Friday, July 30, 2010

Roswell Rudd – Blown Bone (Emanem)

Martin Davidson, proprietor of Emanem, has long made it a custom to include helpful “File under:” tags on his releases to aid harried record shop clerks in correctly identifying contents. Blown Bone, a reissue of a 1979 Japanese-only Philips platter, carries the colorful signifier “Jazz (Free/Blues/Latin),” a definite first in the commonly free improv-focused catalog and one that speaks directly to trombonist Roswell Rudd’s career-spanning eclecticism. The cast of characters is just as colorful with Steve Lacy, Enrico Rava, Paul Motian, Sheila Jordan and seven others convening for a small handful of ensembles. Rudd has always been about placing his slippery slide-calibrated brass in unexpected contexts. This consistently entertaining hodgepodge doesn’t disappoint a whit on that score.

Bouncy freebop gets the party started on “It’s Happening” with Rava, Lacy and Rudd frolicking through a syncopated head and into tasty solos from the trad jazz reminiscent horn configuration. Obscure session man Wilbur Little lays down a rubbery bass line and Motian maintains one of his signature aerated rhythms to keep the quintet percolating nicely. Both get belated solo space in the track’s waning minutes. Vocalist Sheila Jordan joins the action on the ecologically-oriented “Blues for the Planet Earth," a loose funeral dirge steeped in brassy drones that recalls the Art Ensemble of Chicago and paints impending planetary peril in polyphonous hues. The title piece, first in a four-part suite, unfolds as a rambunctious throwback to Rudd and Lacy’s roots in progressive Dixieland bands with a septet strolling another swinging ditty girded by Patti Brown’s comping electric piano.

The craziest combination crops up on the nine-minute “Cement Blues,” where venerable blues guitarist Louisiana Red, his axe ladled with plenty of echo, fronts an octet with Rudd, Lacy, soulful saxophonist Tyrone Washington and trad jazz doyen Kenny Davern on clarinet. The ensuing piebald jam is a mash-up of styles and temperaments that surprisingly works. It’s also one of the finest blues-jazz fusions on record, staying true to its constituents styles while simultaneously evincing a helluva lot of fun and not feeling the least bit forced. Inserted as added centerpiece, “Long Hope” originates from nine years earlier and features some rhapsodic Rudd solo piano. The percussion populated “Bethesda Fountain” completes the suite with an octet rounded out by Jordan Steckel’s bata drum and Rudd’s delicate overdubbed mibra working over an effervescent Afro-Cuban groove. More please.

[Originally published 10/25/06 @ Dusted Magazine]

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kalaparusha McIntyre Quartet – Extremes (CIMP)

A fine line separates eccentricity and error in improvised music. Saxophonist Kalaparush McIntyre, surreptitiously having dropped Maurice, is a personification of the subjective tightrope between the two. McIntyre rightly holds elder statesman status as an aged member of the AACM, though his four decade plus career is comparatively slight in the discographical department. His last ensemble, The Light, cut a handful of records but now appears kaput. This new group reunites him with bassist Michael Logan who served on his first CIMP session back in 1998. Will Connell, doubling on expressive bass clarinet and alto, is another CIMP veteran having served under trombonist Steve Swell’s leadership on several occasions. Warren Smith needs no preamble and his presence at the drum kit is an unqualified boon for the session, lending a sense of order to proceedings when the leader seems otherwise preoccupied.

McIntyre’s music also embodies the blurred boundaries between accident and mistake, the latter connoting the possibility of volition. Some of his choices on the record sound like mistakes, as when his tenor intrudes on Connell’s heated alto solo on ‘What do you see…” and is summarily parried back. Such a flub could be construed as indication of failing faculties and the album notes do make mention of befuddlement on the part of McIntyre’s band mates in reaction to certain of his moves, humorously dubbed “senior moments”. The logic behind them, however internal, does appear intact and intentional, as on the ballad “Closeness” where McIntyre jumps ranks and travels his own tenor trajectory independent of the support proffered by Logan and Smith. His ironclad rationale in the aftermath: “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s between me and my old lady- closeness”. The “little instruments” segments that bracket a rangy bout of horn harmonizing on the prolix “Early Morning” are also of arguable merit, as are various peculiar pauses and asides.

To some, such insularity of expression will no doubt breed annoyance and even ire. Taken on its own terms, McIntyre’s music evinces ample charms through its idiosyncrasies. He’s an original and always has been. This new cache of music is as undiluted as anything he’s done previous and well worth hearing on those grounds alone.

[Originally published 4/22/08 @ Bagatellen]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

John McNeil – East Coast Cool (Omnitone)

Temperature tags have long since fallen out of fashion as codifiers for coastal jazz differences. But damn if trumpeter John McNeil hasn’t struck pay dirt, intended incongruities aside, with East Coast Cool, his third outing for Omnitone. The primary source of inspiration for the project lies in the corpus of the classic pianoless Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker quartet. McNeil’s resume even includes an early career stint in Mulligan’s employ along with apprenticeships with Horace Silver and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Another, slightly later, sans-piano influence also colors the music, as strains of Ornette’s bands with Don Cherry percolate quietly throughout the program’s 12 tracks. Spanning the space between the two epochal groups while still retaining his own voice, McNeil ensures that his freer interests and those of his colleagues also hold strong purchase in the music.

Allan Chase’s versatile baritone serves as a perceptive counterpart to McNeil’s loose personification of Chet in the frontline. He mimics Mulligan’s polish but also plumbs the horn’s lower regions in a Pepper Adams mode when the situation requires, as on the propulsive “Internal Hurdles” and the solemn ballad “Wanwood.” Bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson, playing the parts of Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton or Henry Grimes and Dave Bailey, depending on your preferred point of reference, make for an inspired casting choice as rhythm team. The tunes, all but three written by McNeil, delight in subtle and mischievous upendings of expectation. But it’s all done with a close attention to tunefulness and it often takes a careful ear to fully discern just how subversive the band’s being with both its arrangements and improvisations. This is the sort of disc to audition for the Doubting Thomas jazzbos who cling doggedly to their hardbop albums and sneer openly at post-modal developments in the music. Pieces like the sprinter’s reading of the Mulligan favorite “Bernie’s Tune,” juiced up with guillotine tempo shifts and free falls, and aptly titled “Delusions,” which runs on a deceptively morphing melody and Wilson’s dynamically-charged drumming, are near certain bets at cleaning such sets of calcified ears without leaving them bruised or ringing.

McNeil muses candidly in the notes on the ’50s West Coast predisposition for writing brazenly happy compositions. The band hides some razor blades in the proverbial mincemeat with the original “A Time to Go.” Playing it relatively straight and sweet at first and sailing through a jaunty head with joint aplomb, the four switch palettes and paint in more pensive and darker pigments that give the piece an underscoring edge, oceanside sun girded by a penumbra of furrowed gray clouds. McNeil leaves few possibilities untouched and even traffics in tone rows with his terse adaptation of “Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto.” I’ve spun this album at least a dozen times in full or part and have yet to weary of it. Repertoire by rote it most certainly is not. McNeil accomplishes a feat fewer of his colleagues seem willing to attempt- that of recycling old bottles as worthy receptacles for new grappa.

[Originally published 1/3/06 @ Dusted Magazine]

ROW: Edip Akbayram (Shadoks Music)

Edip Akbayram rose to stardom in the rubble of the first wave of Turkish rock music influenced by Western progenitors like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. This German collection is scant on annotative particulars but the two dozen tracks appear to be pulled from his first two albums and a handful of singles all cut in the early Seventies. That paucity is balanced by a scrapbook of period promo photos featuring Akbayram and his band Dostlar oozing charisma in various iterations of psychedelic super-group attire. Fuzz guitar, fatback bass and Farfisa organ collide with traditional Turkish instruments including oud, kanun, tanbur and dumbek. The grounding riffs on the first four numbers starting with the deceptively-titled “Little Snowflakes Falling” approach Sabbath levels of heaviness. Other pieces leaven the rock focus in favor of stronger pop flavors. Akbayram’s songs reflect his lifelong travails with the after effects of polio affliction and are commensurately brooding in their topicality. My favorite cut, “Don’t Touch My Sad Soul” fuses the disparate elements perfectly with gravitas-powered vocals soaring across monolithic groove of wah-wah-lathered frets, trampoline bass, and pounding drums. Another song sums up his worldview with the simple expectation of “Sorrow and More Sorrow”. Some of the title translations come with unintentional humor attached, the best examples being “Because of Your Black Eyebrows”, “The Mountains Made Me Sad”, and “It Burns” (the last a lamentation on the outcome of an ill-advised groupie encounter?). Akbayram was serious about his art though and it shows in the audible passion he brings to the performances.

[Originally published 1/24/09 @ Bagatellen]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Scott Fields Freetet – Bitter Love Songs (Clean Feed)

Mordant wit and caustic self-deprecation have always been reliable elements in Scott Fields’ creative expression. From the pithy brickbats of semi-fictional critic Hugh Jarrid to the admirable, if puzzling, practice of publishing pans right alongside praises on his website, the guitarist has never shied away presenting the whole package of his persona, prickly pear portions and all. Even by Fields’ archly candid standards this new Clean Feed outing stands out. His liners read as a suite-like screed, pillorying a succession of unnamed assailants to his temper and patience. He saves the strongest recriminations for last, directing black roses and dead rat vitriol at those who have wronged him in love. Track titles wryly embellish on the conceit, my personal favorite being “Your parents must be ecstatic now”. Despite the dour and potentially distracting emotional context, the set stays sharply on point throughout, though it’s hard to tell exactly how much of the acrimony is genuine and how much is amplified for show.

The music curiously recalls the early Nineties work of Joe Morris in its preference for pared down frills-free interplay. Jagged single note runs race regularly atop undulating bass and drums rhythms. Think Flip and Spike, and more specifically “Itan” and “Mombaccus”, and your close to the aural mark. Fields’ tone is often a bit rounder and cleaner than JoMo’s and that may be a function of the recording, but there’s a comparable frequency of densely knotted note clusters, spit out at staccato intervals. Bassist Sebastian Gramss and drummer João Lobo traffic in comparable agitation and irascibility, shading in the cracks around Fields’ chattery plectrum pings while still keeping the pieces intentionally off-kilter. It’s a dynamic intended to ape the disquieting feeling just prior to when one’s heart goes under the knife of betrayal and scorn. The pieces follow similar schemas until “I was good enough for you until your friends butted in” when the seething clouds break a bit into more spacious variation of melancholy. This is easily Fields most jazz-oriented album in many moons and a welcome fang-fringed spin on familiar forms.

[Originally published 2/29/08 @ Bagatellen]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Trio X – AIR: Above and Beyond (CIMPoL)

The “X” can now do double duty as a Roman numeral in reflecting this improvising trio’s decade together as a unit. On this latest offering, they cop a page from the Vandermark playbook: Four out of the seven pieces carry dedications to fellow musicians. The extended opener “Fried Grapefruit” celebrates Henry Threadgill, starting as a porous chamber music dialogue between drums and bass. The mood turns heated with the entry of McPhee’s tenor (fitted with a bass clarinet reed), but eventually scales back again with another turn into somber balladry. The closing minutes settle on a sliding funk groove as underpinning for honking and bleating tenor, several facets of Hemphill’s irrepressible personality translated into sound. “Jump Spring” for William Parker, sketches a similarly apt aural portrait, pivoting on Duval and building from the sort of soulful ostinato so often the province of the bassist honoree. “2128 ½ Indiana”, commemorates an address that perceptive jazz fans will recognize as the former digs of the Velvet Lounge. Fred Anderson is the figure of adulation at that storied establishment and McPhee pays homage with a wooly extemporization that is as melodically astute as it is rhythmic on the tail of Rosen drum preface that mixes similarly compatible properties.

A Trio X outing wouldn’t be complete without at least one spiritual. “Close Up” covers that base in the combination of Duval’s grainy arco and McPhee’s raspy tenor. Rosen holds silent, eventually returning with restrained brushwork to bracket McPhee’s Ayler-informed musings. The drummer also sidelines himself for “Here’s that Rainy Day” and the ensuing tenor and bass duo points to the remaining pair’s concert the previous day (also released as a CIMPoL set). Ellington is the recipient of the last aural encomium with the powerful “Give Us This Day”. McPhee bites hard on his reed to create another spate of sustained gravely cries that periodically venture over into vocalized polyphonics. His colleagues cobble a comparably impassioned context around him. “A Valentine in the Fog of War” finds McPhee in oratory mode, his words muffled, but his ensuing tenor line speaking with audible force before tapering into a melancholic interpolation of “My Funny Valentine”, another Trio X staple.

The last track illustrates a deviation from past albums in their catalog in the session particulars. Engineer Marc Rusch adapts the CIMP aesthetic of minimal inference to concert settings for the newly christened CIMPoL imprint. Expanding his recording field to the world writ large will offer him a renewable resource in terms of liner comments (after several hundred essays on the relatively static environment of the Spirit Room, the space yields few new surprises), but it also presents a new slate of ever-changing challenges. From a listener standpoint, application of ear goggles might be a good bet as the dynamic range requires a bit of concentration on the quieter end. All in all, it’s memorable set and a fitting precursor to an even more momentous offering rumored for release later this year.

[Originally published 2/10/08 @ Bagatellen]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Phil Minton – No Doughnuts in Hand (Emanem)

Phil Minton’s music practically mandates first person response. Burying the “I” in a review is a hard thing to do from the onset. Reaction to his work is frequently polemical with one person’s vocal abuses occupying the same aural space as another’s expansions. Minton doesn’t appear to be especially bothered either way by potential controversy. His laconic liner notes on this third entry in his solo series endearingly lay out his up-to-the-minute reasoning: “I know things aren’t getting better, but I hope this cheers you up a bit.”

As with the earlier volumes, Minton leaves laryngeal censors and shackles at the figurative door. Thirty-seven “songs” zip by in just over fifty minutes, though their relative brevity doesn’t necessarily lead to easy consumption. The collected sounds on many of the pieces superficially resemble a taxonomy of ethnic caricatures and speech impediments. The closer Minton comes to coherent speech, the less convincing and startling his creations. My favorite aspect is the array of imaginative imagery engendered by the sounds. The opener sounds like a prayer circle of asthmatic Gyuto monks. Title pieces “5” and “7” resemble the mush-mouthed mumblings of the Swedish Chef capped by Ricola-worthy yodels. “Para five” makes me think of Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, if throttled by piano wire. Self-inflicted strangulation factors into several other pieces.

Pure sound ventures are relatively few. The whirring drone on title piece “6” resembles wind gusting steadily through a ventilation pipe while “22” consists mainly of avuncular hums. “8” assembles a string of tea kettle whistles and screams. Minton’s irrepressible humor bleeds through even on the more controlled pieces where he’ll occasionally punctuate a concluding stretch of silence with one final gasp or sputter. “Vo be dayish” presents a Minton improvisation based on a Veryan Weston transcription of a Minton improvisation and curiously ends up the most conventionally “song-like” in structure. Weston also handles recording chores. The last piece, an improvised collection of strained sighs and eructation, layers in barbed political commentary with the admonition “i have given this much more thought than blair did when he decided to invade iraq.”

Most of the tracks are ones I probably won’t put in regular rotation, but my admiration for Minton’s art remains steadfast. Many of his oral expulsions require extraordinary muscular and respiratory control. Last year’s Blur is an easier sell as it features Minton’s voice mixed with other instruments. This disc is for the truly brave souls able to embrace his improvisations sans such collaborative filters. One question though: what happened to those doughnuts?

[Originally published 5/28/08 @ Bagatellen]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Byard Lancaster – Personal Testimony (Porter)

Originally circulated on Byard Lancaster’s Concert Artists label in an extremely finite pressing, this 1979 solo manifesto is among the rarer Philly ‘free jazz’ artifacts. Filing it under that loose genre heading feels slightly suspect as jazz is only one of the stylistic kegs tapped in its creation. Lancaster folds in African, Asian and Native American elements as well as healthy of blues and soul. The Porter records reissue adds six tracks to the original vinyl nine, the new pieces having been cut in 2007 and sitting well with their antecedents. Lancaster hedges a bit on the album’s solo credentials, regularly employing overdubbing to couple and layer instruments from his arsenal. The plaintive “Miss Nikki” sounds more like a Terry Callier song with its cascading piano chords and soulfully sung entreaties. “In Lovingkindness” and “Dogtown” are the first of several flute numbers, the former piece adopting a meditative cast through twining trills while the latter aims for velocity and vigor via aerial acrobatics nearly on par with those of Rashaan Roland Kirk.

Accentuating the personal parameters of the project, each piece carries a postscript providing brief clues to its import and origins. “Brotherman” blends breathy bass clarinets. “Hoodoo” for alto and “What Friend We Have in Jesus” for soprano draw immediate comparisons to Joe McPhee in their spiritual mellifluousness. The two reeds voice in tandem on the lush ballad “Marianne and Alicia” while “Mind Exercise” pares back down to alto in a barrage of harsh upper register shrieks. Fast forwarding nearly two decades, the ’07 pieces find Lancaster expanding his palette and engaging in a curious avuncular commentary. “Prayer Cry” and “Tribalize Lancaster” play to the directives of their titles, mixing playful vocal effects, chanting and piquant flute with what Lancaster terms “percussion spiriting”. The first even weaves in sampled African tribal field recordings to explicate its case.

“Afro-Ville” and “Free Mumia” bring the afrocentric funk through further convergences of jousting flutes and recitations. Keyboard explorations power “Global Key” and “Loving You”, the former moving from modest beginnings to a full-scale piano and percussion avalanche while the latter threads in pliant flute. Heard as a chapbook of snapshots and musings, the disc delivers a great deal of listening pleasure. Lancaster isn’t preoccupied with chops and instead directs his energies toward sketching aural moods and pictures with digressions intact. Through the conveyance of such intensely personal cartography the veracity of the project’s title holds fast.

[Originally published 6/9/08 @ Bagatellen]

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ROW: Trainreck - Train Keeps a’ Rollin (self-released)

Easily “the discovery” for me at the 2009 Deep Blues Festival, KM Williams has been doing his thing longer than most of the 70-odd other acts on the schedule. His repertoire ropes in a fair chunk of the idiom’s history from Blind Willie Johnson, Son House and Fred McDowell to originals influenced by deceased Hill Country doyens like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. His partner for the past seven years and change is one Washboard Jackson. They couldn’t be more different in appearance or stage demeanor: Williams dressed in a crisply-pressed Sunday suit, Stetson and spats; Jackson opting for a frizzy, receding mullet, hockey jersey and cargo shorts. The latter often pockets his sticks, preferring to attack his cymbals, snare and tom with fingers and palms in a wild man, almost-Simian frenzy. Williams builds a complementary intensity through more measured means, playing lo-fi slide on either three-string cigar box or arch-top guitar and singing in a resonant near-baritone. Together, they turn the well-trampled territory of two-man juke blues into freshly-tilled soil, sounding somewhat akin to Satan and Adam, but with even less polish. This disc is just one of a dozen or so that Williams carries with him for sale from a suitcase and a fair representation of what I heard. Fortunately, it looks like most of that catalog (much of it on CDRs) is available through CdBaby where audio samples can also be found. I strongly advise all interested parties to check them out. [Originally published 7/20/09]

Von Freeman – Vonski Speaks (Nessa)

“Did you have your Wheaties?” So inquires tenor saxophonist Von Freeman of his drummer Michael Raynor in the playful spoken preamble to the concert on Vonski Speaks. Freeman’s been figuratively eating that Breakfast of Champions for years, erasing any adverse assumptions about his octogenarian age with an improvisational acumen and stamina that’s indicates only minimal signs of erosion. The music on this set dates from around the same time he signed on with the Chicago-based Premonition label, an association that yielded a string of strong albums over the previous decade. His playing here is arguably even better, finding him in splendid form in front of a fortunate audience at the Jazzfest Berlin in the fall of 2002.

Freeman’s rhythm section, the same that’s accompanied him on weekly gigs at Chicago’s New Apartment Lounge, provides the kind of proactive support that comes from a longstanding relationship on the bandstand. The disc’s title piece evinces that rapport at the onset and speeds along for 10-plus minutes. Raynor and bassist Jack Zara sustain a sprinting tempo for Freeman to glide and gambol across in his inimitable way. Guitarist Mike Allemana inserts nimble ornamental chording, but sounds a bit reticent in the performance’s initial minutes when faced with the voracious swing of his comrades. When Freeman finally lays out four and a half minutes in, Allemana finds his footing in a fast-picked solo that restores the faith. Zara and Raynor get in heavy licks of their own before Freeman ties it all up in a bow through a breakneck succession of exchanges with the previously embattled guitarist. The captured acoustics, which are warm and veracious, warrant a word here, too, as they give the music an even greater depth and vitality.

The disc is notable as a reunion between Freeman and producer Chuck Nessa, an old, unflagging ally who stewarded two of the saxophonist’s finest sessions of the 1970s on his eponymous label. Vonski’s wry humor is prevalent, both in his banter with the audience and in his reliably iconoclastic approach to thematic improvisation. He dedicates “Darn That Dream” to “all my darlings all over the world” noting that “all the ladies belong to Vonski” and delivering the peach of a punch line that he “dreams a lot” to friendly audience laugher. What follows is 13 minutes of balladic bliss all but guaranteed to seduce even the most jaded jazz listener into rekindled ardor. As sublime as it and the closing foray through Freeman’s own “Blues for Sunnyland,” the show-crowning centerpiece comes in an epic, episodic rendering of “Summertime,” a threadbare Gershwin garment that seems custom-fitted for re-tailoring under Freeman’s baroque adornments. It’s an easy pick for one of the top releases of last year; those who sleep on this sterling set do so at their supreme folly.

[Originally published 1/11/10 @ Dusted Magazine]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lin Halliday – Where or When (Delmark)

Here’s an old favorite that I didn’t even realize was in need of re-pressing prior to receiving the promo. Saxophonist Lin Halliday is in certain senses the Herbert Huncke of jazz, a hard luck magnet and itinerant who could bring sporadic savant-like genius to his art. Numerous are the tales of Halliday’s self-sabotaging ways, his brushes with fame, and his dogged dedication to jazz. This date comes from the middle of his Delmark renaissance when a shot at 11th hour acclaim appeared not just possible, but probable. Alas, it wasn’t to be and despite a handful of records Halliday passed away within a few years in virtually the same state he started. The other major draws of the disc are the presence of Ira Sullivan as Halliday’s front line foil and the blue-chip Chicago rhythm section of Jodie Christian, Larry Gray and Robert Barry as support.

The song list is nothing special, basically mothballed bop blowing vehicles and ballads, practically second nature to the participants. But it’s those sorts of tunes at which Halliday excelled, filtering them through his insular improvisational methodology to create discursive extrapolations in a manner owing much to a certain Mr. Rollins. Sullivan, switching between tenor and trumpet, is very often the straight man by comparison. Ditto Christian and Gray, though Barry brings some irregularities to his rhythms that serve as reminders of his youthful sojourn as Sun Ra’s stickman. Halliday is a bit of an acquired taste and there’s something to the skeptics’ claims that his playing peculiarities were byproducts of his lifestyle rather than intentional. Those who dig their bop spiced with pinches of salt and cumin would do well to check this and his other Delmark sides out.

[Originally published 5/12/09 @ Bagatellen]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Halvorson/ Radding/ Wooley – Crackleknob (hatOLOGY)

In Brooklyn, as with Chicago, improvising ensembles are comparable in number to tadpoles teeming in a pond. It’s a condition of the creative explosion that continues to sustain both communities. Nate Wooley, Reuben Radding and Mary Halvorson are poster people for the idea that diversification staves off artistic stasis. A thick chunk of the liners to their self-titled Hat debut covers the tangled taxonomic tree of projects and associations shared by the three. There’s no point summarizing it here as readers are no doubt familiar with the names and activities of many of the branches. These three players are in the midst of hectic careers with listeners continuing to take notice in growing droves.

Crackleknob’s success stems in large part from the balance of group concept and contrastive individual expression. All three members live and breathe their instruments –trumpet, bass and guitar– inside and out. Each has a strong and colorful personality to channel and the fluency to ensure that nothing is lost in translation. Halvorson handles her huge custom arch-top with a surety at odds with its size and her small frame. Her command of dynamics, in particular, suggests a master class, slipping from ceiling-clinging harmonics that approximate the sound of boots crunching broken light bulb glass to hard bass register picking that rivals Radding’s reach. Cleanly eliding single note runs suggest a ghost print of Joe Morris, a mentor, but she’s long since escaped any semblance of imitation assuming there ever their was one. Radding ranges all over his fingerboard, stacking plump bobbing notes against razor-wire bow play. One moment he’s politely keeping out of Halvorson’s way, the next, wrestling with her in a crisscross of bent strings. Wooley brings his complete bag of acoustic tricks too, setting up rustling drones that sound like interstitial static between radio stations one second and dialing in on Cool-toned jazz lyricism the next.

All ten pieces are collectively improvised, showing off symmetry of execution that immediately conjures the illusion of composition. Titles borrow from Adorno’s critical theory text Minima Moralia, and carry the boiled down wit of chapter headings. The associative music is similarly succinct with most tracks occupying close to pop song length and sounding not the least bit worse off for their economy. “Chamber improv” is a tempting adjectival tag for the sort of sounds these three traffic in, particularly given their combination of instruments and the tinder-dry music they devise. It’s also a hopelessly inadequate summation; one pointing to how Crackleknob and the host of other ensembles these three players are involved are rewriting the book on improvisatory jazz and gradually earning a bestseller listenership in the bargain.

[Originally published 7/7/09 @ Bagatellen]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Die Enttäuschung - Die Enttäuschung (Intakt)

Despite a name that translates from the German as “The Disappointment,” Die Enttäuschung’s music is neither sad-sack nor defeatist in design. Fifteen years is a long time to shoulder a self-inflicted pejorative if the sentiment behind it isn’t tongue-in-cheek. Over that span, the band has cemented a durable songbook and performance dynamic that reliably contradicts their dour title. Recent years have found them straying from the repertory-minded music typified by their Monk’s Casino collaboration with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach (also on Intakt) to a more personalized slant that references the composer in spirit rather than letter. As with their last self-titled Intakt release, this latest emphasizes kinetic, improv-weighted tunes that cater to the strong personalities in the ensemble.

Rudi Mahall has managed, somewhat miraculously, to sidestep the looming shadow of Eric Dolphy on his bass clarinet. His fleet and quirky voicings favor the middle register often sounding like a hollowed-out alto, though sputtering intervallic leaps also come as frequent punctuations. Axel Dörner’s trumpet completes a natural dyad in the front line, his brassy slurs and collar-ruffling phrasing keeping things delightfully off-center. Bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen don’t profit directly from the pole-positioning of their colleagues, but both are just as active and essential in sustaining the split-second variability and rigorous forward momentum of the group.

All four players share in the seeding of the quartet’s songbook. Mahall’s “Rocket in the Pocket” reels out in a stuttering convergence of jumping-bean horn lines and carbonated rhythmic accompaniment. His tightly-circumscriptive “Weiner Schnitzel” spills out in choppy squiggles and loops like so many sausage links. Jennessen’s five tunes run from the angular balladry of “Uotenniw” to “For Quarts Only,” a curious conflation of Lacy and Coltrane that contains a ghostly watermark of “A Love Supreme” in its sing-song theme. Ornette is another obvious anchor, evident in the freewheeling relays that occur between the players on Roder’s “Salty Dog.”

Track for track, it’s a thrilling album, one that merges daredevil aural acrobatics with an underlying professionalism that all but eliminates the likelihood of anyone cracking their skulls open on the big-top floor. The single affirmation of that ill-fitting band name arrives with the realization that the entertaining spectacle is only an hour long.

[Originally published 10/8/09 @ Dusted Magazine]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Liebman/ Eskelin/ Marino/ Black – Renewal (hatOLOGY)

In appraising latter-day tenor tandems, reviewers (this one included) tend to heavily reference the past as context. Each saxophone pair gets compared to a string of predecessors: Player X is the Ammons to Player Y’s Stitt while Player A is Pres to Player Z’s Herschel Evans, and so on. Such shorthand name-checking makes for colorful copy, but it rarely leaves an accurate or lasting impression on the music described. Dave Liebman and Ellery Eskelin face plenty of precedent with their team-up. That they manage to at once embrace and supplant historical potential referents is a chief reason why this second outing hits on every cylinder for nearly the entire duration.

Granted, the game is stacked in their favor from the start given the rhythm section on hand, the sensible amalgam of one colleague apiece from each man’s working band. It’s also no coincidence that bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jim Black occupy positions on the marquee. Reason number one hits like a pallet of bricks on the opener “Cha”, a high energy groove number scripted by the drummer that sounds vaguely Masada-ish. Liebman doesn’t even pause for a theme, flipping the vertical launch switch in a rocket fuel solo that has Marino and Black working overtime beneath him. The duo have their revenge in the tune’s pipeline-riding coda, accelerating full speed into punk Surfaris territory with snapping slap bass and precision pummeling drums and leading to the natural listener affirmation- Kowabunga, dude!

So many times the facing off of like instruments, especially saxophones, leads to a simplification of strategy and emphasis. Outright combat, in the case of the aforementioned Ammons and Stitt, or dapper congeniality as was the frequent repartee of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn are the usual options. In either scenario heads often become disposable obstacles to solos. Eskelin and Liebman sense this skew and go out of their way to ensure the music maintains high standards of intrigue no matter what. Two takes of Dolphy’s “Out There” delve deep into the tune’s bop roots and revolve around a string of incendiary breaks. Again, Marino and Black personify that rare sort of rhythm section, one that risks ruin repeatedly by constantly inviting implosion and ratcheting the adrenaline output as a result. It’s not all fireworks, as the title piece tacks into chamber territory in its investigation of overlapping horn textures and commensurate rhythmic ambiguity. The nine pieces race by, engendering an immediate desire to repeat the trip. Listeners with a sweet tooth for top-tier tenor shouldn’t hesitate in taking this one home.

[Originally published 6/10/08 @ Bagatellen]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Digital Primitives – Hum Crackle & Pop (Hopscotch)

A potent counterpunch to the strangely-resilient “jazz is dead or dying” meme, the Digital Primitives also hone in on a core reason why the beleaguered idiom survives. Bandmates Cooper-Moore, Assif Tsahar and Chad Taylor aren’t much for stylistic fences or formula. Nearly anything their ears encounter is fair game for integration into a music rooted in jazz, but receptive to a large number of ingredients. Recorded in July of 2007 and April of 2009, Hum Crackle & Pop is their second (third, counting a debut with Hamid Drake in place of Taylor) album, and this time judicious overdubbing and post-production play active roles in sound construction. The specific identities of some of Cooper-Moore’s handmade instruments can be a bit tricky to peg under the obfuscating patina of amplification, but I’ll give it the college try.

“Walkabout” establishes the new direction at the outset in a hypnotic convergence of crisp looping drums, warbling mouthbow, tinkling mbira and humming bass clarinet. Rubber band funk bubbles up during “Crackle & Pop” with Cooper-Moore laying down a febrile bass line on diddley bow and Tsahar blowing hot tenor on top through a heavy filter of vibrato and echo. “Love Truth” and “Hum” find the saxophonist shaping loose and soulful Gene Ammons-style blues lines, Cooper-Moore switching to his homemade twinger for a crunchy electric guitar sound, and Taylor laying down a porous backbeat.

As with their past collaborations, politics and personal freedom play prominent parts in the trio’s music. Cooper-Moore gets his Gil Scott-Heron on for “The People,” voicing a declarative rap of populist empowerment over a funky rhythm and threaded-in flute. Jazz tradition gets respect with a revitalizing rundown of the formaldehyde-scented standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” C-M’s sawing and rumbling diddley bow dances with Taylor’s brushed drums as Tsahar glides delicately through variants on the theme. The three veer over into Mississippi Hill Country mannerisms in the chugging percussion, gutbucket tenor and gritty one-chord banjo play of “No Holiday.” The collective improvisation guiding “Herenowhere” wears a bit thin and wobbly, but a well-paced and considered nod to Chicago jazz patriarch Fred Anderson ferries the set out in spirited fashion.

Digital Primitives are touring in support of the album, and bracing as their music is on disc, they’re even better experienced in person where the theatrical facets of their sound-cobbling can garner equal attention.

[Originally published 9/22/09 @ Dusted Magazine]

ROW: Porter Wagoner – The Rubber Room (Omni)

A countrified, pompadoured progenitor of Tom Waits, Porter Wagoner was also a true American original. He built a personal music empire in the shadow of the Grand Ole Opry and did it by mining some of the rawest and weirdest emotional ore in the history of music. This Omni compilation taps liberally from that particular topical vein with songs recounting madness, murder, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and worse in a manner that neither wallows nor makes light of the sins. There are also healthy helpings of kitsch with female back-up choirs, top Nashville session men and production values, and most prominently, Wagoner’s winsome, deadpan delivery. The whole persona, dubbed “psychotronic” by his PR posse, reflected in his purple, sequin-encrusted “Nudie” suit replete with stylized wagon wheels and cacti (reportedly just one of sixty in his wardrobe). His lyrics are often near poetry, but it’s his measured sung to spoken voice that makes them genius. He beat to his own drum, embracing disco and championing James Brown when his peers could only look askance. The accompanying booklet runs down the basics, but best of all contains full-color jacket facsimiles of a dozen LPs with Wagoner done up in greasepaint, silver hair dye and ragged duds to personify a handful of “down and out” guises. This stuff really just has to be heard to be appreciated and believed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Henry Grimes – The Call (ESP)

Career rebirths usually serve as manna for the receptive jazz press. Few, if any, are as remarkable as that achieved by bassist Henry Grimes: More than three decades spent in anonymity practically erased by a prodigal return. This ESP reissue gives a composite idea of how he originally went out, on the top of his game and poised to take the logical step to influential leader status. Sadly, that career trajectory wasn’t in the cards. Despite a number of auspicious sideman appearances in the following year Grimes eventually succumbed to personal demons and an ensuing life off the grid.

Perry Robinson practically deserves credit as co-leader on the date. The pair had previously appeared together on the clarinetist’s Funk Dumpling session for Savoy in 1962 and their creative rapport is even stronger in this free-leaning setting from late ‘65. Nods to the earlier meeting include the Grimes tune “Son of Alfalfa”. Robinson brings a battery of extended techniques previously largely the province of the saxophone, from chirrups and hiccups to split tones and judiciously deployed shrieks. These tactics lack artifice and instead feel wholly integrated into the music, something not easily said of certain other contemporaneous albums by peers. “Walk On” and “Saturday Night What Th’” promote the trio’s freebop interests with Robinson and Grimes engaging in some bracing exchanges and the bassist’s scuttling spider legs strums particularly memorable.

As the bluntest point of the triangle, drummer Tom Price is a bit heavy-handed, particularly on snare, and not quite on par with his colleagues. He builds up quite a vertical barrage on “Fish Story”, but there’s little in the way of horizontal movement in the resulting cascade. The suite-like “For Django” asks more from his sticks and he manages to respond with enhanced color and nuance around Robinson’s chalumeau explorations. Grimes is brilliant throughout, his bone dry sawing on the opening of the first piece contrasting with richer harmonic shades in the final minutes of the second. Robust pizzicato patterns shoot forth like gossamer webs and the newly scrubbed sound aids in discerning their complexities. The stereo mix parcels him cleanly into the left channel leaving Robinson and Price plenty of space in the right. Grimes appears busier than ever these days though debate about his abilities lingers. This set harkens to a time when the contingent of doubters was substantially slimmer and as such seems a slice of required listening.

[Originally published 6/24/08 @ Bagatellen]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Peter Brötzmann – Lost & Found (FMP)

Not a year passes that at least a handful of new Peter Brötzmann records don’t make it into the marketplace. The German reedist is consistent in getting his work into the hands of fans. Despite that reliable fecundity, solo statements are comparatively few and far between. The last was Right as Rain, a pathos-rich tribute to his deceased colleague Werner Ludi, from 2001. All to date are on the FMP, the Berlin-based label where a sizeable chunk of his discography also resides.

While Brötzmann has always been absent of artistic artifice and uncompromising in his insistence on emotive expression, his solo projects have opened avenues to experiment in more oblique areas, whether wielding his Brötzophone in breathless tribute to Oscar Wilde or soliloquizing in minimalist fashion on mouthpiece sans horn. Lost & Found returns focus to the sort of hard-nosed blowing he does best while still leaving space for several “out-of-character” surprises.

Recorded at the Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen in the summer of 2006, the record hearkens back to his 1876 solo effort in keeping the action within the confines of an LP. Five improvisations ranging in length from a quarter-hour to just over three minutes serve as fertile vehicles for four of his horns. Nearly half the program is dominated by his alto, a horn that often plays backseat to his tenor in other contexts, and it’s an invigorating change in focus. “Internal Rotation” covers the respectable gamut of what he can do on the smaller reed, opening with sharp linear bursts of clarion intensity before moving into coarser cascades of vibrato-heavy blowing and onward.

Brötzmann’s keen pitch control in the clarinet-governed title piece points to skills far beyond the typical reed-shrieking he’s typecast for. His tarogato work on “Universal Madness” is similarly revealing. It’s arguably the most unforgiving member of his arsenal and one where a propensity for piercing ululation can often grate rather than enamor. Here, he opens the Hungarian horn up and puts to tape a startling, if brief, segment that could almost pass for an Evan Parker soprano solo in its split-tone clarity and complexity.

“Got a Hole in It,” the lone tenor track, also defies expectations and features Brötzmann’s most melodic playing of the date. The knotty improvisation moves from stratosphere-scraping multiphonics in the opening minutes to purring growls that land comfortably close to the vernacular of vintage Archie Shepp. Near the end, he unexpectedly slips in a dog-eared sliver of Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie.” That sort of winking at the jazz canon isn’t unprecedented in his oeuvre (cf. the boiled-down baritone rendering of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” that opens 14 Love Poems from 1984) but it’s certainly rare. “Turmoil,” a terse and excoriating alto sortie, takes the set out and immediately primes the listener for a repeat trip.

[Originally published 10/29/09 @ Dusted Magazine]

Friday, July 9, 2010

Baby Dodds – Talking and Drum Solos (Unheard Music Series)

Certain musicologists contend that it all goes back to the drum. Cured skin stretched tautly across wooden frame, struck with palms, fingers or whatever implements handy. In jazz drumming, it’s possible to argue that it all goes back to Baby Dodds. Talking & Drum Solos, a Folkways recording recently reissued by the erudite chaps at Atavistic’s Unheard Music enclave, certainly makes a convincing case. Dodds was practically present for the birth of jazz and his traps powered some of the music’s earliest and most influential ensembles including those led by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet. Added to the original vinyl material are field recordings of two brass bands: The Lanesville-Johnson Union Brass Band and The Lapsey Band. Not a perfect fit stylistically, but far from a superficial exercise in fleshing out running time.

While Dodds’ sides are the obvious draw here, they do carry something of an academic archival ambience. The ‘talking’ portions of the program consist of the drummer explicating his various techniques. ‘Drum’ segments follow them up with visceral representations of the lessons. What’s surprising is how forward thinking and incisively creative these tracks sound. His rhythms are still rooted in traditional New Orleans breaks and patterns, but elements of African and Caribbean styles and even hints of free improvisation arise in the various flurries of sticks.

Two “Spooky Drums” pieces find him jumping from surface to surface, punctuating a percolating beat on cowbells with floor tom and bass drum accents to create a propulsive and highly textured sortie. His earlier and contemporaneous sideman work employs similar building blocks, but usually with but a fraction of the clarity and immediacy of the solo pieces represented here. Examples of this sort of ensemble play come to the fore on the montage piece “Drums in the Twenties.”

The brass band music ends up being just as absorbing and enlightening. Hymns and traditional folk tunes form the basis of their repertoires. Delivery and cohesion is often quite roughshod and ramshackle. A basic beat pounded out by a single drummer sets the foundation, across which the various horns slide and shimmy collectively in out-of-tune sallies. The instruments sound as if they’ve seen better days, the numerous dents, scuffs and deformities almost discernable in the mind’s eye. Slightly more complex rhythms form the basis for The Lapsey Band’s tunes along with cleaner fidelity and a better command of their songbook, but the rural informality remains.

Twenty-five tracks all told transpire in just under an hour. The sleeve notes list three more, but they’re strangely absent from the disc. Audible hisses and crackles lace all of the music, though they end up hardly noticeable in the context of their surroundings. Extra insight comes in the form of Kevin Whitehead’s voluminous notes. Dodds and the brass bands are indicative of traditions largely lost to the fickle sonances of time, but their obsolescence does little to detract from their importance or influence.

[Originally published 1/13/04 @ Dusted Magazine]

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Odean Pope – Serenity (CIMPoL)

An alternate title for this new Odean Pope project could be “The Umbrellas of Redwood”. And while the lovely Catherine Deneuve isn’t even an afterthought, there’s still plenty of beauty to be found. The actual title is apposite enough, reflecting both Pope’s demeanor and the probable effects of the music on listener. The inspiration for the date came from a quartet session a month earlier when producer Bob Rusch discovered Pope communing in the company of birds in the pre-dawn twilight. That naturalistic impulse governs the saxophonist’s approach here as well.

The “oL” in the new CIMP label offshoot stands for “on Location”, basically modifying the much discussed Spirit Room aesthetic to remote settings. For his part, Pope roamed around the Cadence/North Country grounds playing his tenor, a small contingent of parasols following his perambulations to shield him from the rain. The program is comprised almost completely of spirituals, among them a thirteen-and-a-half minute exposition on Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. The black sheep is a brief and partly atonal rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, though an argument could easily be made for that tune’s inclusion in the “spiritual” category as well.

Pope takes his time with the pieces, paying close attention to tone and phrasing and opening with an affecting invocation of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Engineer Marc Rusch’s mobile mics capture everything, even the sounds of passing cars on a roadway some distance away and the light patter of precipitation. Pope seems at once rapt and calmly convivial and that alloy creates a meditative air in the music. He reminds me a bit of Joe McPhee in his ability to communicate deep soul with an almost Brahmin-like temperance. The affinity for “Come Sunday” makes for another obvious commonality. “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” spools out in plush ribbons of melody that reflect both optimism and playfulness. A second incarnation of the song increases intensity via a shouted sermon snippet, but burns out after just over a minute. “Go Down Moses” also receives two treatments, each one parsing the familiar motif with bluesy purposefulness.

Some may find the absence of sidemen as sounding boards a little off-putting, but Pope uses his surroundings for those purposes. He ekes audible inspiration from the environment. No pressures of by-the-hour studio rates or opinionated production teams to intrude or trammel, just those domes of stretched nylon doing their best to keep him dry.

[Originally published 1/18/08 @ Bagatellen]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Tribute to Lester (ECM)

When Lester Bowie died, the impact was a bit like the death of John Lennon, at least in the jazz world. Bowie was a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most enduring and influential group’s in the post-1965 history of the music. Before any Beatle-philes go crying foul, let me just say that equating the AEC with the Fab Four isn’t as lame brained as it might seem. Both had a lasting effect on 20th Century music, drawing in facets of other cultures and championing an experimental spirit that routinely undermined existing musical conventions.

Over the span of three decades Bowie served as the AEC’s chief tone scientist, injecting liberal elements of funk and humor, and playing his part to the hilt by garbing himself in the trappings of a mad professor at the group’s countless concerts. With his passing, many wondered if the Ensemble would continue, filling the chasm-sized hole with a new voice, or soldiering on as a four-piece. Joseph Jarman’s departure soon after seemed to signal the death-knell and the remaining members focused on solo projects for several years.

Tribute to Lester comes as encomium to their fallen comrade and a reinvigoration of the AEoC esthetic. Bowie’s life and spirit are the subject and reedsmith Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors and drum-doyen Famoudou Don Moye are on hand to make it happen. Joseph Jarman is still absent at this juncture, though he would rejoin at the dawn of 2003, helping the Ensemble complete a project for the Pi label that has recently seen release as The Meeting. For this ECM date each man doubles on a customary cache of ‘little instruments’ including an array of whistles, gongs, bells, chimes and other percussion devices. Mitchell’s bulging satchel of reeds runs a wide register spectrum from flittering sopranino to lugubrious bass saxophone.

The opening “Sangaredi” coalesces out of a somewhat typical percussion panoply into a roiling vehicle for Mitchell’s bottom riffing bass sax atop a rigorous wash of gongs and chimes. On the temporally brief “Suite for Lester” the trio cycles from floating sopranino flanked by arco bass and hand drums into a chamber-style showcase for Mitchell’s sweetly gliding flute, rounding finally into groove-guided tenor, bass, drum romp that has more in common with the current crop of post-bop purveyors. Each section is touched on all too briefly and begs for further elaboration; the disc’s running time would have allowed it. Mitchell plants his feet for harder tenor during the “Zero/Alternate Line” medley, but it’s really Moye’s show as the drummer builds off a variety of tempi to create a colorful rhythmic slideshow projected against Favor’s stanchion sturdy bass lines.

Favors’ “Tutankhamun,” a signature piece dating back to at least the band’s early ’70s heyday, weds tumescent bass sax to a sparse shuffle beat of rotund bass, rolling snare and textured cymbals. Completing the program, the album’s lengthiest cuts, “As Clear as the Sun” and “Speaks to Me Often in Dreams” fly by. The former tailspins a bit from a prolix sortie by Mitchell’s soprano, but the atmospheric latter sets a course for the far-flung locales of the chimerical percussion islands as all three players make a beeline for their respective stashes of ‘little instruments.’ Suddenly the trip’s over and we’re back at the starting gate, all the more reason to cue up another tour. It’s hopelessly cliché, I know, but this really is the sort of disc that demands repeated listening.

The living chapter on Bowie’s contributions to the Art Ensemble might be closed in a pragmatic sense, but his legacy and influence will continue to flourish in the rich body of music he left behind. As evidenced by the loving homage here, his surviving comrades are still feeling and acting on it. I can almost picture the man in his white lab coat and spectacles, smiling from on high.

[Originally published 9/5/03 @ Dusted Magazine]

ROW: Alemu Aga - Ethiopiques 11: The Harp of King David (Buda Musique)

One of the more esoteric titles in the grand Ethiopiques omnibus, at least in terms of relative Western influence, this volume is also one of the most memorable. The “Harp of King David”, also known as the beguena, is a 10-string lyre similar to the Indian tampura in fundamental design, but possessed of its own engrossing sound. In the hands of a master such as Alemu Aga it takes on a soothing sentience, producing a series of sympathetic drones that circle and accentuate spoken word scripture and poetry. Though arguably the oldest of Ethiopian instruments, its history is a checkered one, having fallen out favor during the country’s Stalinist years because of its religious connotations and only recouping marginally in the aftermath. Aga is one of its few contemporary practitioners and his performances on the disc illustrate the immediate importance of keeping the traditions alive. Song titles point to his preoccupations among them, “About the Creation” and “The Second Coming of the Lord”. The booklet, typical of the series attention to detail, contains complete transcriptions of the topical lyrics. Even in the absence of such an aid, Aga’s voice has an effect comparable to his vibrato-radiating strings in eradicating anxiety and instilling a sense of contemplative calm.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Zaid Nasser – Off Minor (Smalls)

From title to back-story, altoist Zaid Nasser’s Smalls debut communicated a situation indicative of the jazz life, that of the colossal talent constrained by the circumstances of public indifference. This second act feels more hopeful and, by proxy, more relaxed. Nasser’s still scuffling for gigs along with his peers, but he’s been visited by a few strokes of fortune as well. Foremost among these was a spot on a three-week government-sponsored tour of Europe and Central Asia. According to saxophonist Chris Byars, the gig as musical ambassador suited Nasser’s natural temperament and led to a new sobriquet, “The King” (available now that Benny Carter’s no longer with us).

The sidemen are the same as on Nasser’s earlier outing, but that’s hardly a recipe for redundancy given their stature as Smalls’ informal in-house rhythm section. Bassist Ari Roland evinces his usual arco preference in solos, reserving a bulbous pizzicato thrum for the ensemble passages. His bow plies dry friction like fingers rubbing across balloon rubber, bringing to mind a sour-pussed Paul Chambers in overall effect. It’s a novel sound fashioned by a precision touch, but still one that sometimes gives me pause in its stringency. Drummer Phil Stewart keeps an easy cymbal-dominant clip, flanking pianist Sascha Perry’s bop-limned progressions and rolling out frothy breaks at just the right junctures. Nasser’s sudden sprints into corkscrew trills are but one device designed to summon listener surprise. His tractable way with a line rarely adheres to premeditation either, stretching and contracting in a voice that obliquely taps Gene Quill tartness and couples it with pervasive warmth.

While the chosen tunes are nothing revelatory — a rack of fusty old bottles capped by a closing original blues — Nasser and his colleagues wring streams of nectar from them anyway. Their reanimation of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” is one of several impressive feats and packed with vivacious ensemble conversation, particularly between Roland and Stewart. Dialing down to ballad tempo for a luxuriant stroll through “You’ve Changed”, the four are no less expressive or on point. Nasser’s big break remains elusive, but he hardly seems stymied by the wait. Based on what he and the others bring to the date, music-making is evidently often reason and reward enough.

[Originally published 2/4/09 @ Bagatellen]

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fred Anderson – Black Horn Long Gone (Katalyst)

Jazz added another octogenarian to its ranks this past summer when Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson celebrated another birthday by way of a historic series of performances at the Velvet Lounge. Eighty years on the planet equates to countless gigs and the resulting rich life experience is etched deeply in Anderson’s tenor vernacular. Black Horn Long Gone dates from 16 years prior, to a provenance when his renown was still largely limited to that of a local luminary and he had yet to begin his prolific recording pace in earnest. It’s a studio session originally recorded for the now dormant Southport label and recently distributed by the Chicago jazz stewards at Katalyst. The title commemorates Anderson’s ebony-lacquered Selmer, a staple of his early ’90s arsenal swapped some time ago in favor of the bronzed cousin he uses today.

The well-sequenced set unfolds like something of a proxy “greatest hits” package, touching on a number of Anderson’s compositional milestones and rife with the signature corkscrew blues patterns that populate his often circular phrasing. Art Ensemble of Chicago anchor Malachi Favors, Fred’s senior by 19 months, handles bass and it’s a dream come true to hear the two doyens turning the pages of the Anderson songbook in tandem. The enigmatic Ajaramu completes the trio, bringing a vibrant dynamic range to the drum kit through the deployment of Chicago and New Orleans-influenced jazz rhythms. His second line syncopations on “Malachi’s Tune” give the leader’s snaking lines even greater bounce and bite. Engineer Joanie Pallatto captures everybody in sharp close-up and the recording fidelity is uncommonly nuanced and clean.

Several of the cuts have a bit of an outtake feel about them with abrupt ending on “Three On Two” and the slight intonation problems on the part of Favors’ strings during “Saxoon” being two examples. Most strike squarely on the mark, though. The disc concludes with “Ode to Clifford Jordan,” a surprising solo improvisation dedicated to the then-recently deceased saxophonist that is really an extemporaneous collection of melodic and rhythmic riffs from Anderson’s other tunes. Recycled and reconfigured without accompaniment, even these familiar parcels make for satisfying listening and pique interest for an Anderson solo outing.

The riffs, as well as the other performances on the disc, underscore a criticism lodged at some of Anderson’s releases over the past decade: the tendency to revisit the same dog-eared material to diminishing returns and accompanying conjecture that age might understandably be catching up with him. Anderson’s recent Delmark release documenting the aforementioned birthday bash goes a long way toward putting those allegations to rest. Phrased another way that storied ebony horn may be long gone, but the man who played it is still going strong.

[Originally published 11/18/09 @ Dusted Magazine]

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lenny Popkin - 317 East 32nd (Choice)

The title on this one is a telltale wink as to the stylistic roots of its principal: Lenny Popkin was and remains a Tristanoite at heart. Like many in the blind pianist’s orbit, the tenorist’s recording opportunities have been unduly sparse over the decades. This album, recorded by pianist Connie Crothers in front of a New York City audience in the fall of 1979, was Popkin’s first as a leader and it’s an instantly endearing monument to his improvisational powers. Sound is a shade dodgy and distanced in places, but never less than listenable and the crowd(s) on hand offer up applause and appreciation that often tips over into the ebullient.

The presence of Bill Evans’ bassist Eddie Gomez accords immediate credence to the leader’s credentials and though a sideman he still gets in his share of good pizzicato licks. Drummer Peter Scattaretico suggests no similar proof of Popkin’s esteem, but he holds his own in delivering tip-toeing rhythms and crisp cymbal accents. The set list is an assortment of standards and contrafacts that follow the Tristano custom of grafting new melodies to evergreen chord changes. Popkin’s lithe versatility with a line and aerated tone trace swift kinship with those most famous of teacher’s former pupil’s, Konitz and Marsh, but there’s more going on as well in the tart keen that sometimes crops up in his clever coining of a melodic phrase.

Popkin pulls a direct page from Marsh in his near-verbatim recreation of Lester Young’s solo to “When You’re Smiling” and still manages to put his signature on it. Similar outcomes arise out of brief but busy sortie through “Body and Soul”. Another number, “You’re Irreplaceable”, nods to Roy Eldridge, balancing swing bounce with a cool-minded equilibrium in construction. On the closing “Anthropology” he brings to mind obscure West Coast saxophonist Steve White through a playful scat vocal. The White comparison actually jibes reasonbly well on his horn work too in the way both men carry audible Lestorian influences.

Popkin’s recorded periodically over the years though nearly all of those efforts are hard to come by these days. Easier to locate are his handful of documents as a participant in Crothers’ projects though even those require a diligent search. Here’s hoping the reissue of this set leads to a return of easy access to what’s come prior and a renewed lease on new work from this little known standard-bearer of the Tristano sound.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sun Ra Arkestra - Sunrise in Different Dimensions (hatOLOGY)

The solitary entry by the Saturnian in the Swiss label’s catalog, this set earns its third pressing on compact disc with this newly-minted hatOLOGY edition. It’s singular in several other senses as well. Culled by producer Werner X. Uehlinger from the band’s first night stand at Willisau in the winter of 1980, the track list skews toward the standards that were a regular part of the band’s repertoire, but infrequent inclusions on record. Space chants and Ra originals commonly took precedence, but here they largely give way to classics by Horace Henderson, Noble Sissle, Jelly Roll Morton and the Strayhorn/Ellington team. All are appropriately Arkestral-ized with bumptious charts that sacrifice polish for unmitigated panache and the old adage “ancient to the future” is in apposite effect.

Also of note is the pared down roster, a not uncommon condition at the start of tours as it sometimes took several days for all the Arkestra members to report for active duty. Bass and trombones are absent, but drummers Chris Henderson and Eric Walker help shore up the bottom end. Reeds dominate the remainder of the ensemble with regulars John Gilmore, Marshall Allen joined by second tier soloists Nöel Scott, Danny Thompson and Kenneth Williams. Trumpeter Michael Ray is a brass section of one and his puckish, kinetic playing does well in tandem with the phalanx of saxophones and flutes. A “get-in-and-get-out” philosophy pervades, particularly on the canonical pieces and the forward momentum of the band rarely flags.

Last, but light-years from least there is Ra, keeping his armada of keyboards boxed in favor leading by acoustic piano. This decision is perhaps the biggest draw of the set. Absent bass places even more onus on his ensemble input. His solos are frequent starting with the opening original “Light From a Hidden Sun”, a bruising and boisterous collision of block chords and deft right hand soliloquies that dizzyingly juggle dissonance and delicacy. Allen and Gilmore speak in pealing stratosphere-register tongues on the controlled chaos of “Silhouettes of the Shadow World” while shorter standard pieces like “Cocktails for Two” and “’Round Midnight” feature them independently. Later program offerings like “Limehouse Blues” and “Lightnin’” strike just as fierce. Outfitted with a fresh 2010 remastering and a stark shot of the Space Needle underbelly as cover, this set sounds and looks better than ever.