TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2007
Well, to start off the reviews, here are my albums of the year. By no means a definitive list, it is instead a personal selection of those records that have provided me with the most rewarding listening experiences over the past twelve months. Who knows, some of the music I’ve dismissed may turn out to be remembered and appreciated in years to come…I can but try to offer my humble opinion!
When trying to compile this sort of list, one inevitably thinks of the question: what kind of a year was it for jazz? One like any other, I suppose, with many, many solid releases (of which the reviews in this magazine provide only a snapshot). Established figures continued to turn out high-quality music, most notably with the welcome return of underrated trumpeter Charles Tolliver, leading a fantastic, high-energy big band session, while the likes of John Surman and Evan Parker (one of the most prolific artists around) explored a more considered, brooding approach. An up-and-coming artist who really will be one to watch is trumpeter Peter Evans: his music balances tradition and the avant-garde with the spirit, if not the vocabulary, of Jackie McLean and Andrew Hill’s ‘inside/outside’ approach during the 1960s.
Perhaps most notable, though, was a monumental work that was strangely missing from most other critics’ end of year lists, and the coverage in both the jazz and classical press: as Anthony Braxton’s 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006. I personally haven’t had time to fully appreciate and absorb it, yet: it’s the sort of music that demands the same full and absolute engagement given by the performers, from the listener, and it’s hard to find the time to devote this much attention to every single disc in a large box-set. In a way, my failure is hardly surprising, when you consider that it is basically the summary of Braxton’s musical journey so far – a journey that has already been ridiculously productive and prolific. He is a man with a claim to be at least considered as the greatest musician to walk the planet this century, or any century, and this set of records is an incredibly significant piece of work in his output. And I guess that alone would be quite enough for any year!
Read on for the reviews…
ANTHONY BRAXTON 12+1 TET – 9 COMPOSITIONS (IRIDIUM) 2006
Label: Firehouse 12 records
Release Date: March 2007
Composition 350 (CD 1); Composition 351 (CD 2); Composition 352 (CD 3); Composition 353 (CD 4); Composition 354 (CD 5); Composition 355 (CD 6); Composition 356 (CD 7); Composition 357 (CD 8); Composition 358 (CD 9).
Personnel: Anthony Braxton: alto, soprano, and sopranino sax, clarinet, Eb contralto clarinet; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, mutes, shell; Andrew Raffo Dewar: soprano and c-melody sax, clarinet; James Fei: alto and soprano sax, bass clarinet; Mary Halvorson: electric guitar; Steve Lehman: alto and sopranino sax; Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto and bass flutes, piccolo, voice; Jessica Pavone: viola, violin; Reut Regev: trombone, flugelbone, mutes, cymbals; Jay Rozen: tuba, euphonium, mutes, toys; Sara Schoenbeck: bassoon, suona; Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone; Carl Testa: bass, bass clarinet.
Additional Information: 9 CD + 1 DVD boxset, recorded at Iridium Jazz Club, New York, during a week-long residency in March 2006, in which he gave the world premieres of his Compositions 350-58 with 12+1 tet. [Recording Dates: CD 1-2 (16th March), CD 3-4 (17th March), CD 5-7 (18th March), CD 8-9, DVD (19th March).] The DVD features Jason Guthartz’s documentary ‘What Kind of ‘Tet?’ (which includes footage from the nine sets and a Braxton lecture), and a complete performance of Composition 358. Also included in the set is a 56-page booklet, containing an extensive collection of essays, commentary and biographical information. Available as a digital download from emusic.com.
Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music has not only encompassed but fundamentally transformed (“trance-formed”) his entire music system. His GTM compositions can scarcely be considered “compositions,” at least not in any usual sense of the word. They constitute what Braxton call “a continuous state music…a trans-temporal music that can be played in any tempo and a trans-idiomatic music in terms of its structural postulates….Each composition becomes like a melody that doesn’t start and doesn’t end.” (Braxton to Graham Locke, Notes to Composition 192, Leo Records).
In other words, linear form has been set aside in favour of ritual form. Necessary structural determinants (in terms of overall movement from A to B to Z) have been let go of in favor of duration (time), the only underlying determinant of ritual form. In the Ghost Trance Music presented at the Iridium, an hour glass was turned over at the beginning of each piece to set a general time parameter. (Duration doesn’t tell us what music will be played but it sets the open framework within which music can take place.)
This shift in musical form (change in essence) mystified almost everyone when Braxton first presented it in 1995. Drawing on his studies of Native American music and Ghost Dance rituals of the late 1800s, Braxton’s “first species” GTM was built on a steady stream of eighth notes that simulated the repetitiveness of Native American drumming. The GTMs have gone through three subsequent permutations, each interjecting new irregular rhythmic complexity into the steady line, culminating in the latest “accelerator class”/ “accelerator whip” GTM forms that are the basis of the nine pieces presented on the Iridium box set. These compositions, the last of the Ghost Trance melodies that Braxton intends to write, have become so complex now (speeding up, slowing down, twisting and contorting) that one might be hard pressed to identify them as even related to the first species forms.
Jonathan Piper, in his excellent notes to the Iridium set, points to this development of the melodic line as the main distinguishing feature of the different classes of GTM. That is true enough, but equally important in their evolution was Braxton’s decision (late in first species GTM) in the pieces he presented at Yoshi’s (1997) to open the music up in unprecedented ways.
It is helpful to recall that one of Braxton’s first intentions with the Ghost Trance Music was to access the Ghost. From his conversation with Francesco Martinelli, Sextet Istanbul 1995 (Braxton House): “I believe that one of the problems of this time period is that we don’t understand the old Ghost, the old masters. We have been given a viewpoint of the masters that takes away the aura of the Ghosts. All of it looks like artifacts and more and more children are not able to gain some sense of the real culture. But trance music means that individuals can do individual experiences and they can tap into anything, including the essence of the masters, of the old masters.” (Within the Ghost Trance pieces, Braxton seems at times to be playing from another state of being; his solos, especially on alto, are right on the sonic edge.)
In order to allow that “tapping in,” Braxton had already built into the GTM points in the melodic line where players could move into improvisation, another composition, or into other ritual states (factoring in elements of theatre, body movement, stage placement, and so on). Yet until the Yoshi’s dates, these open elements were well in the background of the main repetitive melodic line. You could hear them beginning to come to the forefront near the end of Tentet New York 1996 (Braxton House), but at Yoshi’s, for the first time, they take centre stage.
As he had done previously with his quartet, Braxton actively moved to include (as possibility) within the Ghost Trance Music all of the music that he had ever composed! But the implications of such a move with the GTM were more far reaching than with the quartet, for the effect was to now place all of his music within ritual time rather than within linear time; and whereas with the quartet, the different compositions that were played together almost always ran alongside each other, now pieces of pieces began to move continuously in and out of the music, restructuring the trance form along the way.
Concurrent with this, Braxton began to break down the Ghost Trance Music hierarchically; subgroups of three and sub-leaders were designated within the larger group who could make decisions about when and where and which parts of which pieces were to be included within the main compositional form. (In what would become standard practice, Braxton also provided the players with “secondary” compositional material, miniatures for trios, that they could opt to include at any time.) As much or more than any transformation of GTM species lines, this change marked the actual beginning of the new reality of where Braxton’s music now stands. With good reason, Braxton refers to the Ghost Trance Music on the Iridium box set as “THE point of definition in my work so far.”
What do the nine Iridium pieces sound like? They are nothing less than new orchestral archetypes. The Ghost Trance Music compositions are the most formally complex of any, and they are the most structurally open. In the new “accelerator whip” pieces prepared for the Iridium dates, Braxton included additional points in the written lines from which players might choose to “exit” into improvisation or into some other music (“strategy”). That means there is more space for the players, working from their non-hierarchical vantage points, to improvise and to create the total form of the music
from the ground up.
Each GTM composition suggests some type of rhythmic direction and movement that influences, ever so subtly, the way a piece will take shape. But the way the melodic line sounds is open to considerable interpretation by the players, each of whom is able to play it in any clef or tempo. In the later compositions, the players veer more toward the unisons we became accustomed to hearing with earlier GTM forms, but there’s always some contrary pull and tug from somewhere in the group. The first evening’s pieces, “350” and “351,” open with wonderfully out-of-synch and disassociated ensembles that inform the players’ dense approaches to the compositions. I love these! Piece “350” especially maintains a spirited sense of invention throughout.
The orchestral range of the 12+1-tet is underlined by its broad instrumentation; it is the most varied of any group to have played the Ghost Trance Music. The music itself, as players navigate in and out of the main compositional line, takes shape through motivic and textural addition and subtraction. That sounds simple, but the players must make the choices of what to add or what to subtract in order to create engaging music. That they succeed in doing so throughout nine pieces of music over four evenings is a tribute to their musicianship and resourcefulness.
It is difficult to characterize any individual piece, as each one moves through so much musical territory. But certain things stand out. On the first evening, Thursday, we feel the players’ emotional edge, the underlying passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing; the music is a little wild! By the final evening, Sunday, that edge has settled into crisp execution; we sense the players’ full-blown confidence in their abilities. Rich and tonally varied orchestral voicings emerge, and there is even a brief fantasia-like sequence midway through the closing set, piece “358.”
Friday evening’s compositions feature notably fast thematic renditions; the second piece, “353,” nearly hits a groove! That happens in no small part from the way in which earlier Ghost Trance Music forms find their way (as optional inputs) into the new accelerator class GTM; rather than define and virtually contain the musical space, as they did previously, the repetitive melodic lines now provide momentum, here and elsewhere, to propel the music forward.
Saturday’s three consecutive shows physically tax the players’ creative powers; they respond with a highly organic opening set that moves from ensemble density to a near meditative state. Piece “355,” next, is likely the “quietest” of all the Iridium sets; the music feigns this way and that, deliberately pacing itself, then interjects some boisterous Mingus-like ensemble work near the final section. The third set, with the players in “dreamtime,” features a staggered opening that sets the piece’s tone; the music expands contracts, slows, stops, rides propulsive waves toward a calm conclusion.
Giving over to the orchestral flow, Braxton’s moments as soloist are fewer and shorter than usual. He occasionally chooses, however, to offer subtle musical direction to the group, like contrarily suggesting a neo-romantic vision in the midst of some dense ensemble; other times, while circular breathing, he squeezes out raspy, throaty horn vocalizations to give the music a much needed edge. Yet these new realizations of Braxton’s music are not so much extensions of instrumental language or technique as they are extensions of the logic of orchestral form (Orchestral Ghost!).
What is interesting is how that logic may transfer back into individual improvisation; for once linear form has been interrupted at the overall level of what we have heard (and internalized), players may find it emotionally unsatisfying to return to more usual ways of formulating sound. In that case, “trance-formation” would have come full circle.
Note: The DVD included in the Iridium box features Jason Guthartz’s hour-long film of Mr. Braxton at Columbia University outlining the theoretical basis of the GTM. A performance film of “Composition 358,” the last of the nine Iridium pieces, is also included and is essential viewing. The players musical decision-making processes are illuminated, and we see how much fun they are having bringing the Ghost Trance Music to life.
Review by Henry Kuntz, June 2007, originally published at the following web addresses: http://henrykuntz. wordpress.com/2007/09/26/anthony-braxton-12-1tet/ and
http://www.m-etropolis.com/wordpress/p/anthony-braxton-121tet/en/ For an archive of further articles by Henry Kuntz, please see http://bells.free-jazz.net/
CHARLES TOLLIVER BIG BAND – WITH LOVE
Label: Blue Note
Release Date: January 2007
Tracklist: Rejoicin’; With Love; Round Midnight; Mournin’ Variations; Right Now; Suspicion; Hit the Spot
Personnel: Charles Tolliver: trumpet; David Guy: lead trumpet; Chris Albert, Keyon Harrold, David Weiss, James Zollar: trumpets; Joe Fiedler, Clark Gayton, Stafford Hunter, Jason Jackson: trombones; Aaron Johnson: bass trombone, tuba; Todd Bashore: alto sax, clarinet; Jimmy Cozier: alto sax; Craig Handy: alto & soprano saxes, clarinet, flute; Billy Harper: tenor sax; Bill Saxton: tenor sax, clarinet; Howard Johnson: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Stanley Cowell, Robert Glasper: piano; Cecil McBee: acoustic bass; Victor Lewis: drums; Chad Tolliver: guitar (6).
Additional Information: Charles Tolliver’s recordings with the band ‘Music Inc’ (co-led with Stanley Cowell) appear on the legendary musician-run label ‘Strata-East’, which released some of the finest, and most neglected, 1970s jazz recordings. Though out of print, old vinyl rips can be downloaded in MP3 format from the internet (see feature on jazz blogs). ‘Music Inc Live at Slugs’, Vols. 1 & 2, and ‘Music Inc. Live in Tokyo’ have been re-issued in a Mosaic select 3-disc box-set, available in a limited run of 5,000 copies, at http://www.mosaicrecords.com/discography.asp?number=MS-020&price=$44.00&copies=3%20CDs
There’s something about great jazz recordings that, when you fist hear them, they just sound right. This new offering from 2006 by trumpeter Charles Tolliver’s big band is one such example, the band playing a selection of arrangements that could quite easily come from the “Golden Era” of jazz creativity that was the 1960s. In fact, some of the arrangements do hark back to the 1970’s when Tolliver was leading an earlier edition of this outfit. The track “Right now” started life even earlier as a chart for a 1964 Jackie McLean recording session.
To be honest, having caught this band during their tour of the European Jazz festivals in the summer, I was fully expectant that this record would be one of this year’s finest and it certainly captures the sheer excitement and adrenalin that they mustered in concert. The scores displayed that hint of darkness that is a vital ingredient for some of the finest jazz and the power with which the brass punctuated the arrangements gave the impression of McCoy Tyner’s powerful and swinging comping mutated into the big band genre. However, by far the most discernable influence on the leader’s writing is Gerald Wilson with whom he studied in Los Angeles in the Sixties. Wilson’s pedigree is immense taking in work for the twin bastions of Duke Ellington and Count Basie as well as having initially made his mark with the semi-mythical Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra way back in the early 1940’s. Small wonder that this disc by his pupil should fit so smugly into the traditions of classic big band jazz! Like Wilson, Tolliver has stripped the scores of superfluous ensemble writing, leaving the reed and brass sections available to state the themes and punctuate the music with interjections that serve to propel ensemble onward. As a result, this music exhibits a masculine and muscular quality with the cast of veritable soloists carried away on top of the boisterous riffing that is such a feature throughout this record. All the themes bar one were composed by the leader and their close adherence to the tenets of Gerald Wilson’s unfussy style make them instantly memorable. The most interesting chart on this disc is “Mournin’ Variations” which opens and closes with a folk-like melody scored for unaccompanied woodwinds, the effect of which is quite beautiful. After a following brass fanfare and plenty of drums, the band settles into the kind of groove beloved of Coltrane’s classic quartet, tenor maestro Bill Harper taking the initial solo honours. Followed later by Stafford Hunter’s trombone, Charles Tolliver’s trumpet and the piano of Stanley Cowell, the head of steam built up by the band behind them makes you wish that more big bands would play with this intensity.
Despite its title, there is nothing romantic or dreamy about the seven numbers on this disc. Even the old Thelonious Monk chestnut “’Round midnight” gets a far brisker workout than normal. The opening track “Rejoicin’” very much sets that standard and is an exuberant ¾ waltz, the leader spitting out a pithy trumpet solo with the section work building up the kind of Herculean crescendo that you could visualise bringing the walls of the studio down around the ears of the musicians.
The list of soloists in the orchestra consists of a roster of well-established talent such as Howard Johnson (baritone sax), Craig Handy (alto), Billy Harper (tenor) and Stanley Cowell. The latter shares piano duties with the very impressive Robert Glasper, one of the most exciting prospects amongst the latest generation of jazz musicians. Cecil McBee (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums) complete the stellar rhythm section. The latter’s superlative groove and prominent role in the overall sound of the band is an essential ingredient to the ensemble. Tolliver’s son, Chad, solos on guitar on the riotous “Suspicion.”
Sometimes Big Bands are unable to capture the excitement of the like performance in the studio and things can sound a bit clinical after excessive editing. “With Love” is exactly the kind of record that reminds you that there is still plenty of mileage in the jazz mainstream and demonstrative that is can be possible to be totally faithful to the band’s appearance in concert. Unreservedly recommended.
(Review by Ian Thumwood)
JOHN SURMAN – THE SPACES IN BETWEEN
Release Date: May 2007
Tracklist: Moonlighter; You Never Know; Wayfarers All; Now and Again; Winter Wish; The Spaces in Between; Now See!; Mimosa; Hubbub; Where Fortune Smiles; Leaving the Harrow
Personnel: John Surman : soprano and baritone sax, bass clarinet; Chris Laurence: bass; The Trans4mation String Quartet (Rita Manning, Patrick Kiernan: violin; Bill Hawkes: viola; Nick Cooper: cello)
I surprised myself somewhat by picking this as one of my discs of the year; I was expecting to like it, but not quite this much. In a way, I think it’s a purely personal thing
– it’s not the sort of album that’s going to become a universally acknowledged work of great jazz, of the Kind of Blue/Love Supreme type. In other words, it’s not the sort of thing that everyone admires even if it’s not a personal favourite – but it does strike a personal chord with me, and that’s why it’s on this list. In particular, it exemplifies something I like about Surman’s output as a whole: the way that his explorations of texture, types of melody, and mood are draw on a specifically English tradition, which at times (such as in his orchestral and choral works), puts him in the mystical/pastoral tradition of the likes of Vaughan Williams. It’s a quality that’s hard to pin down exactly – something to do with a brooding, melancholic darkness at its centre, at times turning into folky nostalgia, at others romantic wistfulness. It concerns itself with the abstract, but remains rooted in the concrete – it can be very pretty, but there’s always a certain beefiness to it.
Fitting this into the context of his career as a whole, Surman’s taken the virtuosity of American jazz (where would the bass clarinet be in jazz without Dolphy’s example?), and developed a muscular/wistfully-tender approach that has served him well, from early jazz-rock days (including a crucial appearance on John McLaughlin’s ‘Extrapolation’) to the more spacious, almost ambient recordings he’s made on ECM for the last thirty years or so. At times this new approach grew a bit wearing, especially during the 1980s when he tended to solo over synthesizer loops – there was a sense that he really needed other musicians to prompt him away from noodling. Consequently, some of his best work has been in collaboration with drummer Jack deJohnette. In the 90s, he diversified, moving into classical composition, and appearing in all manner of contexts.
For his latest, it is the classical approach he turns to once again: this is the ‘sequel’ to ‘Coruscating’, which is, unbelievably, almost a decade-old (it was released in 1999). The only other jazz instrumentalist is bassist Chris Laurence, whose role is primarily melodic, and the absence of a drummer creates a very different rhythmic feel to your usual jazz record, with the Trans4mation String Quartet (assembled from scratch especially for the earlier project) bringing out the wonderful, rich textures of Surman’s compositions.
In fact, several of these compositions are adaptations of earlier pieces from different stages in Surman’s career: ‘Moonlighter’ began as an exercise piece for a Royal Schools of Music Course in Britain; ‘Where Fortune Smiles’ was the title-track of a classic 1970 jazz-rock record; and ‘Mimosa’ was written for oud-player Anouar Brahem – and, though it doesn’t feel at all out-of-place, it does depart from the more ‘English’ feel of the rest of the album (interestingly, while at London University, Surman studied sitar at the School of Oriental Studies).
Surman’s sensitive string-writing (none of the blanket wash heard on so many jazz ‘with strings’ album) also has its roots in his little-known earlier musical experiences: in addition to the large arsenal of reed instruments that he currently employs, he once played double-bass, even appearing in an orchestra under the conduction of Vladimir Ashkenazy on one occasion in the 60s. In fact, it turns out that the centre-piece title track of the album doesn’t even feature Surman at all – it’s a composition for solo violin which, he says, develops the way that he would play the instrument if he could. He continues the story: “It’s really become a central part of the structure of the whole, an arching piece that binds the two halves of the album together. I’d sent the piece to Rita [Manning], with a little trepidation, about a year ago. She’s been working away at it since then, and plays it fantastically.”
Such a process illustrates the confidence Surman has in the players, and the way the project has matured during the long gestation period between albums. In his own words, once again: “the music has been developed simply through playing: we’ve played together a lot now, and as we’ve progressed the string quartet has become much more integrated into the improvisational process too. The project has become looser in performance than it was when we started out, and it also feels much more like a band, a complete entity. I’ve learned that there are many more possibilities than I first imagined, and gained more confidence both in what I can write for the strings and in what I can leave to the players’ imaginations. ” Thus, at the end of ‘Now and Again,’ the strings have complete freedom, yet manage the transition in such a way that its hard to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. This is obviously not music of the complexity and sheer intellectual rigour of Braxton’s Iridium box-set, the year’s other major jazz/classical fusion (although Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3’, also on ECM, should not go unnoticed) , but it aims for a different kind of effect, and one that many listeners will undoubtedly find more palatable than that of the Professor.
Of all the instruments he plays, it’s his baritone that’s most prominent, and most effective, perfectly meshing with the rich strings on the darkly romantic, almost noir-esque ‘Moonlighter.’ He turns it into a vehicle for the expression a piquant yearning, very different from the gruff elegance of Gerry Mulligan, though like Mulligan he succeeds in turning what can sound unwieldy, clumsy into something mellifluous, liquid, malleable.
Surman has honed everything to perfection: his playing style, (with its characteristic, slightly skewed, off-balance, surging melodic tilts), his compositions and arrangements. It’s perhaps a summation of some sort, and, even if not quite that, it’s the work of a superb musicians working at the very height of his powers and maturity, making music with the benefit of a wealth of experience and wisdom behind it, gathered form playing with the top British and international jazz musicians in a variety of contexts over decades, but also a young man’s fresh outlook, an ability to be sharp and probing, to see into those spaces in between that others can’t (between genres, etc).
If I had one criticism, it would be the inevitable ECM one – that it’s too samey, too one-mood. Despite occasional more upbeat, faster tracks, a whole hour of this sort of meditation is necessarily going to become slightly soporific – even more so as, typically, the album was recorded in a resonant acoustic interior (the Austrian St Gerold monastery), and given the usual ‘Eicher’ touch. Still, I feel this far less than I do with many other ECM albums, and it really has given something unique, something more than any other jazz release this year.
WILLIAM PARKER AND RAINING ON THE MOON – CORN MEAL DANCE
Label: AUM Fidelity
Release Date: October 2007
Tracklist: Doctor Yesterday; Tutsi Orphans; Poem for June Jordan; Soledad; Corn Meal Dance; Land Song; Prayer; Old Tears; Gilmore’s Hat.
Personnel: William Parker: bass; Rob Brown: alto saxophone; Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Eri Yamamoto: piano; Leena Conquest: voice; Hamid Drake: drums.
Additional Information: Listen to an audio stream of the full album at AUM Fidelity’s website (www.aumfidelity.com)
Parker (see feature on Downtown Music) has of course played with all the great free jazz musicians, but this is about as far from the likes of Brotzmann or Cecil Taylor as you can get. A more relevant comparison would, in fact, be Wynton Marsalis’ much more hyped vocal suite ‘From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.’ In contrast to that work’s rather bitter tone (Marsalis once again railing against everything that he has a problem with in modern society), Parker’s work has a much more optimistic bent, focusing on pleas for, and visions of, peace –although it’s by no means merely escapist and head-in-the-clouds, with accounts of injustice (Land Song, Tutsi Orphans) and radicalism (Soledad), and a homage to social activist and poet June Jordan. Nevertheless, it’s the peace and love vibe that makes its present felt the most, and the ‘naïve’ style of many of Parker’s self-penned lyrics (it would be more accurate to call them poems) can become somewhat cloying.
James Taylor, in his review for New York’s All About Jazz magazine, writes of a “very real and true socio-political sense of urgency—not just some metaphorical impressionism”, but, to my mind, it’s that ‘metaphorical impressionism’ that tends to win through. The lyrics are structured around largely Christian references (the holy spirit, God), with occasional nods to other cultures (a juju stick, the final track, about angering the rain god and having to do a rain dance) – pretty much the de-facto spiritual reference for free jazz musicians from Coltrane to Ayler and Pharoah Sanders: a somewhat wishy-washy and vague (it could be said) peace-and-love hippy/religious sentiment (but nevertheless one that remains relevant in these, as in all times).
The music has an appropriate, matching solemnity, which threatens to fall into the stodginess of Mary Maria’s late collaborations with Albert Ayler (‘Music is the Healing Force of the Universe’), but without that music’s disturbing intensity. Instead, a certain earnest, well-meaning blandness that creeps through, on ‘Poem for June Jordan’ in particular (a duet for just vocals and piano) which has little of the adventurousness in spirit or intent that I value so much in jazz.
All that said, the melodies Parker writes are simple and attractive, often buoyant and hummable, and the blues element brought in by the (intriguingly enough) Japanese, and female pianist Eri Yanamoto, gives it a nice solid grounding. Highlights include the unbearably happy yet sad melody of the title track, and the album’s masterstroke, ‘Tutsi Orpahns’, with its subtle allusions to Beethoven’s great humanistic Ode to Joy in the opening bass line and Chinese-sounding opening melody. This is also the best example of words and music fusing, rather than cancelling each other out: the lines “I am your brother/Please do not cut my throat” have an affecting directness. Reflecting the poem, the piece is divided into two sections: this opening plea, and then a lovely shift to a solemn, soaring song about a ‘black angel’- perhaps the orphans’ dream of redemption before they die.
It doesn’t break any new ground, and it’s probably not going to be remembered as one of Parker’s best, but it is the sort of thing that’ll be nice to spin on the CD player once in a while, and it has enough distinctiveness about it to lift it above the pack.
EVAN PARKER/MATTHEW SHIPP – ABBEY ROAD DUOS
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: Tenor suite i-iv; Soprano suite i-iv.
Personnel: Evan Parker: tenor and soprano sax; Matthew Shipp: piano
Treader is a small, modest label run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales of electronic/improv duo Spring Heel Jack: their aesthetic seems aptly reflected by the minimalist design of their website, and of the CDs themselves, which contain no liner notes, just the simple recording details, and come in delicate, plain cardboard boxes (albeit with elaborately embossed animal designs by Frauke Stegmann on the front – this one a shiny gold lizard). This is the label’s third series of three releases, and the only one on which Coxon and Wales do not feature. Some might say that’s a relief, as their tendency towards a slightly less ‘pure’ improvised aesthetic to that of the older generation musicians they play with can lead to such misjudgements as the new-agey soundscapes accompanying master Danish alto player John Tchicai on ‘John Tchicai with Strings.’
Whatever you think about SHJ, they are to be congratulated for bringing these two musicians together – not the sort of duo you’d that readily imagine, the British avant-gardist, committed to one hundred percent to free improvisation, and the more jazz-based Shipp, who’s experimented with hip-hop and electronica in his work, as well as thundering out mighty left-hand chords under the solemn massiveness of David S. Ware’s ‘godspelised’ tenor sax. As it turns out, they really do strike up a rewarding musical relationship, and their playing has a lot in common. It’s easy to forget that Parker began by playing jazz, and he taps into that stream again here in a way that he doesn’t normally do, while retaining his uncompromising and absolute fidelity to in-the-moment interaction and discovery.
The territory covered is often abstract and fragile. Some could say that this is the result of edginess – a cagey first encounter – but I think it’s more deliberate than that. Both are being put in a situation that’s slightly different to what they do most of the time, and thus create an entirely new approach (albeit one so subtle it doesn’t feel as radical as it may be). They create open environments with lots of space, offering room for the other player to join in, to accentuate, to echo, to contrast: music where feeling and thought are often one and the same – sober and studied but full of emotion.
‘Soprano Suite Part iii’ finds Parker focussing on little quiet sounds, on flutey, breathy sonorities, and Shipp spending most of the piece simply repeating an arpeggio. It has an important lesson – that improvisation doesn’t have to mean jamming, showing off virtuosically, as it seems to in pop music, where the solo is a spot for the musician to showcase their ability first, and a chance to contribute to the integrity of the composed song second (that’s my interpretation anyway; I may be wrong) – it can be a legitimate form of music in itself, and, more perhaps than any other form of music, in the right hands, lead to a focussing in, an intense inner focus, an inscape at once personal and with something to say to whoever wants to listen.
Elsewhere, ‘Part iv’ of the suite shows how Parker’s playing has an intensely physical quality to it (something Ben Watson has commented on in his writing on improv) – the best way I can think of to describe his playing here is ‘quack-claps.’ Behind him (or alongside him, it would be more accurate to say), Shipp maintains a delicate balance between high and low, light and dark, left hand and right hand – a careful gradation of shading, like that of a master visual artist.
Their interaction is beautifully judged – Shipp’ll play a phrase, then Parker’ll come in after a bar or two with a skittering variant, before waiting, a natural pause built into his soloing style that adds tension and reaction and expectation and release. It’s perhaps best illustrated by the final piece on the album, a very short track with Parker’s watery John Butcherisms again skittering away, and then everything ending as if cut-off in mid-flow. The suddenness of this cessation caught me by surprise, and at first I was disappointed that there wasn’t more – but if you look at it another way, after the startled realisation that it’s over you realise that, yes, Parker’s actually resolved the last phrase he played beautifully. The inner logic of his improvisations is profound in a way that can only have resulted from years of experience.
There are those who criticise free improv for not being engaged enough: for being detached, abstract, unconnected, unemotional. Parker and Shipp’s music may be abstract, but once you listen to it in the right frame of mind you realise that good free improv is some of the most engaged music there is, and is REALLY based on emotion as well as thought. I’m not trying to urge a prescriptive ‘way of listening to free improv’, as this will clearly vary from listener to listener, and may vary according to what mood the listener is in – I know that sometimes I’ll get a lot more out of it because I’m in the right frame of mind for it. That’s not a criticism of the music, that’s a criticism of me. All the information and rewarding experience is there in the music for you to take out, but you have to make the effort – as someone (I think it was guitarist John Russell) commented, there is a need for virtuoso listening as well as playing. You have to share the concentration and focus that goes into making the music, to focus with extreme intensity.
In an age where music is increasingly just another commodity, offering us scantily/provocatively clad women who are, let’s face it, major pop stars because of their looks rather than because of the quality of their voices – in such an age, free improv is a major force in encouraging a greater respect for music and music-making, and of ways of turning LISTENING into a far more rewarding experience.
PETER BROTZMANN/ PAAL NILSSEN-LOVE/ MATS GUSTAFSSON – THE FAT IS GONE
Label: Smalltown Superjazz
Release Date: November 2007
Tracklist: Bullets Through Rain; Colours in Action; The Fat is Gone
Personnel: Peter Brötzmann: alto and tenor sax, bass clarinet; Mats Gustaffson: baritone sax, flutophone (flute with sax embrochure); Paale Nilsson-Love: drums
Additional Information: Recorded live in concert, July 20th 2006, at Reknes, Norway, as part of the Molde Jazz Festival.
A live trio recording from 2006, this CD has as much power as Brötz’s tentet release, ‘Guts’; if anything, it is even more aggressive, primally forceful in its impact, although, like the other recording, it has its melancholy and hushed moments. The title seems to imply exhaustion, a loss of the meaty power of Brötzmann’s 70s heyday (he’s not getting any younger), but that impression is soon dispe00led by the music itself, which shows that he’s still most definitely got it, and, what’s more, has also got a fine partner in Mats Gustaffson, one of the younger generation of free improvisers, and a heavily Brötz-influenced sax player with a similar big-lunged, gruff and tough approach to his instruments. I find Gustaffson somewhat less engaging in other contexts, such as his band ‘The Thing’ (see review), but here, the two reedsmen inspire each other to much more compelling lung-busting displays and moments of fractured calm. It begins like a horse shooting out of the blocks, or ‘Bullets Through Rain’, as the track title puts it. Perhaps horse isn’t really the right metaphor to use – it’s more like a roaring, charging lion let loose in the race, perhaps devouring the other animals as they frantically try to escape…At just under 10 minutes, it’s the shortest track, and keeps up the intensity pretty much throughout, with the two repeating memorable melodic phrases at each other like Sanders and Coltrane on ‘meditations’, driving up and up before simply letting go and screaming to the rafters. It’s far from mere noisemaking, though – despite the feel of utter abandon, there’s always a sense of purpose too. The music builds to climaxes, making the exhilaration when they come even more potent; these men are masters at creating structure out of nothing, sound of silence, and music out of all these things.
Recently, it’s sometimes felt that Brötz (like Evan Parker with his circular-breathing solo soprano sax trick, which he’s done to death now), has been settling into, if not something of a groove (for that would imply coasting, and Brötz’s total commitment is never, has never been in doubt), something of a pattern at least – perhaps even formula. Here, though, such thoughts are brushed from the mind, as he and Gustafsson really spark off each other, provoke themselves into going places they had perhaps not intended, stretch things out, cut things short, find new sonorities. They play a variety of different instruments, including Gustaffon’s ‘fluatphone’ (a flute with a sax mouthpiece); Gustafsson’s rough-hewn baritone finds its sonic parallel in Brötzmann’s tenor, which has always struck me as rather baritone-like, in its really powerful low-register sound – few players have that mightiness, apart from perhaps David S. Ware. Brötz on his own has always been a pretty ferocious prospect – he must be the loudest player on the scene – and the three musicians make enough noise for many more. At times, the volume is such that it can generate a feeling of overwhelming, almost orchestral impact – yet one must not overlook the fact that a lot of the music here is quite subtle. For instance, at the beginning of ‘Colours in Action’, Gustaffson and B opt for a more languorous development, unfolding through tentative baritone and bass clarinet – it’s as if overlapping conversations are being attempted, stopped and started mid-way, sometimes leading to awkward pauses, silences: proddings and pokings into the dark, before exploding into the white-heat-light of jubilatory Aylerian freedom. Another example: about eight minutes into the title track, the band move into a gravity of feeling that almost recalls the rubato ballads of mid-60s Coltrane.
As Charles Farrell writes in his review for the website emusic.com (from where the album can be downloaded), “The Fat Is Gone is really about voices. All three musicians (but especially Brötzmann) speak through their instruments. This impulse to vocalize subsumes matters of technique and linearity. The music doesn’t “go” anywhere; it exists moment to moment, snarling and biting.” Farrell believes that such an approach, which could be characterised as ‘pure’ free jazz, is becoming increasingly absent in the jazz scene today, due to the multiplicity of different influences working on the music: people are more likely to include hip-hop elements, a la Matthew Shipp, or funk, or rock, or world music, than this in-the-moment, high-intensity approach, with all the risks that being in the moment brings with it. In fact, I think his emphasis is a bit off the mark: free music applies across the genres – Brötzmann’s ‘Machine Gun’ is often cited as ‘punk before punk existed’, etc. Gustaffson plays with rock bands, with Thurston Moore, etc, and Moore praises him for his openness : “Mats is the most modern of players where the genre tags of jazz, noise, experimental, avant-whatever are finally transcended to a new millennium – where compositional concepts are at once in check with open improvisation and a supermodernism what we always wanted: rock & roll”.
Farrell: “The album closes with a strange and moving fluttering of saxophone keys and brushed drumming, ending in unpretty beauty.” A lovely phrase, and though there are moments in the set where conventional beauty is approached, let’s face it, you don’t come to a Brötzmann album to be serenaded to sleep – you come to be pushed to the edged, dragged along with the musicians, to look over the precipice and maybe jump straight in, an experience with its only healing power (catharsis?), its own engagement of the emotions, and eventually, you realise, its own beauty.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE – SWEET EARTH FLOWER
Label: High Two Recordings
Release Date: November 2007
Tracklist: Sweet Earth Flying; Juba Lee; Capricorn Moon (live); November Cotton Flower; Bismillahi ‘Rrahmani ‘Rrahim; Geechee Recollections (I); Geechee Recollections (II); Sweet Earth Flying (live).
Personnel: Warn Defever: guitar, piano; Michael Herbst: alto saxophone; Elliot Bergman: tenor saxophone, Fender Rhodes piano); Justin Walter: trumpet; Erik Hall: Wurlitzer organ; Jamie Saltsman: double bass; Dan Piccolo: drums, percussion; Olman Piedra: congas, cajon drums; Jamie Easter: percussion.
Additional Information: Available at emusic.com. Live tracks recorded November 2004 at University of Michigan Museum of Art.
“Ornette Coleman is the same as Charlie Parker, but he did it a different, the opposite way. Charlie Parker did everything that he did based on knowing harmony and chords. Ornette Coleman did everything he did based on knowing how to reach inside of himself and create music intuitively.”–Marion Brown, 2003 in an interview with Fred Jung on allaboutjazz.com
Though John Coltrane is the well-established hero in Brown’s descriptive pairing of the quintessential bop saxophonist and the original avant-garde innovator, Brown himself, along with other sax players like Archie Shepp or Dewey Redman, have also brought vital blends of chordal improvisation and borderless imagination to jazz. Almost unanimously described as over-looked or under-sung, Marion Brown was an inside member of the mid-60s NYC vanguard jazz movement recording alongside and inspiring/drawing inspiration from Coltrane, Coleman and Shepp. In fact, after relocating from Atlanta to New York in 1965, his very first recording session was for Coltrane’s now legendary Ascension, which is often pinpointed as the moment the celebrated saxophonist emerged as the avant-garde spiritual leader. The other two saxophonists Coltrane brought in to help inspire his own sound in new, fresh directions, Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, went on to well-revered careers, but Brown, though he recorded a number of respected albums over the last forty years (nonetheless for the likes of Impulse!, ESP, ECM, Fontana, Freedom and Black Lion), has remained thoroughly under the radar. Would I have ever imagined Warn Defever’s genre-defying indie-pop outfit His Name is Alive to be the group to pay proper respects to Brown? No, but Defever is an underappreciated musician and composer in his own right, so perhaps it is only proper.
For the last seventeen years, Defever has been experimenting with His Name is Alive’s dream-pop sound, from the found sound and tape loop obsessed 1990-debut Livonia to last September’s Xmmer, in which the band explores a myriad of styles from Afro-pop to folk that shimmer with pristine production. No matter his stylistic interest of the moment, Defever’s music in any of its concoctions is underpinned by the experimental and spiritual aesthetic established by Brown’s mid-60s jazz scene. Music should never be paint-by-numbers or intently confined to a specific genre’s framework to express an idea; it should be the artist’s expression of feeling regardless of predetermined principles, melodic, atonal or otherwise. Maybe Defever is inspired by Brown’s particular idiom in the same way Coltrane was back in ’65 and set out to use this vernacular to push his own musical expression in new directions. Or perhaps he is just a fan who wanted to bring attention to the overlooked saxophonist. Either way, Sweet Earth Flower is one of the most inspired and interesting albums I have heard all year.
Originally intended as a one-off concert at the University of Michigan Art Museum to pay tribute to Brown, the success of the evening sparked follow-up recording sessions from the talented ensemble. Including members of NOMO and Antibalas, this concoction of His Name is Alive pulls songs from both Brown’s initial mid-60s period including cuts from 1965’s Marion Brown Quartet on ESP and 1966’s Juba-Lee on Fontana along with his mid-70s reemergence on Impulse! after relocating to Europe, including ‘73’s Geechee Recollections, ‘74’s Sweet Earth Flying and ‘75’s Vista. Three of the eight tracks are from the original concert, while the other five tracks include two studio renditions of the live tracks and three other interpretations from the nine-piece band.
The music is that of delicately toned, almost ambient-leaning non-linear jazz. The players mesh seamlessly: Defever’s guitar work rarely takes spotlight (nor does any instrument really), restraining instead to a barrage of differently approached ostinatos or hypnotic chords; Defever, Elliot Bergman and Erik Hall’s electric and acoustic keys paint lush, detailed and poignant images with their sensual melodic improvisations; tenor saxophonist Bergman, trumpeter Justin Walter and alto saxophonist Michael Herbst accentuate and solo with subtlety, driving each track with modality akin to the more reflective and melodic moments between Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry; double bassist Jamie Satlsman acts as a strong anchor helping retain rhythmic structure whenever the other players sidestep to the outside; and percussionists Jamie Easter, Dan Piccolo and Olman Piedra jump from more pulsing rhythms to ambient hand-percussion accentuation with ease, tying elements of free jazz, African and Latin music into one vibe. Their recreation of Brown’s sound is that of spiritual reflection, sensual exploration and earthy provocation. It shimmers and drones, rouses and soothes. It’s meditative music you can get lost in without ever actually feeling lost, and that may be the best compliment I can pay it.
Marion Brown is still alive and gave his blessing to Defever to pursue this project. Due to his deteriorating health, Brown spends most of his time now teaching, and not advance classes in the detailed improvisation he is most known for, but mostly to children and amateur musicians on the art of musical self-exploration, instrument creation and the innate boundary-less nature of music. As Sweet Earth Flower displays, Brown doesn’t just teach in the classroom; his recorded output inspires and influences similar-minded artists like Defever to produce music just as warm, cerebral and passionate. It’s avant-garde jazz where the soulfulness is not lost in the intention to explore the outside. It’s music roaming free, where melodicism is not sacrificed for the sake of being different or avant-garde, but rather expressed in its unabashed warm spirit. Like the opening quote, both Brown and Defever reach inside and create music intuitively; they are well schooled in the technicalities of jazz, but express music based on feelings alone.
(Review by Michael Ardaiolo; originally published at the audiversity.com blog (http://audiversity.com/2007/11/his-name-is-alive-sweet-earth-flower.html))
fORCH – SPIN NETWORKS
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: fOKT III; Volume; Temperature; Solution G; Nekton; Plankton; Solution H; Pressure; fOKT II.
Personnel: Furt (Richard Barret and Paul Obermayer): electronics; John Butcher: soprano and tenor saxophones; Rhodri Davies: Celtic and concert harps; Paul Lovens: percussion; Phil Minton: voice; Wolfgang Mitterer: prepared piano and electronics; Ute Wassermann: voice.
For this double-album on Evan Parker’s psi label, recorded at the 2005 New Jazz Meeting of the South West German Radio (SWR), Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer’s electronic improvising duo fURT was expanded into an electro-acoustic octet, fORCH. The additional musicians included saxophonist John Butcher and vocalist Ute Wassermann, whose extraordinary range of extended techniques accounts for much of the music’s impact. She is easily capable of moving from short bursts of luxurious, almost operatic lyricism, to hyperactive virtuosity, to very impolite sounding squelches, farts and burps; at all times a sound that is intensely physical- intimate, slightly disturbing, the sort of thing that might put your hairs up, but which yet manages to sound captivating rather than irritating. She moves the gamut from disgustingly invasive bodily presence to heavenly choir, seemingly at will, and when coupled with the equally exploratory Phil Minton, the effect is scintillating.
Much of the music is hushed and calm, in keeping with developments towards quiet, with a focus on sounds and textures and the properties of sound, in electracoustic music. Most notable in this respect is the second track, ‘Volume’, where single notes and tones predominate, and ideas are zoomed in on for a long time before slowly changing – only minutely, but in a way which can change the whole texture without you noticing it. Transitions and ideas overlap, creating a true interaction, not just the simple call and response it would be tempting for improvisers to fall into, but something on a much deeper level (perhaps due to the compositional background of Richard Barrett). Furthermore, the unusual vocal sounds that the singers are capable of producing means that sometimes you’re not sure whether the otherworldly sounds come from their mouths or from the electronics. The avant-garde singer’s gurgles, grunts, orgasm noises, etc, have become clichés, but Minton and Wasserman make them new, turns their voices into instruments (see also Minton’s wonderful ‘Slur’ on Emanem records), another, merged part of the texture. The presence of John Butcher’s saxophone, with his delicate use of harmonics and high pitches, is ideal for floating into the general electronic wash.
If I have any criticisms, it’s perhaps that there’s too much quietude, too much meditative meshing, and a bit more ensemble fire music might have been welcome. That may be slightly unfair though – it’s not all serious sound-production. On some of the tracks, the piano adds an anarchic, noisy, flavour, and there’s a real sense of playfulness and humour as well, such as the brief ‘duet’ between female and male voice on ‘Nekton’, which sounds like a Clanger dueting with a drunk submerged underwater, or ‘Solution G’, where Wasserman (aided by electronics) manages to sound like a parrot, a bear, a zoo menagerie, cooing and roaring and growling away. At one point she simply breathes into the microphone, while behind her electronics play back her screams (sounding like a sound effect from the computer game Rollercoaster tycoon) and blip and blop away. The impression given is of bodily functions, or the sounds associated with them, gone out of control – this is not polite music! It’s intensely physical, constantly reminding us of the nature of sound as human, even though it’s all electronically manipulated, the human element is still central, albeit in a highly dramatised, uncontextualised way. At the end of one track, a final burst of particularly rude sounding electronic burps is followed by a male voice saying ‘Excuse Me’!
Needless to say, this is music that requires the listener’s full attention, otherwise it begins to sound disjointed and dull – as with much improv, you need to pay close attention to the subtle shifts in mood and texture to really appreciate it, because it’s not background noise, it’s the sound of a group of musicians interacting closely with each other to produce unexpected and intriguing results. It’s rarely dull, frequently absorbing, and makes you rethink ideas about melody and music, and realise that sounds can be as good as any conventional (or, as Derek Bailey puts it, ‘exaggerated’) melodies.
I know that this particular kind of soundworld is one explored fairly frequently in electroacoustic music today, but I couldn’t help thinking as I was listening that this re-invents music as it proceeds – so much that when you hear ‘normal’ piano notes or saxophone notes it’s almost shocking that there are such things. fORCH completely turn musical language on its head, but not in an anarchic/rebellious way (the most anarchic sounding parts are often chord clusters or the like). Instead they make what they’re doing a completely natural language in which to work. You come out of it with a different kind of high to when you’re listening to McCoy Tyner or the like: there you feel elated, spiritually high, here you feel calmed, as if you’ve gone through a valuable experience which has taught you something about music and about humanity. Probably the best improv disc of 2007.
PETER EVANS – THE PETER EVANS QUARTET
Label: Firehouse 12
Release Date: November 2007
Tracklist: !!!; Bodies and Souls; How Long; Tag; Frank Sinatra; Iris; The 3/4 Tune
Personnel: Peter Evans: trumpet; Brandon Seabrook: guitar, electronics; Tom Blancarte: bass; Kevin Shea: drums.
Additional Information: Available at emusic.com.
New-York based trumpeter and composer Peter Evans’ second recording as a leader (the solo album ‘More is More’ came out on psi in 2006) is perhaps more representative of his work than his debut. A good example of where the ‘inside-outside’ approach has come in jazz today, it’s fairly eclectic in its influences and approach, but avoids being overly cluttered, or knowingly and smugly post-modern. For the most part, it’s possible to feel the emotion coming through, as well as to be dazzled by the undoubted technical mastery displayed by all four musicians– though Evans’ own phrase “searing, intense and honest” may lead you to expect something more heart-on-sleeve than is actually the case.
Compositionally, it’s intriguing: a set of entirely original material, with themes which are spiky and vaguely reminiscent of Anthony Braxton in their astringent, highly rhythmic focus (Braxton’s Iridium boxset is, after all, on the same label). Evans provides some background in his useful liner notes: “The compositions here are almost entirely made up of harmonic material lifted directly out of standards, but with many layers of melody and noise piled on top. My goal is that the familiar elements are constantly coming in and out of focus, creating loaded, pressurized music. The collective and individual improvisation on the material I’ve provided constitutes and second layer of tension; we are forcing our kinetic playing styles through the (usually very difficult) notation, rather than seeking a comfortable relationship with it…traditional chord structures, white noise, bebop licks, tape hiss and practice exercises are set in wild motion against each other.”
As the above quote indicates, Evans is knowledgeable, almost academic about the music he plays, displaying a serious (though not po-faced) approach akin to that of Dave Douglas, with whom he also shares certain similarities in playing style, particularly in the jagged, angular feel, and the instinctual searching for unusual and just slightly off-kilter phrases, all wrapped up within a keen structural awareness, and a sense of rigorous discipline. He is perhaps the more aggressive performer (due to his comparative youth?), and is playful with the various different generic and stylistic elements that he employs, but is careful never to let the music come anywhere near chaos or overkill.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The sidemen may not have the leader’s flare, but are also more than mere token accompanists: Brandon Seabrook’s guitar and occasional electronics add a more noisy, modern touch, yet manage not to seem too incongruous alongside the elements of jazz tradition, while the drumming of Kevin Shea (who plays with Evans’ in the raucous, revisionist band Mostly Other People do the Killing) is busy but not overly cluttered. Not forgetting the other member of the quartet, Tom Blancarte’s bass is capable of both giving the music a firm, jazzy (but not old-fashioned) foundation, and venturing outwards during the freely improvised sections (listen to his woozy arco bass near the beginning of the second track).
A couple of tracks strike me as highlights. ‘Tag’ finds Evans balancing the conventional vocabulary of post-bop trumpet with touches of the avant-garde. At times his tightly controlled virtuosity recalls the joyful abandon through discipline of Coltrane’s work on ‘Giant Steps’ – at others, he settles for some insecty, tougher interplay with the tight rhythm section, and the modern-sounding guitar adds a wilder touch, more akin to contemporary ‘noise music.’ ‘Frank Sinatra’ is the nearest thing to a ballad on the record, and finds him smearing, slurring, growling, and generally emoting all over his horn’s register. Perhaps there’s a touch of parody, too, but that doesn’t preven the piece from being deeply felt, even if it’s hard to see exactly what either the melody, based round a repeated figure, or the solo, has to do with Sinatra – perhaps the traces of fragility, a bit of the bombast, but with a good deal of the polish scraped off. After Evans’ initial trumpet statement, the guitar solo – delivered in a harsh, snappy tone that nevertheless retains the semblances, or traces of Tal Farlow jazz balladry, filtered through an abstract spiders’ web of sound and silence (awkward pauses learned from Derek Bailey), which then leads into more abstruse, jangly, high-pitched group speculations and a fade into drone.
Whether, as Troy Collins puts it in his review of the album for the All About Jazz website, this album perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the times (does jazz today have a zeitgeist? Did it ever have a zeitgeist?), it’s certainly evidence of what seems to be a pleasing trend in jazz, seen also in the work of pianists Lafayette Gilchrist and Matthew Shipp: serious, modern music, played without gimmickry, clever but not overly dry; thoughtful, considered, yet with freedom for the unplanned and the unexpected.
ROBERT WYATT – COMICOPERA
Label: Domino Records
Release Date: October 2007
Tracklist: Act One (Lost in Noise): Stay Tuned; Just as You Are; You You; A.W.O.L.; Anachronist.
Act Two (The Here and Now): A Beautiful Peace; Be Serious; On the Town Square; Mob Rule; A Beautiful War; Out of the Blue. Act Three (Away with the Fairies): Del Mondo; Cancion de Julieta; Pastafari; Fragment; Hasta Siempre Comandante.
Personnel: Robert Wyatt: voice, piano, percussion, trumpet, cornet, old metronome, keyboard, karenotron (voice of Karen Mantler), Enotron (voice of Brian Eno), pocket trumpet, monicatron (voice of Monica Vasconcelos)); Brian Eno: keyboard, keyboard bass, effects; Seaming To Voice: clarinet; Annie Whitehead: trombone, baritone horn; Yaron Stavi, Chucho Merchan: bass violin; Monica Vasconcelos: voice; Paul Weller: guitar; Gilad Atzmon: saxophones, clarinet; Jamie Johnson: bass guitar, electrical interference; David Sinclair: piano; Phil Manzanera: guitar; Del Bartle: guitar; Orphy Robinson: steel pan, vibraphone; Alfie Benge: voice; Beverley Chadwick: baritone saxophone; Maurizio Camardi: saxophones; Alfonso Santimone: piano, keyboards ; Alessandro Fedrigo: bass guitar; Paolo Vidaich: percussion; Gianni Bertoncini: drums.
Four years on from ‘Cuckooland’, and Wyatt’s latest solo album is named as record of the year by The Wire magazine. What difference have the intervening years made? It finds him assembling what is probably his largest cast to date, but he doesn’t go overboard with any of the arrangements, and it retains the intimate feel familiar from the rest of his solo output. His voice is still the main focus, and, while the man himself claims that it’s become reduced to “an old wino’s mutter,” it’s obvious from the start that this is hardly the case – and even if it is, it’s a very beguiling mutter!
This is an album that in several ways comes out of a sense of crisis, and documents Wyatt’s attempts to recover from this: most significantly, the near-breakdown of his relationship with his wife, as a result of his drinking. A song like ‘Just as You Are’, about the acceptance of your partner despite all their foibles, represents the reconciliation, and, while the lyrics seem to approach the standardized sentiment of conventional pop song territory, you know that Wyatt wouldn’t be singing them unless he had lived them, unless they were justified by personal experience: he delivers them with the utmost conviction.
The album’s 16 tracks are divided into 3 ‘acts’, though Wyatt hasn’t actually written a bona-fide opera: these are still 3 or 4 minute pop songs. He gives a concise explanation of the album’s unusual structure in an interview with musicOMH.com: according to him, Act 1, Lost In Noise, “is about loss and relationships.” Act 2, The Here And Now, is “about things I like, don’t like, don’t understand”. Act 3, Away With The Fairies “is, you know what? I’m fed up with English speaking people. I’m going to go away with the fairies…It’s to do with feeling completely alienated from Anglo-American culture at that point. Just sort of being silent as an English-speaking person, because of this fucking war [in Iraq]. The last thing I sing in English is ‘you’ve planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart.’ I then wander off round the world searching for different kinds of meaning – whether it’s avant-garde, or revolution, or surrealist fantasy, or religion, or all those things. I sing in Italian and I do a bit of surrealism, free improvisation [‘Pastafari’], and end up with a romantic revolutionary song of the ’60s, a hymn to Ché Guevara. Just to say, that’s my generation, the kind of hope that kept us going. I’m not saying it worked or didn’t, but without these little dreams and hopes, I couldn’t survive.”
A somewhat bitter thematic undercurrent, then: as Wyatt explains, the ‘comic’ in the album title doesn’t mean ‘funny’: “Greeks divided things into Comedy and Tragedy, and Comedy didn’t mean funny, it meant just, ‘about human foibles’, as opposed to tragedy which is about Gods and Destiny. So this is about human foibles.” It’s not a depressing affair, though – indeed, when Wyatt deals with his wider political concerns (albeit in an oblique way), on songs like ‘A Beautiful War’ or ‘Out of the Blue,’ it’s easy to miss the harshness and bite in the lyrics due to their meltingly wonderful melodies. This can be construed as a problem, or not, depending on your viewpoint; speaking for myself, I’ve always tended to prefer his less ambitious pieces: the love songs, the quirky nonsense-rhymes (although of course, he’s always been good at fusing the political and the personal, as with ‘Shipbuilding’). Thus, I find it easier to chime into the sentiments of ‘Just as You Are’, or ’A.W.O.L.’, a moving song about a woman with Alzheimer’s sitting in her attic, alone with “the tick and the tock of the damnable clock”.
Whether, in the end, Wyatt finds transcendence, or escape, or whatever it is he’s seeking, is unclear – and if he does, it’s never going to be unequivocal, but complex, tinged with wistfulness and whimsy. Thus, the concluding track is a 1960s romantic song about Che Guevara: a look back to an idealized heyday, when such ideals were more commonplace, and an attempt to find solace in them, it would seem. It does lighten the mood somewhat, its mid section riding on a joyous Latin groove, but it never really feels triumphant, or indeed, conclusive. Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way: Wyatt doesn’t do straightforwardly ‘happy’ music, and there’s no reason he should. Long may it continue…