flattened fences while simultaneously removing any need for them in the first place. A swift survey of the roster reveals how well the players are suited to the task. Altoist Jon Irabagon and bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott are two fourths of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a sister ensemble that makes it its business to eradicate similarly ironclad genre distinctions. Tenorist Bryan Murray, guitarist Jon Lundbom and drummer Danny Fischer are new names to me but based on what’s on hand here they’re now radar fixtures.

Regular Hot Cup provocateur Leonardo Featherweight supplies the edifying liners, which not only run down key elements of Hag’s history, but more germane to the project several serendipitous path crossings with bassist Charlie Haden. The ensuing punch line, Merle Haggard’s influence on the music that came to be known as “free jazz” is unquestionable and the purpose of The Haggards, to explore the complementary nature of the “New Thing” and the “Bakersfield Sound”. All of this may naturally seem like a taffy-like stretching of the historical record, but sounds themselves are anything but suspect. Tailoring seven Strangers-era standards to free-jazz friendly interpretations isn’t a cake walk, but neither is it reinventing the wheel and harmelodic Haggard ends up not as far out as first imagined.

“Silver Wings” hits an early wrong note with Lundbom’s overly rockish and overbearing guitar, a move he repeats on the closing conflagratory “Trouble in Mind”, though the horns strike on just the right anthemic “tears in beer” sweep. Lundbom rights things on “Swinging Doors”, going for twang and shimmer instead of craggy feedback. Fischer hits the proper four-square backbeat on brushes in tandem with Elliott’s clip-clopping strings and the solos practically bleed rye-soaked sawdust. “Working Man Blues” ups the tempo with some sharp jousting by the horns and knife-edged fret play from Lundbom that sounds like Jimmy Bryant on a lysergic bender. Ballad time arrives with the beauteous stroll through “Miss the Mississippi and You” and a lovely lengthy dialogue between Murray and Irabagon. Purposefully fractured and hobbled, the bent take on “Lonesome Fugitive” signals the homestretch with more jocular song deconstruction and reed-perforating blowing and “All of Me Belongs to Me” debuts Elliott’s pie-in-the-face Bakersfield-meets-scat vocals. I just have one question though; it being a Hag homage, where exactly in the hell is the pedal steel?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ross Bolleter - Night Kitchen (2002-2009) (Emanem)

Like Roland Kirk and his panoply of horns, Russ Bolleter faces the charge of gimmickry each time he holds forth on his instruments. Bolleter’s province is ruined pianos, the specifics for which are delineated in his own book on the subject, The Well Weathered Piano (3rd edition). “Ruined” is an important adjectival designation, distinct from “neglected” or “devastated” with a key requirement residing in the condition that no single note sounds like one attainable from an even-tempered upright piano.

This is Bolleter’s second collection of music on Emanem and his tenth since 2000. As with the first, it finds him making music on instruments that would seem upon cursory visual inspection as being unworthy of such attention. Bolleter recognizes the inherent humor and quixotic nature of his enterprise, but he’s also very serious about his investigations. He improvises his pieces and in the case of this particular program, plays nearly all purposefully at night or near dawn with specific sources of inspiration in mind.

Because of their dilapidated anatomies, multiple ruined pianos are often necessary to approximate the musical capacities of their more fortunate and well-cared for cousins. Bolleter commonly employs four or five, situated about his kitchen in such away as to accomplish easy simultaneous access to all. They range wildly in provenance and age with one, a Carl Bernstein, having the distinctly dubious honor of being home to a hive of bees.

The uncertainty built into the instruments by the entropy of nature and circumstance is a key component of the resulting music. Bolleter counts on the unexpected sounds that arise out of their compromised componentry, what he refers to as “dongs, clicks, dedoomps, doks and tonks”. “Goya’s Dog” sounds like a collection of chimes and gongs colluding with clattering typewriter keys and struck bicycle spokes. “Kiss Kiss” changes locations to a dry dam on Bolleter’s property and employs three different instruments than those in his kitchen.

Bolleter’s music broaches clever meta questions about instrumentalist and instrument, but more importantly works on purely musical terms as well. Some of the pieces have a rambling, meandering feel about them, but as Bolleter astutely notes, “the notes that don’t work are at least as interesting as those that do.”

ROW: Benton Flippen - "Old Time, New Times" (Rounder)

In a ratio approximate to saxophonists in Manhattan, fiddlers practically grew on trees in the North Carolina of the early to mid-past century. Benton Flippen was one of a number operating out of the town of Airy and family taught in his craft. Thanks in part to being blessed with large mitts, Flippen perfected a singular approach to both fiddle and banjo. A recent centenarian, he’s still with us and still performing. This invaluable Rounder set offers an extensive aural aperture into his art. The limitations of time and space erase as cuts from his salad days with the Green Valley Boys at the cusp of the 1950s juxtapose with more recent performances from the 1970s, 80s and 90s in the company of The Smokey Valley Boys. Flippen’s style and sound remains remarkably consistent whatever the vintage and the collection’s 27 tracks hit many of the major milestones of the American Old Timey songbook from “More Pretty Girls Than One” on down through “Fishers Hornpipe” and “Lost Indian”. A detailed essay and various snapshots across decades complete the portrait of a musician who shelved his passion when life’s responsibilities held sway but never fully forgot its pleasures in times both prosperous and lean.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ethan Mann - It's All About a Groove (Petunia)

Truth in titular advertising definitely applies to this trio date. Groove and feel are paramount to guitarist Ethan Mann’s musical philosophy. Keyboardist Chip Crawford and drummer Greg Bandy are of a shared music-making consciousness. All three men have been gigging since their teens in a multitude of setting. Bandy had the distinction of working New York City clubs during the Seventies and good fortune to curry favor with profile band leaders like Pharoah Sanders and Gary Bartz. Mann and Crawford never hit it quite that big on their cabaret cards, but both have stayed busy over the decades as well.

Mann designs the program as a reflection of a typical club set for the trio and the player’s formative Seventies-selves play palpable roles. Once again that titular mantra is at the forefront of their interplay and execution from the opening “Foxy” onward with blues and funk as recurring undercurrents. Popular song serves as another wellspring for the band songbook starting with Michel Legrand’s Latinized easy listening favorite “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.” Mann handles the leads with aplomb and Crawford lays down populous support with his instrument zeroed in on organ and Rhodes settings. Bandy’s often the glue, his rhythms tying each piece together without constraining his colleagues in their own contributions.

Mann offers mild surprises in a three-song shout out The Stylistics starting with “Betcha By Golly Wow”, outfitted with a pleasant if slightly schmaltzy lounge groove built on a rubbery electronic bass line from Crawford. “People Make the World Go Round” fares better with a harder rhythm and a stronger melody as the trio convincingly sets the studio calendar back to 1972. The piece also allows Bandy to breakdown his bonafides as a funky drummer through a string of killer break beats. Obligatory Coltrane comes out in Mann’s thin contrafact “Minor Steps” and there’s even room for a vocal by the guitarist on the near-parody talking blues number “Woman Please”. A pleasant enough session, this set is far from essential, but that’s also an appraisal these convivial players would no doubt agree on.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sarah Manning - Dandelion Clock (Positone)

A few seconds with Sarah Manning’s cutting and passionate alto and it comes as no surprise that one of her key early mentors was none other than Jackie McLean. Manning also studied with Yusef Lateef on one leg of a cross-coastal odyssey that eventually ended in New York City. This quartet set, her debut for Positone, displays the logical benefits of those peregrinations. Manning officiates a program comprised of originals save for Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” and Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Her fluent parlance is vibrant post-bop and her wailing, sailing and soaring horn has plenty to say over the course of the program’s nine variable but consistently swinging pieces.

Pianist Art Hirahara fronts a rhythm section well suited to Manning’s specifications. Bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kyle Struve are likewise in tune and all three players join the leader in leaving little room for lulls or rests. The aforementioned Rowles tune starts the set in fine fashion with Manning wringing the melody dry of its lyrical moisture. Manning’s “Marble” mixes dissonance and thematic integrity in a manner that harkens back to McLean’s classic Blue Note sides. “Habersham Street” trucks in delicate ballad freight with Struve switching to brushes and Hirahara comping gilded patterns in time with Oh’s careful fills. Manning accords her colleagues equal opportunity and they make the most of it with a tempo count that resists rigidity and predictability, but her cadenza of gorgeous unaccompanied choruses makes it clear who holds the tiller.

The rest of the set sustains a similarly high quality caliber. “I Tell Time By the Dandelion Clock” weaves a plangent vibrato lead with a dusky processional that flirts with free-time. The shifting signatures at the tune’s core necessitate a bit of balancing act, but one in which the players never mire. Struve and Hirahara are particularly adept in this regard, their muscular synchronicity giving Oh a serious run for the figurative money, a favor she returns with the sprinting bass lines that undergird the harmonic obstacle course that is “Crossing, Waiting”. At less than half the span, “Through the Keyhole” is no less ambitious thanks to a turn toward spirited collective improvisation. The idyllic cover shot of Manning reclining in a bed of fallen leaves may imply a sedentary session, but a subjective correlation doesn’t come close to passing muster once the music hits.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Eric Felten - Seize the Night (Melotone)

A doubler on voice and trombone, Eric Felten shares a page in common with the Jack Teagarden playbook. His methods on both bespeak a more recent vintage, but there’s still something classic in tone about this laidback set. Felten’s lubricious phrasing brings to mind J.J. Johnson and is largely free of grit or growl. No tailgate or gutbucket exclamations here, just a smoothly urbane vocabulary whether he’s phrasing a lead line or a lyric. A Harvard alum, he built his chops gigging with classmen like Joshua Redman and Don Braden, the latter of who handles tenor duties on the set.

Another indictation of Felten’s credentials comes through in the crack rhythm team assembled for the date. Pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Jimmy Cobb are certifiable legends, each with prospective dance cards that are perpetually full. That both agreed to take part in Felten’s project speaks immediately to the clout at his disposal. Bassist Dennis Irwin isn’t far behind on that score and the date carries a bittersweet flavor given it was to be one of his last recording sessions before succumbing to spinal cancer.

Felten recognizes his good fortune in the assembled band and makes the most of the talent. Split almost evenly between standards and originals the program ambles along at a relaxed clip. His pieces jibe knowingly with the smoky after hours renderings from the swing to bop songbook. His lyrics balance vintage and modern topicality, musing on the virtues of amorous spontaneity on the title piece and the advantages of technology in finding a suitable romantic companion on the playful “I’ve Got News For You”. It’s not all Pall Malls and highballs. “Damas de Blanco” balances Cuban and tango elements in a paean to the spouses of political prisoners.

Sinatra is another obvious influence on the vocal front, but Felten heads off any naysayers at the pass by cannily noting: “For a guy singer, almost any song worth singing, Sinatra has already done better than anybody’s going to do it.” The simple and not so simple solution, write your own. It’s a tactic he turns to good practice on this enjoyable date.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Various - Lagos Disco Inferno (Academy)

After a steadily snowballing start, African music reissues are now a full-fledged niche industry. Labels like Syllart, Soundway, Strut and African Analog continue to narrow the gap between collectors and casual consumers with a slew of edifying collections. With this disc crate-digging guru Frank Gossner aka DJ Voodoo Funk goes in the opposite direction. The first several releases on Academy were straight reissues of LPs. This compilation culls from a dozen platters to create a listening experience similar to one of Gossner’s club sets.

The title isn’t a case of false advertising. Beats and bass lines are prominent on all of the cuts. African elements often take a backseat to Western funk and dance forms. Lyrics are simple and sung in English, sometimes through heavily-inflected accents. Fortunately, the disco on hand isn’t of the homogenized, strings-heavy Saturday Night Fever. Kitsch and camp are minimal, though many of the tunes do sound strongly derivative of their American and European influences. Rare as these sides might be the music feels much more a product of creative appropriation than indigenous innovation.

Doris Ebong’s “Boogie Trip” bounces along on a Kool and the Gang copped stew of pogo bass, swirling keyboards chicken scratch guitar. Kool’s reach also encompasses a number of other selections including Asiko Rock Group’s “Everybody Get Down”, which soon sounds suspiciously like broken record in its repeating chorus loop. At 8+ minutes in length it’s about five minutes too long. Pogo Ltd. steals the central horn riff from Isaac Hayes’ “Truck Turner” and folds it into a vamp-happy groove on “Don’t Put Me Down”. “Boogie Train” and “Dancing Machine” translate their party-friendly titles into musical currency with more febrile bass, cowbell and sweaty horn breaks, the latter upping the ante with some funky fluttering flute play. BLO’s “Root” accomplishes a similar feat through similar means.

MFB’s “Boredom Pain” is one of the few to track a lyrical course outside a quotidian party sentiment atop a sliding Caribbean-influenced groove and it’s the better for it. Christy Essien’s “Take Life Easy” brings the vibe back to cohesive topicality in a swirl of amplified strings, keys and syncopated drums. Nana Love’s “Hang On” stretches to nearly a quarter hour and once again the somewhat disheartening realization is that African disco artists weren’t all that independent of their Western brethren attends the sounds. Rescued from moldering storage rooms and impromptu landfills through the diligent efforts of Gossner and others, these sounds still sparkle more like baubles than bullion.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Carlos Barretto Lokomotiv - Labirintos (Clean Feed)

Something of a musical chameleon, bassist Carlos Barretto is also a Clean Feed staple. This set marks his ninth outing for the Portuguese label as either leader or sideman. Guitarist Mario Delgado and drummer Jose Salgueiro are regular colleagues who rejoin him here. The music is typically eclectic, pulling in sturdy threads of rock, funk, folk and admixtures of three with jazz improvisation. The principal snag to my enjoyment of the set lies in the contributions of Delgado, a plectrist of considerable prowess who repeatedly flirts with prog-grounded indulgence. His heavily amplified solos on several pieces land somewhere in an uneasy No Man’s Land between Hendrix and Steve Vai and end up deflating under the weight. Flaccid funk and overblown arpeggios are too frequently a part of his attack.

More measured numbers like the opening “Salada 2” work better in pulling together the trio’s cross-idiomatic elements. Dark arco lines alternate and overlap with plump pizzicato ones. Delgado shifts from clean shimmering picking to taffy-stretching tone swathes and Salgueiro keeps a fluid beat. “Nao Sei Porque” works in like fashion, balancing segments of light and dark and playing cannily with tempo and placement. The title piece is a prime example of the aforementioned penchant for excess. Delgado gesticulates over a turgid lurching beat that’s curiously reminiscent of Jimmy Castor’s “Bertha Butt Boogie” and the yield is arena-ready fusion of dubious quality despite the solid musicianship brought to bear.

“Asterion 5” rights the vessel with a circular bowed statement by the leader that bleeds vibrant overtones and “Tutti Per Capita” demonstrates his skill with a corpulent sprinting line as Delgado picks a parallel commentary and Salgueiro sustains a bustling beat. The metric obstacle course of “Makambira” starts strong, but detours into another longwinded seminar for Delgado’s effects pedals. The final cut “Terra de Ninguem” trades studio for concert stage without sacrificing sound clarity and gives the guitarist a final opportunity at florid rock-tinged expressiveness. Barretto and his partners lose the forest for the trees a bit on this disc, but listeners with a yen for classic work by fusion stalwarts like Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell will probably find the foliage to their liking.

ROW: Bud Isaacs - Bud's Bounce (Bear Family)

Pedal steel guitar pretty much starts with Bud Isaacs. A busy session man in Nashville studios and on the Opry Stage/tours under the employ of icon Red Foley and others, Isaacs tinkered with his instrument and came up with gold in the guise of “Slowly”. The single charted as a certified hit for Foley and also signaled a sea change for lap steel players on a national scale. This invaluable Bear Family collection gathers all of Isaacs’ instrumentals for RCA cut over the span of seven sessions stretching from early 1954 through the fall of 1956. None other than Nashville studio ace Chet Atkins serves as chief foil on electric guitar for five of them and the pairing is an inspired one from the get-go. Isaacs isn’t as overtly eccentric as Speedy West or even Buddy Emmons, but his pedal patterns have parity and precision that instantly places him in a league apart. Liquid timbral shifts and nimble melodic interpolations are regular facets of his clean-shaven attack as on “Hot Mockin’ Bird” where chirruping arpeggios prance with Atkins’ smooth-picking tandem. Most of the dates keep backing to a germane minimum of bass, drums and rhythm guitar so the spotlight shines squarely on Issacs’ ingenuity and agility. Even syrupy ballads like “Indian Love Call” and “Waltz of the Ozarks” are loaded with prime fretwork.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dawn of Midi - First (Accretions)

Acoustic instruments operating under a band name implying electronic elements. Unconventionality existing within a context implying convention. These are just two of the intriguing contradictions that accompany this multi-national piano trio. The packaging of their aptly-titled debut is short on descriptive information- just track titles, personnel, website, and a few other bits and pieces of detail. Pakistani percussionist Qasim Naqvi, Indian bassist Aakaash Israni and Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani are apparent equals in the endeavor and the music reflects the same dynamic, ebbing and expanding in a manner that resists regular melody, harmony and rhythm, but retains an organic structure and internal logic of composition.

Israni carries the copyright on the titles, but all of them sound largely if not totally improvised. He often employs his bass like a second percussion device in tandem with Naqvi who usually tables metered beats in favor of textured scrapes and staggered stick patter. The drummer’s disassembled patterns alternately lurch and slither, occasionally accompanied by the peripheral sounds of assorted “toys” for color. Belyamani weaves snatches of impressionistic melody, relying on repetition and pedal manipulation to create an odd amalgam of transparency and density. Those contradictions are far more than a hat trick however and for a music so frequently built on juxtapositions it’s a remarkably cohesive design.

All three players make liberal preparations to their instruments, dampening keys, strings and drum heads to constrict and warp the timbral properties of their instruments. There’s an abrasiveness to the results, but oddly enough the three also retain an overarching lyricism in their interplay much of the time. It’s as if the Bill Evans Trio was transmogrified into that of Veryan Weston’s or by some temporal trick Erik Satie joined forces with Kent Carter and Roger Turner. All of this name-dropping aside, the trio sounds wholly like itself. Austere, but still inviting, these three players have hatched upon yet another fresh trajectory of expression for that old gray workhorse of improvisation, the piano trio.

Monday, May 17, 2010

John Skillman's Barb City Stompers - Dekalb Blues (Delmark)

Based in DeKalb, Illinois, the birth-place of barbed wire, John Skillman’s jazz quintet operates just a figurative hop, skip and jump from Delmark HQ That geographical proximity explains, in part, producer Bob Koester’s close affinity for their efforts. The other, even more immediate, explanation rests in the ensemble’s populist blend of Hot, Trad and Swing jazz styles. Clarinetist John Skillman, the leader of the crew, takes his instrumental cues directly from Crescent City doyens like Edmund Hall and Johnny Dodds. There’s Benny and Artie blended in there too, but band’s roughshod brand of playing is far closer to curbside than concert hall.

Pianoless by design, the group does just fine with the rhythm section of guitarist Larry Rutan, bassist Robert Hintzche and drummer Aaron Puckett. Trombonist Roy Rubinstein registers the last in the roll call and his prevalent plunger punctuations draw a bead right back to tailgate aces like Kid Ory and Jim Robinson. All but Puckett have day jobs outside of music ranging from Physicist to Quality Assurance Manager and the drummer holds a post as high school percussion teacher. The upshot is that virtuosity isn’t to be found on this band’s particular stand captured here at the local House Café. Such an absence is hardly a concern though since this sort of music isn’t about flawless prowess anyway. As Wingy Manone was wont to say, where’s the joy in that?

Skillman pilots the ship in a manner worthy of his surname, blowing equally hot on the ensembles and solo breaks and scripting in a fair share of cursive trills as accents. Rubinstein wrings an abrasive corrugated sound out of his bell with derby mute that contrasts charcoal to the leader’s No. 2 graphite. Rutan and his colleagues chug away around and beneath the horns keeping the beat good and syncopated. The playbook is predictably weighted toward ringers starting with plangent percolating take on “Milenberg Joys” that wends and winds a bit too long. The band seems cognizant of their long-windedness and subsequent pieces clock to more modest spans. “Hindustan”, “Sweet Sue” and “Satck O Lee” are standouts, each receiving the spicy Barb-ecue treatment (sorry, a pun too pungent to resist) and wearing any charred edges proudly.

To the unaccustomed ear, trad jazz can sound monolithic in scope. Skillman and his sidemen show that such reductions are not only wrong-headed but easily refuted. The best part is that they make any necessary schooling on the subject an exercise in fun rather than a chore.

Friday, May 14, 2010

John Zorn George Lewis Bill Frisell - More News for Lulu (hatOLOGY)

Altoist John Zorn still takes it on the chin from certain critics when it comes to his cavalier claims of minimal practice on his instrument. Fortunately, he’s got something an iron jaw and comparable chops to contradict any charges of dilettantism or rampant drollery. This set and its earlier companion still serve as figurative bandoliers of ammo when a defensive position is required. Zorn plays more than convincing hardbop saxophone over the course of fifteen tracks pulled from a pair of concerts in Paris and Basel in 1989. True it’s often the sort of maniacal blowing punctuated by his bombastic and comical squeals and sputters, but his vocabulary is also Gatlin gun quick and mostly structurally faithful to the songbook under scrutiny. Misha Mengelberg’s “Gare Guillemins” and John Patton’s “Minor Swing” point to a more recent group muses, but their tightly wound bop-inflected arrangements fit right in with the rest of the program.

Zorn’s partners, trombonist George Lewis and guitarist Bill Frisell are on the same page completely and digesting this insouciant music it’s quickly apparent how and why the trio made such strides in such short a span. Tunes by hardbop stalwarts Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Freddie Redd and Sonny Clark are the springboards for improv-riddled interpretations that at once celebrate and reconstitute the earlier jazz canon in fast and loose fashion. Lewis plays without electronics and it’s a pleasure to hear his range of timbral effects independent of such enhancements. Frisell swings in the opposite direction, bringing an array of electronic equipment to bear on his strings and expanding the group’s sound palette significantly as a result.

Zorn and Lewis engage repeatedly in active free association starting with the lead-in to Clark’s “Blue Minor”, but the corkscrew root themes of the pieces are just as important to their interplay as the variously humorous deconstructions. Counterpoint factors frequently between the three and only rarely does the individual derring-do end up out-of-step. Engineer Peter Pfister’s new 2010 master of the material is several shades cleaner than the set’s previous long-out-of-print incarnation. Infrequent junctures arise where Zorn is off mic, but these are hardly a detriment to the performances. Presaging the work of current ensembles like Mostly Other People Do the Killing and Cargo Cult, this trio wasn’t about immolating their idols and sowing new seeds in scorched earth. Rather, the thrust rested on investigating compatibility of the work canonical composers left behind with newer approaches to improvisation. The sterling results here and on the trio’s companion collection preserve a potent admixture of their experiments while simultaneously priming expectations for a reunion.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ellen Rowe Quartet - Wishing Well (PKO)

Despite a surfeit of originals and uniformly strong musicianship, pianist Ellen Rowe’s latest offering exudes a disconcerting air of familiarity. Postbop is a signifier applied to a wide swathe of new-millennial jazz. Rowe’s music fits easily within the broad framework, but to my ears it’s also emblematic of the term. The opening track, featuring guest flugelhornist Ingrid Jensen who also sits in on “Longing” later in the set, unfolds in lush dream-like fashion. Jensen sounds akin to Kenny Wheeler in her soft cerulean phrasing and the piece itself wouldn’t be incongruous on a mid-90s ECM project by the Canadian brass man. “Lewisburg Bluesy-oo” swaps styles to an earlier and jauntier hardbop sound, the title an inspiration a contrafact of small-town Pennsylvania and Ducal roots. Rowe’s more animated playing in this context recalls the lithe syncopations of Horace Silver and it’s a sun-dappled blues through and through with a competent set of drum exchanges at the close.

Rowe’s other partners are fine players as well. Saxophonist Andrew Bishop doubles on tenor and soprano and has a grasp of his instruments’ history and possibilities on par with peer Eric Alexander. Bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Pete Siers fulfill their roles swimmingly at Rowe’s flanks. Saddled with a brow-arching pun, “Sanity Clause” traffics in light cocktail funk, Bishop gliding the changes against a steady backbeat by Siers that almost slips into the overly static as the piece starts to wear through its welcome. “Seven Steps to My Yard” trades in campy punnery as well, combining Miles’ Spanish tinge with bop components from Bird’s “Yardbird Suite” for a case of not-quite-complementary bedfellows. Still, the piece works better than its title and proves a challenge for Siers in the area of supple rhythmic juxtaposition

Tenorist Andy Haefner is the other guest on the session, lending his horn to the dedicatory piece “For Donald” scripted in honor of his and Bishop’s teacher, recently deceased. The two tenors trade and twine on the balladic theme with Rowe threading gilded comping between, but there’s a distracting production sheen to the piece, the aural equivalent of a Vaseline-smeared lens. Sier and Krahnke are strictly background, but once again they ply their parts with precision. “Alone Together”, the lone standard, caps the set with a supple display of counterpoint between the leader and Bishop. Rowe’s music may form-fit to prevailing tastes and customs, but it’s still for the most part a finely crafted and far from anonymous exemplar of the so-called “mainstream” idiom.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sonny Simmons - Staying on the Watch (ESP)

Themes of urgency and vigilance embedded in the title to Sonny Simmons’ ESP debut would dictate his music up through the present day. Simmons isn’t one to suffer fools lightly and that intolerance for incompetence and hypocrisy cost him dearly at various times in his career. This auspicious set harkens to a stage prior to most of those setbacks when he was fronting a working group of like-minded peers and garnering praise as a member of the music’s New Thing movement. With his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, Simmons engineered a compact frontline steeped in power and immediacy. His own post-Dolphy alto also embraces the precedence of Ornette, but the pedigree of super-heated multiphonics that often bubbles up in his delivery sounds wholly his own.

Pianist John Hicks joins the quartet on the A and B-side lead tracks. “Metamorphosis” almost sounds like an outtake from a Jackie McLean mid-60s Blue Note platter, Simmons’ blasting in shrill tandem with Donald before ebulliently extemporizing against a churning piano-led rhythm. Simmons and bassist Teddy Smith are the sole operators on “A Distant Voice”, a piece that finds Smith closely shadowing the leader’s alto with textured arco for much the duration. Side B opener “City of David” builds from another surging unison salvo before taking a surprising decelerating turn into pizzicato Smith solo. Simmons shows deference to Donald as well before holding forth with his own blowtorch statement. Seething improvisations by Pattillo and Hicks consume much of the remainder of the piece and as vintage Fire Music goes this track is pretty much textbook brilliance.

“Interplanetary Travelers” works off the pianoless template that is standard protocol for freebop and Hicks is hardly missed in the ensuing tumult. Simmons and Donald blast away in close proximity, leaving the majority of the piece’s second half to Smith and Pattillo, solo and in a bridging dialogue that combines burning arco with cascading snare and tom tom tattoos. An abrasive collective culmination suggests that cold showers were in order for the band after such a strenuous, sweat-inducing relay. The appearance of this single disc, no frills reissue is something of a surprise given that an earlier “Complete” set containing both of Simmons albums for the label along with interview segments still appears available. Budget-priced and recast in a sharply-designed slim-line digipack, it’s still well worth owning if one is coming to the material fresh.

ROW: Zoot Sims - Warm Tenor (Pablo)

Age is an unavoidable agent of decline for many musicians. Not so with saxophonist Zoot Sims. Advancing years only added to his artistry, making what was already great even greater. His Pablo period arguably garners less notice than the earlier stages of his career as a member of Woody Herman’s Herd and pianoless Gerry Mulligan ensembles large and larger. But by my reckoning it’s every bit as good, if not better. This set and its predecessor, If I’m Lucky, are the picks of that stellar run, not to mention lasting paragons of tenor-plus-rhythm jazz of any era. And what a rhythm section it is with the Encyclopedia Brown of standards Jimmy Rowles occupying the piano stool. Bassist George Mraz forgoes the corpulent amplification that was standard issue on Pablo sets of Seventies, opting instead for an acoustic elasticity. Drummer Mousey Alexander personifies his sobriquet, inserting scuttling sprightly rhythms, mainly on brushes, and clinking away on the downbeat via a slightly squeaky hi-hat. Zoot is all velvet voicing and limber phrasings on an inspired clutch of Rowles-tailored tunes starting with a cigarettes-and-cognac rendering of “Dream Dancing”. Sims and Mraz take “Blues for Louise” sans the other sidemen, the bassist’s strutting line setting up a pliant pillar for the tenorist’s serpentine improvisations to wind around. Rowles and Alexander get congenial revenge on “Comes Love” virtually stealing the show through their shared rhythmic antics. It’s a clichéd encomium without question, but this session really, truly does belong in every jazz collection.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Peter Brötzmann & Paal Nilssen-Love - Woodcuts (Smalltown Superjazz)

Among the many drummers to join Brötzmann on the bandstand, Paal Nilssen-Love remains one of the most compatible and galvanizing. His mix of muscle and agility continually serves the German well whether it be in a large assemblage like the Chicago Tentet or mano y mano encounter like this set, the second such set documented by the Scandinavian Smalltown Superjazz imprint. The earlier date, parceled as part of the Maijazz Festival in Norway in the spring of 2006, centered on mammoth slab of improv bracketed by several shorter pieces. This concert, recorded at another Norwegian club 15 months later, breaks the menu up a bit into six discrete segments.

Brötzmann follows his customary tack of hoisting one reed per piece. The opening title number uncaps alto, ratcheting into a renal scream early with Nilssen-Love whipping up a frothing sea of rhythms behind him. The energy is high, but the dynamics feel a shade static even with the drummer hinting at a stunted groove late in the piece and Brötz flirting with one his tenebrous themes before an unexpectedly equivocal close. “Glasglow Kiss” starts melodic but swiftly finds him forcefully wringing his clarinet’s neck and riding another roiling, froth-flecked accompaniment. Bass clarinet holds the crowd in thrall on “Strong and Thin” backed by pounding brushes, an admittedly oxymoronic phrase that actually rings valid when the context is Nilssen-Love at the kit.

At nearly 20-minutes, “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet” becomes an extended exercise in Brötzmann’s tongue-in-bearded-cheek crassness, his shaggy tenor honks and vein-bulging vibrato bypassing past parody and arriving at pure catharsis. Nilssen-Love annexes a chunk for a torrential solo that allows him to embrace his inner-Blakey with a barrage of faultless press rolls. The piece carries on into a passage aping a swaying Aylerian march, decelerating loud to soft as if the duo was the target of slow acting sedative darts shot by blowgun from the venue rafters.

With a return to alto on “Ye Gods and Little Fishes” all traces of tranquilizer disappear and it’s easily the best of this litter. Brötzmann engages his partner’s thumping brush patterns in a start-stop succession of rhythmic bursts before a switch to hummingbird sticks. Soon after he tosses a scrap of vintage Ornette into the air and skeet shoots it into shattering shards before coarsening into a grainy vibrato sans Nilssen-Love. The terse “Knucklin’ sounds like a case for uncredited tarogato, trip hammer brushes nipping at Brötzmann’s heels before a close that’s whisper rather than roar. If ducats are few and a choice forced, the duo’s earlier Sweetsweat is the better bet, but this one still has its share of grin-inducing moments.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chris Byars - Bop-ography (Steeplechase)

On the occasion of his second Steeplechase outing Chris Byars cannily continues in a musical rich vein tapped on his first. Gigi Gryce counts as a current healthy obsession of the saxophonist and three of the composers’ pieces grace the program. Another of Byars abiding interests concerns the work and legacy of vibraphonist Teddy Charles, a relatively recent recruit to his circle of collaborators thanks to a long-overdue return to active playing. Charles guests on just three pieces, but his presence is invaluable to the proceedings, particularly the closing title centerpiece. Byars’ father James, on oboe and English horn, is the other guest, overlapping with Charles on just one track.

Byars acumen as an arranger is apparent from the open reading of George Wallington’s “Festival”. After a brisk unison theme and solos by the horns Schatz switches to brushes for Roland’s sawdust-generating bowed solo as Byars and Mosca sketch skeletal distillations of the theme in descending counterpoint. Back on sticks for a closing break, Schatz kicks up the momentum and carries the piece out. Gryce’s “Straight Ahead” and “Lost Love” follow in short succession with the hard-swinging “Minority” arriving later. Roland digs into the blues of the first with audible relish, his tone plush and spongy against the sliding shimmy beat from Schatz. Charles works the cracks after a horn-handled head arrangement, inserting pedal swells and floating clusters and adding his own spectral moan on top. Mosca’s the star on the second, his smoothly enunciated solo riding a loping rhythm of brushes and bobbing bass.

Two more pieces draw from Byars’ series inspired by a Himalayan Art exhibition and the focus of an earlier album for Smalls. After an expansive vertical opening “Himalayan Sunrise” flips perspectives into lush horizontal landscape for intimate overlapping horn lines, Byars’ warm tenor annexing the most space. “Indra” finds Schatz trading kit for kanjira, a resonating tabla-like hand drum. Roland’s arco play doesn’t quite carry enough heft in the context and he’s somewhat eclipsed by the horns until he trades horse hair for calluses. “Nature Boy” time travels back to Charles’ classic Fifties rendering of the tune in the company of Miles and Mingus and is practically overflowing with cerulean atmospherics thanks to his luminous malletry and free-floating coda.

The title track balances bold ambition and grand execution within the accommodating suite-like span of a third of an hour. Built on a suspect Charlie Parker axiom that all jazz is built on the changes to “I Got Rhythm”, “Cherokee” and the blues, the piece nonetheless forms a durable Gestalt on the strengths of participant contributions. Charles nods at the late great Walt Dickerson in his texture-rich and spatially-conscious contributions and with the ensemble at full sextet strength it’s easily the finest outing of the set. By plumbing rather than plundering the past Byars ensures that it will quite some time before he or his colleagues run dry of creative tributaries to tap.

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

Friday, May 7, 2010

Odean Pope - Odean's List (In + Out)

Simple economics and logistics are long-standing enemies to Odean Pope’s influential Saxophone Choir. The viability of his smaller group projects is less susceptible to such concerns and that difference plays out in his discography of the past decade. Only a single album, Locked and Loaded, chalks in the Choir column of his catalog compared to the dozen or so representative of more modest-sized formats. The tenorist splits something of the difference on this latest disc, convening an octet of colleagues to interpret a program of choice charts largely culled from earlier stages of his career. Even with familiar tunes as fodder the possibilities prove their potency in Pope’s full contact approach. Bruises and strained muscles are a necessary risk as is the occasional stumble.

Pope plays with the possible ensemble permutations on the pieces, using the horns en mass for fanfare flourishes and sweeping theme statements. “Phrygian Love Theme” suggests immediate kinship with minor-vamp classics like Mingus’ “Ysabel’s Table Dance” and Joe Henderson’s “El Barrio”. Comparably bold in its canonical roots, the dark velvet theme to Eddie Green’s “Little Miss Lady” has strong ties to “Sketches of Spain” and is the only non-Pope piece of the set. Tenorist Walter Blanding largely contents himself with section work, a single solo early in the set list showing him a worthy recruit. James Carter, fielding baritone and tenor, takes double that number, his brand of burly extroversion into Pope’s robust arrangements. Carter may have a questionable penchant for bombast, but in this context his hard-charging horn play works like a charm. A brass section of two, trumpeters David Weiss and Terell Stafford work in close concert with the reeds, Stafford breaking with the pack more often for punchy declamatory statements on three pieces.

The rhythm section isn’t just window dressing. Pianist George Burton factors prominently into the arrangement of “To the Roach”. The lengthy “Say It Over And Over Again” is basically a balladic duet between Pope and stout-fingered bassist Lee Smith while outside of sandwiching collective theme statements, the title piece pares principals down to just the leader and Watts in a volcanic dialogue. “Blues For Eight” finds Pope parceling out his accompaniment into bass and drums and generating a huge head of intervallic steam. Peer Archie Shepp runs down some edifying Pope history in the liners (A Miles-bound Coltrane recommended the Philly tenor as his replacement in Jimmy Smith’s band) and conveys his admiration by naming him as one of his favorite tenors. Pope occupies a similar place in my subjective hierarchy. The power and panache of these performances as a whole point prominently as to why.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nate Wooley & Paul Lytton - Creak Above 33 (Psi)

A truism easily lost in the primacy of pedagogy, but some of the best musical moments occur when the getting from Point A to Point B remains a mystery. Trumpeter Nate Wooley comes to this conclusion in his brief, but fascinating notes to this release. His conclaves with British percussionist/electronicist Paul Lytton initiated a fundamental reassessment in his philosophy toward music-making. Lytton presaged this sea change through the formulation of what Wooley refers to as a “mind map”, a hand-drawn schematic attempting to parse all the possible sources, connections and permutations of their common backgrounds in jazz and improv. Reproduced on the cardboard cd sleeve, it looks akin to a Braxtonian flow chart gone wild, roping in everything from Maynard Ferguson to the cowbell on Lytton's kit. Wooley’s own attempt at a map yielded a significantly simplified diagram though the relationships described remain the same.

The upshot of all this pre- and post-cogitating was the simultaneously sobering and liberating realization on Wooley’s part that he hadn’t much of a clue what he was doing. As Derek Bailey might say, therein lays the key to successful improvisation- a freedom from premeditation and stylistic circumscription. The duo’s interplay certainly sounds spontaneous and even random in spots. Four pieces, each amounting to around or under a quarter of an hour unfold in the pristine confines of stereo sound. Wooley employs an amplifier on his bell and Lytton engages an array of live electronics and acoustic complements to his customary drum array.

“The Mbala Effect” encompasses a microcosm of the sound-making possibilities at their disposal. Brittle metallics, industrial construction sounds, brassy blats and sputters, incremental patterns of puckered breath expulsion, scraping cymbals, ping-ponging blips and blaps that almost sound like a busted calliope, gurgling Doppler streaks and several passes at protean melody. Cataloging these moments and components doesn’t even come close to capturing their aural effect. “The Gentle Sturgeon” feels more texture-based, the electronic elements outweighing the acoustic ones by a much wider margin. “Filtering the Fogweed” and “The Lonely Fisherman” swing the balance in the other direction, Wooley loosing eructative whooshs and smears and again picking through snatches and scraps of near-melody while Lytton crafts a canvas of pointillist clatter and patter beside him. Calling it all a challenging listening experience is both stating the obvious and potentially obfuscating the larger attribute of creative emancipation at its heart.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

William Hooker Trio - Yearn for Certainty (Engine)

An admirable eclecticism and open-mindedness underscores William Hooker’s career as a drummer. He’s reliably followed his muse even when the ideas advancing his numerous projects have suffered under suspect application. This concert at Roulette is an apposite example of that phenomenon. On cardboard tray card it brims with potential intrigue. String bender David Soldier and reedist Sabir Mateen are two stalwart Downtown heroes with infrequent intersections between them. Hooker’s decision to enlist them both is inspired. Holding the occasion in front of a receptive audience, free from studio constraints and pressures also seems like a good move. Sadly, a number of attributes of the performance conspire to undermine these positives.

“Ingratiated Beam – Leroy” starts the set off on a slightly wobbly note by wedding amplified classically-tinged mandolin to a freely-associative recitation by Hooker covering a wide range of topics from personal empowerment to organic food. Hooker speaks in an inviting cadence, but a lot of his imagery emphasizes the esoteric and introspective at the expense of the intelligible. “Century’s Soles” switches gears rather drastically, Hooker liming a layered metronomic assemblage of beats at his kit as Soldier adds a jangly hill country drone on amplified banjo and Mateen laces vibrato-dipped tenor intervals in-between. The result brings to mind the outcome of a possible Otis Taylor and Albert Ayler amalgam.

Segue into “Commonplace Travel” transpires without a glitch and Hooker expands his rhythms to encompass more of his kit as Mateen grows increasingly heated. The sound is oddly, though no doubt intentionally, washed out here and Soldier’s incendiary scribbles become a textured mass of over-amplification. “Magistrait” offers a crosshatch of textured drones as well, tenor joining violin and malleted skins in a grainy admixture that rises and recedes in undulating waves. Soldier and Mateen arrive at some gorgeous timbral congruencies and the patter of Hooker’s minimalist brushes and cymbal washes equates to another plus, but the piecemeal structure of the track ultimately compromises its dozen-plus minute length with cavernous audio another obstacle.

The set culminates with the title piece’s densely packed convergence of constituents. Soldier’s wah-wah inflected strings ride out a torrential downpour from Hooker’s corner of the stage, shouts audible amidst the din. Mateen sits silent for the first few minutes before hoisting tenor again and sounding as if he’s voicing overblown Aylerian distress signals the echo chamber bottom of a cistern. Hooker’s subsequent statement is high on tension, but lacking in resolution. Mateen’s bird song flute enters on an emotive high note before more of the leader’s loose verbiage and a predictably conflagrational finish. All three of these players are accomplished improvisers. In this particular context Hooker’s indulgences end up as hindrances and the subsequent sum registers as forgettable.

ROW: Gaspard/ Lachney/ J. Bertrand - Early American Cajun Music (Yazoo)

As with its younger cousin zydeco, Cajun music isn’t normally known for introspection and restraint. Raucous house parties and rural picnics have long been customary settings for raw and unbridled expressions of the idiom. Ballads occupy an important part of the songbook, but passionate, heart-on-sleeve delivery routinely trumps turns toward a softer touch. This Yazoo compilation shines an edifying light on an atypical niche in the music through the rarified works of three early purveyors from Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. Blind Uncle Gaspard, the most overtly haunting of the three, sings songs with a nasalized croon in his native Acadian French, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and occasionally interjecting whistling refrains. Tracks like “Sur Le Borde De L’Eau" (“On the Water’s Edge”) and “Assi Dans La Fenetre De Ma Chambre" (Sitting In the Window of My Room”) exude gravitas comparable to the best of Pre-War Delta blues and are just as memorable. Gaspard was a colleague of fiddler Delma Lachney and he plays rhythm guitar on the Lachney selections. Accomplished accordionist John Bertrand, the last in the highlighted trio, traveled in similar circles though his own partnership with guitarist Milton Pitre was cut tragically short by the latter man’s senseless murder. Sadness and melancholy are recurring moods with songs like “Miserable” and “La Delaisser” (“The Abandonment”) relating tales of woe. Many of the tunes are sparer in cast than most contemporaneous Cajun fare, unfolding at loping tempos that underscore their folk origins. Stacked against the work of certifiable legends like Joe Falcon and Leo Soileau the music makes for a satisfyingly contrastive listening experience.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6 - Dulcet Crush (hatOLOGY)

Swiss mountain guide by day, trumpeter by calling, Manuel Mengis is a model of the new millennial musician. His highly personal jazz is a polyglot of influences, mixing in rock, funk, pop and even the occasional bit of pap. Gruppe 6, his working band, represents a similarly deep wellspring of musical resources. Saxophonists Reto Suhner and Roland von Flüe can play cocktail balladry with the same facility as Aylerian scrawls. Lionel Friedli’s percussion philosophy fractures into a prismatic array of beat possibilities. Bassist Marcel Stalder forwards ideas an electric instrument, the better to match wits and licks with energetic guitarist Flo Stoffner, a plectrist who wears his prog and arena rock proclivities proudly. Mengis gathers these disparate talents together for their third album for Hat and regrettably the results don’t quite scale the heights of the band’s previous two entries.

Mengis anticipates such a potential appraisal in the interview snippets the season the disc’s liners. In his own words, life changes and fresh extra-musical obligations necessitated a simplification of process. Where previous efforts reveled in galvanizing long-form explorations, the pieces here are more modest in size but remain ambitious in scope. Mengis still taps diverse sources -“The Opposite of Spring” contains a cell phone ring tone capture of the bell collars on a herd of goats he encountered during an alpine hike- and patterns but their application does carry quite the same galvanizing punch. The telegraphing of intent is also a bit more obvious this time around. Presaging the action on “End Of A Record Breaker” and “Bling Bling Cowboy” and erupting in even more florid fashion on the fist-pumping “Sustain the Gain”, Stoffner’s frenzied fret play ends up feeling overwrought more often than not. Friedli’s interlocking rhythms also stray dangerously close to constrictively metronomic in places.

These tendencies were true of the band’s past entries as well and the arguable missteps don’t diminish the musicianship at their foundation. Mengis’ compositions are well-served from a technical standpoint. “Luscious Delirium” features an extended cool-toned trumpet solo by the leader and several other pieces involve mellifluous chamber counterpoint by Suhner and Flüe, most notably the closing “We Come in Peace”. The ungainly titled “How Mario Tut Tut Got Super Wow Wow” echoes its video game inspiration through hectic prog funk hurdles that the players clear convincingly as a team. Compared to Gruppe 6’s first two outings this third feels the weakest of the three, but it’s still a worthwhile listen for those on safari for up-to-the-minute post-fusion sounds.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Keefe Jackson Quartet - Seeing You See (Clean Feed)

Likening the Chicago jazz scene anatomy to an onion might seem like a ridiculous exercise in reduction, but it’s also a way to symbolize the layered, intergenerational relationships that exist between the city’s players. Hailing originally from Arkansas, reedist Keefe Jackson resides on the younger end of that populous spectrum, his industrious track record representative of the prevailing collaborative ethos. Fast Citizens, co-led by colleague Aram Shelton, arguably remains his highest profile ensemble thanks to an ongoing Delmark association. Jackson’s ambitious 12-piece Project Project band also has a home there and he’s made a name for himself fronting various creative ensembles.

Making a logical label switch to Clean Feed, this quartet pulls in another contingent of Windy City cohorts. Trombonist Jeb Bishop isn’t just a foil; he’s a fully-responsive participant as are bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Noritaka Tanaka. All four musicians express original voices through their instruments, Bishop combining his breath and slide in a lubricious tandem that runs a gamut from oleaginous purrs to raucous tailgate slurs and seamlessly threads in polyphonics and diverse bell manipulations. Jackson’s tenor and bass clarinet trade from a similarly spacious tonal spectrum, his phrasing ranging from a breathy drawl to sharp staccato bursts. Tanaka’s percussive presence is active without being busy, avoiding aggressive sticking in favor of agile accents and colorations. Roebke tugs a customary deep rotund tone from his strings, conversing equally with pointillist bow strokes or room-filling pizzicato.

Jackson’s brand of freebop is punchy and porous, built on catchy propulsive themes, but also open to the integration of more texture-based, pulse-resistant expression. “Maker”, “If You Were” and “Put My Finger On It” build sturdily on such structures, the leader taking the second track by his lonesome to start before falling away for a Bishop solo riddled with garrulous, muted growls. The jaunty snap of Roebke’s strings on the third works as a springy launching pad for another blues-saturated statement by the leader. “How-a-Low”, “Since Then” and “Close” turn attention to Jackson’s bass clarinet, the latter two pieces rolling out at a snail’s crawl shot through with brooding space and tonal legerdemain. All four musicians occupy the Riverside Studio acoustics expertly and the disc benefits from a very immersive sound. Though a comparatively recent conscript to his adoptive city’s creative music community, Jackson has swiftly shown a versatility and consistency in common with that of his peers.