CD REVIEWS (Alphabetical)
FRED ANDERSON/HAMID DRAKE – FROM THE RIVER TO THE OCEAN
Release Date: April 2007
Label: Thrill Jockey
Tracklist: Planet E; Strut Time; For Brother Thompson; From the River to the Ocean; Sakti/Shiva
Personnel: Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone; Jeff Parker: guitar (1,2,4); Harrison Bankhead: cello (2), piano (3), bass (1,4); Josh Abrams: bass (1-3), guimbiri (4,5); Hamid Drake: drums, frame drum (4).
Fred Anderson is a legendary figure, at least in Chicago – a founder member of the AACM, founder of the Velvet Lounge, and an octogenerian who’s still performing at a high level of intensity. He’s always been seen as an avant-garde player, but, from my experience of his music, he’s far more ‘straightahead’ than his reputation would suggest; as one critic puts it, the most ‘inside’ of the ‘outside’ players. Nothing wrong with that, yet he does tend to meander somewhat, and I do feel that he lacks the real fire found in other free players. I know that’s not what he’s trying for: what he’s after is more insuniating, more bluesy, muscular yet traditional, dense yet clear. I should like this approach, yet I somehow just don’t get along with it. One gripe I have is that
one phrase – a high note followed by a twiddling flurry of lower notes – seems to appear, in modified form, in every bar of every solo on every song that he ever plays. It’s as if he’s perpetually playing variations on one melody. In some this is fascinating, but it can soon become rather boring, and somewhat restrictive. Even more so than usual, I feel that there’s something missing here, and the record is ultimately rather a disappointment.
The guitar sound is a major part of this – it’s just too ‘polite’ for my tastes, though it’s very competently done. But it feels curiously old-fashioned, as if Kenny Burrell was jamming with some free players, and it sits none too well in the mix. In particular, it jars with the textures created by the rhythm section switching between various exotic instruments; indeed, despite the present of two bassists, there’s only actually one track where they play together.
Harrison Bankhead shows his versatility by playing cello and some remarkably skilled piano, on ‘For Brother Thompson’, perhaps the best track, which opens with some Arabic chanting from a la Don Cherry, before emerging into an atmosphere very reminiscent of mid-60s Coltrane – a rubato ballad, full of pounding drums, arco bass, tremulous, deep-voiced, ominous piano and solemnly intoned tenor (though Anderson is his own man, and manages to prevent the track from becoming too derivative).
Hamid Drake has demonstrated his versatility by appearing on several very different releases this year: world music duets with William Parker, finding both on various shankucahis and what not; keeping jazz time in Parker’s Raining on the Moon quintet; engaging in interplay alternately sparkling and monumental with gifted young pianist Lafayette Gilchrist on an album of that most difficult of groupings, piano and drum, duets recorded at the Vision Festival in 2006. Here, despite the joint top-billing, he tends to slip into the background – which is not necessarily a bad thing. One thing you could not accuse him of is being showy, despite his undoubted talent. When he does take a solo, it’s refreshingly patient, as he builds up by playing the drums, rather than resorting to cymbal crashes (which has become something of a cliché of free jazz drumming). This desire to build from the bottom up, from bass and blues and roots to a more considered kind of free summit is admirable, but it does make the album feel at a times rather too tame – one can’t help wishing that they would break out just a little bit more.
(On a final, more positive note, plaudits for the exceedingly well-designed cover: I suppose you could call it minimalist, in that there’s very little in the frame, and there are only three colours employed. Very striking however you define it.)
(Review by David Grundy)
BILLY BANG QUINTET WITH FRANK LOWE – ABOVE AND BEYOND: AN EVENING IN GRAND RAPIDS
Label: Justin Time Records
Release Date: May 2007
Tracklist: Silent Observation; Nothing But Love; Dark Silhouette; At Play In the Fields of the Lord
Personnel: Billy Bang: violin; Frank Lowe: tenor sax; Andrew Bemkey: piano; Todd Nicholson: bass
Not something that’s likely to make much of a splash, or be noticed by mainstream or even specialist press, this is nonetheless a record well worth hearing, if only for its historical value. Recorded back in 2003, it sees Billy Bang continue his recent projects exploring the music of Vietnam, and exploring his military service there in the 60s. Also in Vietnam at the time was the guest on this date, Frank Lowe, whose last recorded appearance this was. At the time of this live concert, he was playing with only one lung (he would die of cancer just five months later); as Bang explains, he got so out of breath at the end of gig that the promoter wanted to call an ambulance.
The relationship between Bang and Lowe lasted for more than twenty-five years: in their earliest collaborations, both men burned equally hot from opposite ends of the spectrum, Billy’s violin soaring in lines of white-hot intensity, and Frank’s tenor sax blazing with confrontational abandon. Over the years, each man moved closer to the other’s approach, without diminishing the fire and energy of their shared visions.
Here, Bang’s debt to swing master Stuff Smith is felt in his lightning runs, and Lowe’s solos, with their occasional atonal interjections, capture the spirit of the 1960s ‘New Thing,’ although his style had evolved away from the fire-breathing of his youth to prettier, pithier mutterings (notably on the warm, burnished ‘Nothing But Love’) that perfectly complement Bang’s staccato solos and rhythmically expansive melodies. But it’s perhaps when the quartet comes together, whether drawing on the modal style of John Coltrane or the folk-melodic music of South Africa, that the music makes its strongest mark: the tracks are long and often luxuriant, giving the music time to breathe and develop collectively as well as to build in soloistic intensity.
On The opening ‘Silent Observation,’ Lowe and Bang take a quick unison turn through the main theme before Lowe splits off to build a long solo that slowly builds in intensity, employing sounds that manage to span an almost Paul Desmond-like hush all the way to some upper register squeals. Bang is certainly Lowe’s equal here, taking a solo that almost comes apart at the seams with its ferocity.
The closing ‘At Play In The Fields Of The Lord’ can be heard as Silent Observation’s companion piece. With somewhat similar tempos and harmonic development, the two compositions are fine and inspiring examples of what this pair could do, not only on that night but on their many previous collaborations.
It’s ‘Dark Silhouette’ that’s the centrepiece of this concert, though. Pianist Andrew Bemkey ratchets up the tension by beginning with a lengthy (five minutes or so) solo section that at points heads into Cecil Taylor territory. This gives way to the snakey theme layed down by bassist Todd Nicholson before Bang launches his elegant and bluesy solo. Lowe runs with that motif but soon leaps into the land of extended technique with interval jumps, more upper register righteousness, and even some textured valve clatter.
The release of this album is the result of a pact that the Bang and Lowe made when Frank was on his deathbed in September of 2003. His last wish was for Billy to make sure that this music would become available to the public, and here it is. A fitting tribute. (Review by David Grundy)
BELMONDO/YUSEF LATEEF – INFLUENCE
Label: B Flat Recordings
Release Date: April 2007
Tracklist: Shafaa; Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre reve; Apres le jeu; Influence; Orgatique; An Afternoon In Chatanooga; Suite Overtime – Part I (Morning); Suite Overtime – Part II (Metaphor); Suite Overtime – Part III (Iqbal); Suite Overtime – Part IV (Brother John); Le Jardin.
Personnel: Yusef Lateef: tenor sax, various flutes, oboe; Lionel Belmondo: tenor & soprano sax, flute, clarinet, percussion; Stephane Belmondo: trumpet, Flugelhorn, shell, percussion; Glenn Ferris: trombone on 2nd disc; Ensemble consisting of French horn, tuba and various woodwinds, piano, bass and drums.
I wonder how many jazz fans will have overlooked this recording by the then 84 year old multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef backed by an ensemble led directed by two French brothers who still remain pretty unknown in the UK?
Until I had the good fortune to see this group play live at the Vienne Jazz Festival last year, I too might have passed this double CD by. However, now available on this side of the Channel, this is a record for which I have unbounded enthusiasm and I would urge anyone who is a fan of the writing of the likes of Gil Evans or Mike Gibbs to seek out this offering.
Beautifully recorded, this ensemble borrows heavily from the French Impressionist composers of the early 20th Century who have had an overwhelming influence on jazz ever since the days of Bix Beiderbecke. The two discs are largely made up of arrangements of compositions by Yusef Lateef plus an adaptation of the tragic Lili Boulanger’s “Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre reve” and the transformation of a theme for organ by the little known composer Charles Tournemire by arranger Christophe Dal Sasso into a piece called “Apres Le Jeu.” The former is almost transformed into a blues whilst the attractive theme of the latter is one of the highlights of this recording, being exquisitely scored for this chamber ensemble. This is not, however, to suggest that the music lacks an edge as the influence of music from the East (whether through the themes, Lateef’s choice of various ethnic reed instruments or the exotic percussion) balances the classical feel of this group. It is demonstrably jazz what is being played here.
The second disc consists totally of Lateef originals starting with the mournful “Afternoon in Chatanooga.” that evokes the likes of Gil Evans’ work on recordings such as “The Barbara Story.” Two thirds of the second disc is made up of Lateef’s wonderful “Suite Overtime” with the opening “Morning” resembling those finger-snapping mid-tempo blues that the Ellington band would play in the 1950’s – here the groove is laid down by Dre Pallemaerts’ drumming as opposed to Sam Woodyard. Ex-pat American Glenn Ferris lays down a fruity trombone solo. It is great to hear him playing in the context of this group and yet another example of a musician denied the recognition he deserves by the jazz audience. The influence of the Duke is again felt on “Metaphor”, the oriental-sounding opening making way for the lop-sided Latin feel behind the main theme that is familiar from albums such as “Afro-Bossa.” Lateef’s lithe flute solo throws in a quote from Gerswhin’s “Summertime” and following a solo by the bassist, Stephane Belmondo contributes a boppish trumpet outing. “Iqbal” brings the tempo down several pegs before the suite closes with an up-tempo tribute to John Coltrane that yet again recall’s Gil Evans’ work from the mid-1960’s when the Canadian arranger started to explore modal jazz. Lionel Belmondo’s soprano is given full reign on the latter composition and Ferris again coaxes multi-phonic’s from his horn. The whole project concludes with the Lateef composition “Le jardin” which is totally scored.
I would strongly urge that anyone who either considers Europe to be a backwater of jazz or a land where the ECM’s worthy yet frequently monochrome efforts rule supreme should check out this record. Not only does it offer evidence of Dr. Yusef Lateef as a great writer in addition to the masterful soloist he has been known to be for over fifty years, but it illustrates that in the Belmondo brothers and arranger Christophe Del Sasso, France have musicians of world class stature. This gets my vote as perhaps the best new jazz CD of 2007.
(Review by Ian Thumwood)
HAN BENNINK’S YEAR IN MUSIC: 2007
By David Grundy
Han Bennink was a busy man last year. At the age of 65, he showed no sign of stopping – if anything, he’s got even more manic and furiously active in his playing. He appears on the following 2007 releases, in a large variety of different contexts, displaying both his adaptability, enormous energy (both in his playing and the amount of different projects he plays on), and also his ability to retain an individuality that means he really couldn’t be anyone else.
The Blueprint Project with Han Bennink – People I like;
Daniele D’Agaro Adriatics Orchestra – Comeglians;
Ammü Quartett – Self-titled;
Terrie Ex/Bennink – Zeng! (guitar/drum duo);
Mohammed ‘Jimmy’ Mohammed – Takkabel!
This individuality is partly due to his stage shenanigans, such as playing only a cymbal for an entire concert, throwing a cymbal out onto stage to announce his entrance behind Arthur Doyle, playing a drum set made of cheese, and playing his kit (and the floor) with a large broom. As the biography on his official website puts it, “His first percussion instrument was a kitchen chair. Later his father, an orchestra percussionist, supplied him with a more conventional outfit, but Han never lost his taste for coaxing sounds from unlikely objects he finds backstage at concerts. He is still very fond of playing chairs.”
His sculptures, like his playing, show an anarchic, sometimes crude sense of humour, combined with a serious artistic intent. Like his frequent collaborator Peter Brotzmann, he makes music that’s hard-driving, aggressive, and profoundly liberating, perhaps (and it’s an over-used word), cathartic – but he is capable of being subtle as well, not just the macho posturer that some critics would make him out to be.
And so it seems an appropriate time to have a look at a couple of his albums, old and new, which illustrate all the virtues described above….
BENNINK: THEN AND NOW
By Seth Watter
Han Bennink: virtuoso drummer, Euro-jazz legend and (sometimes) madman. Looking at his discography, it becomes apparent that the Amsterdam-born percussionist has performed far too seldom as a leader. Perhaps it’s typical to look at an artist in terms of his first and last works, but in Bennink’s case those two recordings happen to be two of his best and, ironically, two of his hardest to find. Without further ado, it is my pleasure to present Nerve Beats and Amplified Trio.
HAN BENNINK – NERVE BEATS
Release Date: September 2000
Tracklist: Bumble Rumble; Spooky Drums; Nerve Beats.
Personnel: Han Bennink: drums, rhythm machine, tablas, percussion, trombone, clarinet, voice, miscellaneous other instruments!
Additional Information: Recorded live at Rathaus, Bremen, Germany on September 27, 1973; originally released 1973.
Nerve Beats was unearthed by Atavistic in 2000 as part of their Unheard Music series and is Han Bennink’s first extant solo recording. Recorded in 1973 for Germany’s Radio Bremen, it comes from the same era as Peter Brötzmann’s Live in Berlin ’71: a quartet date on which Bennink, at certain points during that historic concert, revealed himself to be a chameleon with a massive setup composed not only of drums but of exotic percussive and wind instruments, along with what the liner notes could only describe as tins and home-made junk. Two years later, Bennink was still exploring these eclectic rhythmic forms that had their roots in the musics of India and Africa, adapting them to the spirit of free music as it was being created by a group of audacious pan-European youngsters. Many have commented on Bennink’s ability to play quite freely as well as within the confines of tradition, straddling jazz’s old school and its vanguard with equal conviction. “Bumble Rumble” attests to this, with its fluid, militaristic drum rolls interlocking with Bennink’s whistling to create an anthemic overture, telling the audience to make way for the emperor’s arrival. At three minutes, it’s concise, engaging, and entirely unlike what is to follow on the two lengthy tracks that make up the bulk of the concert.
That said, “Spooky Drums” is pure cacophony. Amid a wave of cymbal crashes and furious tom rolls, Bennink spits out volcanic gibberish to his audience’s delight. The growls, howls and spluttering outbursts weave in and out of his rhythms, beginning at the point where the other ends and vice versa. When Bennink picks up a trombone or a clarinet, or one of the other odd items he inevitably has lying around onstage, he plays them with outrageous multiphonic effects, sounding like a Tuvan throat singer crying from the belly of a brass prison. And when he mixes the delicate sound of musical pipes with the thundering punctuations of his drumkit, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that “Spooky Drums” pushes jazz’s rhythmic possibilities to their absolute limit. This is the sound of a man becoming his drum. We’re exhausted from the sheer physicality of it all, but by the time we reach the climactic series of wonderfully muffled snare hits and tittering cymbals, we’re only ten minutes inside the beast! There is yet to follow Bennink’s experiments with pre-recorded orchestral music, drum machines, marimbas, tablas, music boxes, and whatever else is in reach.
The pre-programmed loops that introduce “Nerve Beats” may lead unsuspecting listeners to assume that this is a leftover from the concurrent German electronic/new wave scene. But the dissonant clarinet that hovers throughout the mix makes it obvious that we’re in a very different realm, somewhere between Stockhausen, free jazz, and multi-idiomatic world music. His cymbals ring like alarm clocks, his trombone like Martian war calls. If “Spooky Drums” is an epic journey, “Nerve Beats” is a cartoon soundtrack. Who is this man who plays 5,000 instruments and then deems it appropriate to scream at the top of his lungs? Is he angry or joyful?
The audience’s nervous laughter at each of Bennink’s outbursts suggests that they may have asked themselves similar questions. Indeed, this isn’t the pure rage of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun; anyone who listens to that album knows what kind of emotions lie behind it. Machine Gun was a collective call to revolt. Nerve Beats, on the other hand, is a defiantly individualistic approach to improvised music that is all the richer for its humour. The only thing of stability is Bennink’s distinctive roar: a scream which, every time it appears, draws the entirety of its universe into a black hole from which it emerges purified once more.
HAN BENNINK – AMPLIFIED TRIO
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: At 1; At 2; At 3; At 4; At 5; At 6; At 7
Personnel: Han Bennink: drums, percussion; John Coxon: electric guitar; Ashley Wales: electronics.
Additional Information: Recorded live in South London on January 21, 2006. Part of ‘Series 3’ of releases on the Treader label – the other albums are ‘Abbey Road Duos’ by Evan Parker/Matthew Shipp and ‘Brooklyn Duos’ by John Coxon/Wadada Leo Smith. They can be purchased from the Treader website: http://www.treader.org/.
A whirlwind of percussion, acid-fried guitar, electronics that sound like an animal in its death throes – Bennink’s Amplified Trio comes out the door with both fists swinging. Matched with the duo behind Spring Heel Jack – guitarist John Coxon and sound artist Ashley Wales – the veteran improviser pushes new territory with this striking mixture of free jazz and electronics. The release places itself in an exciting new trend within free music that has its forebears in Trio x 3’s New Jazz Meeting Baden-Baden (Hat, 2003) and the Muhal Abrams/Roscoe Mitchell/George Lewis album Streaming (Pi, 2006). Okay, so perhaps it’s not so radical – Don Cherry, George Lewis, and Freddie Hubbard were doing this kind of thing years ago. But the electro-acoustic idiom has moved beyond the experiments of a few eccentrics to become the playground of many eccentrics. Recorded live in South London on January 21, 2006, Amplified Trio is notable for abandoning the delicacy of these prior endeavors in favor of sheer volume, taking the new hybrid form a step backward into the world of an ESP blowout.
What I find so remarkable about groups like this is the way that each instrument blends into its peers, no matter how disparate they are in sound. Amplified Trio has it a bit easier, since Coxon’s distorted guitar isn’t too far from Wales’ array of electronic manipulations. The first of these seven untitled tracks is the longest and most brutal – even its quietest moments are filled with abrasive and unsettling overtones. After fifteen minutes of dense improvisation, the band hits something akin to a stride with oscillating tones that provide the backbeat for the spiraling fury of the drums and guitar. Bennink sounds fantastic as usual, moving across a variety of rhythmic styles with grace and ease; Coxon provides plenty of squall with his energetic fusion of Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey; and Wales is particularly crucial with his subtle loops and washes of sound. Oddly enough, the first track ends with the noise of the ocean, suggesting that what lies beneath is a substructure both placid and filled with the tumult of undulating waves.
The rest of Amplified Trio is understandably more subdued. The third track even finds Bennink abandoning his drumset in favor of ratchety, guiro-like percussion, interacting with Wales’ electronic stutters and butchered vocal samples. The three create a music that is unpredictable, yet deliberate and logical in its own way; in these moments, the trio comes closer to a piece by Francois Bayle or Walter Ruttman than anything related to jazz. Bennink, however, can’t help but swing – and his restless drumming soon leads the group back into the white heat of free improvisation. Bennink’s early work experimented with electronic looping as early as 1973’s Nerve Beats, and one can hear its seeds coming to fruition on Amplified Trio. One can also hear his sound being transferred to Wales’ sonic collages and Coxon’s feedback-drenched excursions, imbued as they are with a vocal quality: a desperate scream that has always made itself felt in the drummer’s career.
“At 4” is more in line with Spring Heel Jack’s oeuvre, all ambient drones and elliptical guitar scrapes barely bubbling across the surface. Bennink shatters the calm with a well-placed cymbal crash, each subsequent hit of the kit taking on the quality of an eruption. The three improvisers crackle and spit fire at every turn. John Coxon sounds alternately like fireworks and a broken carburetor, Wales swaps Nintendo belches for twittering sine waves and orchestral excerpts. The two adroitly follow their leader, that Dutch maverick whose muscular beats propel the session into such brilliant territory. Even the two-minute “At 6” is as bewitching and beguiling as anything else on the album, refusing cohesion amid a stream of marching beats, guitar grime and knotty clarinet samples. In this realm beyond syntax, Bennink’s rhythms tap into a language that speaks but does not inform, that calls without regard for its listener, that doubles back on its own communicative poverty. Amplified Trio is the beauty of a voice arrested mid-flight. Let’s stop and take a look at that one again.
(Review by Seth Watter. More of Seth’s writing can be found at his blog, ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ – http://meshes.blogspot.com)
TERENCE BLANCHARD – A TALE OF GOD’S WILL (A REQUIEM FOR KATRINA)
Label: Blue Note
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: Ghosts of Congo Square; Levees; Wading Through ; Ashé; In Time of Need; Ghost of Betsy; The Water; Mantra Intro; Mantra; Over There; Ghost of 1927; Funeral Dirge; Dear Mom
Personnel: Terence Blanchard: trumpet; Brice Winston: tenor and soprano saxophones; Aaron Parks: piano; Derrick Hodge: acoustic and electric basses; Zach Harmon: tabla and the happy apple; The Northwest Sinfonia, conducted by Terence Blanchard; Simon James: contractor and concertmaster
Emerging along with Wynton Marsalis and Donald Harrison as one of the ‘Young Lions’ of 80s New Orleans jazz, Terence Blanchard has since developed into a mature trumpeter and composer. His latest release, A Tale of God’s Will, is the product of his long-standing relationship with filmmaker Spike Lee: all of the music contained is either part of or associated with the soundtrack to Lee’s 2006 HBO documentary When The Levees Broke. The members of Blanchard’s quintet contribute significantly to proceedings, both in terms of composition and performance, and the group is often supported by Blanchard’s rich string arrangements played by The Northwest Sinfonia.
In keeping with Lee’s film, the personal experiences of the disaster as well as references to New Orleans’ musical past provide an important basis for the album. The music itself tends towards dark, dramatic palettes, although there are a few brighter interludes – drummer Kendrick Scott’s extended piece “Mantra” with Blanchard’s passionate yet elegant solos stands out in particular. The use of Indian tablas may strike some as incongruous, on an album that seeks to stress African roots (“Ghosts of Congo Square”), but this is a very minor quibble, and ends up being only a problem conceptually. In fact, the tablas add a much needed rhythmic propulsion to the music, thus preventing it from becoming too stodgy in its sombreness.
While the album lacks a certain amount of coherence owing to its origins as a film score and although a few sections, particularly the string arrangements, sound rather produced, it is nevertheless a compelling film score which will probably appeal to soundtrack fans just as much, if not more so, than jazz fans.
(Review by Noa Corcoran-Tadd)
CARLA BLEY – THE LOST CHORDS FIND PAOLO FRESU
Release Date: October 2007
Track listing: One Banana; Two Banana; Three Banana; Four; Five Banana; One Banana More; Liver of Life; Death of Superman/Dream Sequence #1–Flying; Ad Infinitum.
Personnel: Paolo Fresu: trumpet, flugelhorn; Andy Sheppard: soprano and tenor saxophones; Carla Bley: piano; Steve Swallow: bass guitar; Billy Drummond: drums
This album finds Carla Bley in more intimate mode than her more familiar big band music, working with this very fine small group (their previous release, simply titled ‘The Lost Chords’, is well worth investigating), to which is added the Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. He’s not really known outside of Italy (though he does play with the Italian Instabile Orchestra), so his contribution is a pleasant discovery. It may come as something of a surprise that he was Andy Sheppard’s choice for the project – Bley asked him to name someone he would like to play with, and he mentioned Fresu. It was probably something of a surprise to the other musicians as well – Bley apparently respects Sheppard’s taste so much that she invited Fresu along without even having heard his playing.
So the music itself. Despite the jokey track titles (one banana…two banana….three banana…four….five banana….one banana more – geddit?) and liner notes (some of the most refreshing and entertaining I’ve read for a while actually – humour is a lost art in the jazz world, it sometimes seems – although they don’t really tell you anything about the music) this isn’t about in-your-face exuberance. Instead it’s thoughtful, though by no means soporific jazz – well played, perhaps lacking that killer spark that characterises Bley’s best works, but a very solid record. Andy Shephard plays some excellent stuff (reminding people of what a good player he can be, when he’s not noodling around in world-fusion mode with Joanna MacGregor – work that shows off the best sides of neither artist); Fresu is attractive; Drummond unobtrusive; and Swallow a model of elegance and subdued romanticism.
There’s often a sense of natural climax – the music rises and falls very smoothly, building up to moments of greater passion by a process of slow-burn, rather than taking a short cut straight to the fire. Thus, when the players do stretch out a little more, it feels pleasingly intense (more intense that it actually is, in all probability). Overall, though, the thing you’re must likely to remember is a pleasing vein of something that I wouldn’t quite call melancholy: perhaps thoughtfulness would be a better word (though ‘Four’ has a somewhat funereal, mournful feel, with Bley’s minor chords ascending and descending under Fresu’s trumpet solo).
Bley’s compositions and piano-playing are so subdued that they could be criticised as almost dry – there seems to be a deliberate avoidance of emotion, leaving it up to the horn players to provide a bit more of a spark. The biggest influence seems to be a film-noir feel, although classical music plays a part as well: the short ‘One banana more’ carries an apparent echo of Pachabel’s famous ‘Canon’ in its melodic line.
‘Death of a Superman’ is, in fact, the first movement in a suite Bley was commissioned to write in memory of actor Christopher Reeve (who, of course, played that famous character in a number of films during the 70s and 80s). The suite was never completed, but this excerpt stands out as probably one of the best tracks on the record. It begins with Swallow’s gentle solo, using a technique he’s developed over the past thirty years or so, whereby he plays the electric bass as if it were a classical guitar: firmly in the upper register of the instrument, a beautiful plucked sound. Underpinning this are Bley’s piano chords which echo Satie’s Gymnopodies in their atmosphere of languorous, luxurious inscrutability – sensuous but cold, if that isn’t too much of a paradox. Fresu’s muted trumpet shows a heavy Miles Davis influence, as one might expect – in particular, he employs a little upward sweeping phrase that he is very similar to something Miles used to play – but he clearly has his own style. A particular endearing trick is his employment of a little tongued, repeated phrase – almost march-like, with a bouncing, jumping feel, it gives his solos a bit of a lift, and prevents them from descending too far into the navel-gazing that Tomasz Stanko fell into on his ‘Suspended Night’ album a few years back.
Finally, for a bit of contrast, the last track, ‘Ad infinitum’, sees Shepherd gets to let rip a bit (though the mood never really rises above boiling temperature), before
riding a groove until the end.
So, then: this is quite considered music. The players don’t play flurries of notes – they pick and choose them with care – and it manages to steer a steady course between being overly cerebral and overly introverted and pretty. Fair to say, I think, that’s it’s one of those mellow, ‘chilling-with-a-glass-of-wine’ records – but that’s not implying any disrespect. It’s warm and pleasant, fits round your ears like a glove, won’t frighten the horses, but is by no means devoid of inspiration or adventure. Not as soporific as I feel a lot of ECM can get, and likely to give you a feeling of warm satisfaction after listening to it. Recommended. (Review by David Grundy)
PAUL BLEY – SOLO IN MONDSEE
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: Mondsee Variations I-X
Personnel: Paul Bley: piano
Onto another released by a piano-playing Bley on ECM – this time, Paul, who was, of course, at one time romantically attached to Carla. Since then, though, they’ve gone their separate ways, romantically and musically. Released in time for his 75th birthday, in Autumn 2007, this is only his second solo album on ECM, and can thus be seen as something of a sequel to 1972’s classic ‘Open to Love.’ In the interim, of course, he’s become known as a superb solo improviser, releasing albums on other labels, but this release obviously has a special historical resonance about it. During his career, I can’t help thinking that he’s been rather an underappreciated musician – someone you know is there, and you know is good, but who never receives that much attention from the jazz public or press. Critics are most likely to describe him for who he’s played with – Mingus, and, most famously, Ornette Coleman (whose music is pretty damn hard to fit into on a piano) – than for his achievements as a leader, and this album didn’t make that much of a fanfare. A shame, really, as it’s a very good piece of work.
No less a personage than Nat Hentoff wrote that “Bley is a genius”, and went on to describe how to interweaves beauty and intellect in a way that “few pianists in any form of music” can. Producer Manfred Eicher shares the same respect, and here records him on the same piano, and in the same location as he had recorded András Schiff playing Schubert fantasies – on a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in Mondsee, Austria.
That respect, and that trust, has clearly paid off. This is music that’s uncertain, and malleable, with constant subtle changes of mood (every few bars, even), but without ever feeling disjointed (you may not even notice the changes, unless you’re listening very carefully). Always, though, there’s a feel of song about it: Bley frequently sounds like has some well-remembered standard on the tip of his tongue – or, rather, his fingers. At several moments, I thought he would burst into (well, slide into) Surrey in the Fringe of Top. At other times, he sounds like he’s spinning his own, new standards, with similarly wonderful melodies – take the start of ‘Variation VI’, where he moves from a dark feel to rhapsodic murmurings.
The song-like element is something he shares with Keith Jarrett (in the latter’s solo work at least) – here, one feels, the over-used description ‘lyrical’ can really be justified – but he retains more of a jazzy feel. Characteristic, slightly skewy upwards runs give it an edge that Jarrett perhaps lacks, and make it a really rounded piece of music. That’s encapsulated in ‘Variation V’, which, for me, is the highlight of the record: it’s one of the shorter pieces, but it encapsulates everything that’s so good about Bley’s playing here. A mixture of straight jazz balladry and a more introspective explorativeness – yes, that is one of Bley’s great achievements, but there is something more, something that makes this an album really worth hearing. What is this extra element? The possession of the melodic sense of a great songwriter at the same time as the talents and quick responsiveness of a master improviser – that is Bley’s special gift, and that gift is in abundance here. A superb record. (Review by David Grundy)
MICHAEL BRECKER – PILGRIMAGE
Label: Blue Note
Release Date: May 2007
Tracklist: The Mean Time; Five Months from Midnight; Anagram; Tumbleweed; When Can I Kiss You Again?; Cardinal Rule; Half Moon Lane; Loose Threads; Pilgrimage
Personnel: Michael Brecker: tenor sax, EWI; Pat Metheny: guitars; Herbie Hancock: piano (1, 5, 6, 9); Brad Mehldau: piano (2-4, 6, 7); John Patitucci: bass; Jack deJohnette: drums
Additional Information: Brecker’s final album, released posthumously.
It is difficult writing a review of what represents the late, great Michael Brecker’s final recording without being hagiographical. Without doubt the most influential tenor saxophonist of his generation, over the last dozen or so years he produced a body of consistent releases that helped to define the state of play with contemporary jazz. “Pilgrimage” is no exception. Performing live, he was always one of the biggest and most consistent features on the festival draw.
Even in normal circumstances, this would be a remarkable record. Given the fact that Brecker was seriously ill when he entered the recording studio to make this disc, this represents a super human achievement, a testament of his astonishing will. Everything that one has grown accustomed to in his playing is present, the wonderful tone, the technical fluency and, of course, the ability to swing. On top of this, there is a fire in his playing and an intensity that will have fans clambering to acquire this disc. “Pilgrimage” includes some of the most passionate playing that Mike Brecker put down on record.
As ever, Brecker has surrounded himself with the very finest musicians. The rhythm section is about as “state of the art” as is possible with Patitucci and DeJohnette acquitting themselves in as exemplary fashion as would be expected. Piano duties are shared between Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, the latter playing with a degree of muscularity often absent on his own recordings. As someone with a particular interested in jazz piano, “Pilgrimage” yet again offers further evidence of the fact that Hancock is the group pianist nonpareil, prompting the soloists with judiciously selected voicings and then spooling out wonderfully creative solos. I even like his electric piano on the title track. The front line is shared with guitarist Pat Metheny, re-uniting the partnership from “Tales from the Hudson”, one of the most exceptional recordings from the 1990’s. This guitar / tenor saxophone pairing is a particularly rewarding combination and sparring with the guitar seems to particularly suit the saxophonist. Nice to hear Metheny let his hair down and really start to wail!
Getting on to the music, it is perhaps worth noting that Mike Brecker wrote all the compositions and credit is due to his ability to put together some wonderful themes. Without doubt, the one track that will get most airplay will be the rollicking “Tumbleweed” which has one of those truly infectious melodies that are so difficult to get out of your head. You feel like punching the air in celebration after the final chord when everyone has previously been jamming away on the closing vamp. As with his fellow musicians Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock, part of the genius of Michael Brecker is his ability to take complex ideas with time signatures and harmony and mould them into something that has immediate universal appeal. The mournful “Half Moon Lane” is no less worthy of praise and the ballad “When can I kiss you again?” is a gem.
In conclusion, this record is very much a celebration of Michael Brecker and his music. It is fitting that his final recording should be amongst some of his biggest musical friends – this record is an amicable reunion with everyone playing to their fullest ability for their buddy. Modern Jazz doesn’t get much better than this. So long, Mike. Thanks for all the great music! (Review by Ian Thumwood)
PETER BROTZMANN – GUTS
Release Date: 2007
Label: Okka Disc
Tracklist: Guts; Rising Spirits.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: Trumpet, Alto/Tenor Sax; Peter Brötzmann – Alto/Tenor Sax, Clarinet Tarogato; Kent Kessler – Double Bass; Michael Zerang – Drums
Additional Information: Recorded by Malachi Ritscher at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, 3rd August 2005 (Ritscher’s last recording before his suicide).
‘Guts’ is part of the series of new Brötzmann releases put out this year by Okkadisk. The group that recorded ‘Tales Out of Time’ (Hat, 2002) – Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, and Michael Zerang, all extracted from Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet – is back with a new set of tunes recorded live in 2005 at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. It’s dedicated to the memory of sound engineer Malachi Ritscher (1954-2006), who described Brötzmann’s performance thus: “Subtlety, intelligence and generosity, yet for all of that it has balls.”
It’s an apt description, of course, perhaps with a nod to the classic trio LP ‘Balls’ (FMP, 1970). Brötzmann’s style of playing hasn’t changed that much in four decades, but the sound of his ensemble has. Michael Zerang and Kent Kessler provide far more coherent rhythmic lines for the saxophonist than the insanity of Bennink. Judging by his collaborations with Hamid Drake and William Parker in their Die Like a Dog Quartet, Brötzmann seems to prefer an element of groove to his music these days. The first, titular track opens with an amazing Zerang drum solo before Kessler’s bass and the twin tenors of Brötzmann and McPhee kick in. Brötzmann emerges to take the first solo with his repetitive, honking style, still fresh after all these years. He’s overtaken by McPhee at a critical moment, whose own solo evolves from crisp to throaty in tone, as if the man is screaming through his horn. At times the two duet in unaccompanied, interlocking lines: one gruff and abrasive, the other lyrical with extended tones — a formula familiar from ‘Tales Out of Time’. The two continue to mimic each other’s phrases, spiraling into the air to the beat of Zerang’s Drake-like playing, always searching but still anchored in the funky drops of his wooden block and cowbell. The piece’s conclusion recalls the good old days, as Herr Brötz hits the highest and lowest points on his main axe, bringing everything around him to a screeching halt.
“Rising Spirits” is double the length of “Guts” and a bit more exploratory. It begins with delicately bowed notes from Kessler’s double bass and Brötzmann in the background on tarogato (a Hungarian instrument similar to a clarinet), recreating the sound of a string instrument with incredible conviction. It’s a bizarre, alienating effect to get things rolling with, but it keeps the music from feeling formulaic. We then have a duet where Brötzmann’s alto begins to mimic McPhee’s trumpet until the two have fully explored their altissimo range. The emphasis is really on the horns; it would be great to see Kessler and Zerang take more risks rather than just provide the rhythmic groundwork, but it does take a strong personality to stand up to these powerful reeds. It’s a less coherent performance than “Guts” and ultimately less satisfying, though it does have its sublime moments, like the return of the major motifs from McPhee’s “Stone Poem No. 1” off of Tales; the two swell together forcefully above Kessler’s bowed bass and Zerang’s cymbals. It’s amazing the way that the two lead soloists wind their way around each other with almost telepathic accuracy; I never realized how remarkably similar they’d become as players until I listened to this record.
At this point, ‘Guts’ isn’t exactly a new direction in Brötzmann’s career. But it shows him still hitting his stride, aided by McPhee’s more melancholy approach to songwriting. And though it lacks the cartoonish, absurdist commentary from the mid-70s peanut gallery of Van Hove and Bennink, it compensates with monster grooves and the closest thing to a Brötzmann ballad. Fine stuff, and worth the price of admission for the title track alone. (Review by Seth Watter)
DAVE BRUBECK – INDIAN SUMMER
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: You’ll Never know; I’m Alone; Autumn in our town; So Lonely; I’m afraid the masquerade is over; I don’t stand a ghost of a chance with you; Pacific Hail; September Song; Summer Song; Thank You; Georgia on my mind; Spring is Here; Sweet Lorraine; Memories of You; This Love of Mine; Indian Summer.
Personnel: Dave Brubeck: piano
Thousands of jazz fans, maybe hundreds of thousands, including me, owe gratitude to Dave Brubeck. From the early 1950s well through the 1970s, Brubeck was an essential jazz popularizer, an artist who wrote uniquely catchy themes that stuck in the head of folks who had never heard Charlie Parker or who had no particular interest in modal experimentation. But “Blue Rondo a la Turk”? That was cool. Everybody has heard “Take Five”, and everybody digs it.
To this day, I don’t entirely understand why Brubeck so transfixes jazz neophytes. As critics have never tired of pointing out, Brubeck is a remarkably unswinging soloist. His classic quartet, featuring Paul Desmond’s gin-dry alto saxophone, played with marvelous balance, to be sure, and Brubeck’s songs (“It’s a Raggy Waltz”, “In Your Own Sweet Way”, “The Duke”) were often exceptional. But there was something more, some magic element that made Brubeck’s music nearly as popular as rock ‘n’ roll on college campuses and other hip haunts. A quarter century of excellent record sales and sold out concert halls is truly impressive even if largely inexplicable.
In the last 25 years, Brubeck fans have, of course, continued to listen to those old records. We’ve also spent some time growing beyond our taste in Brubeck. Though my affection for those particular recordings remains, I now hear the group as clunky and labored. Compared to almost any recording by the likes of, say, Elmo Hope or Wynton Kelly, the Brubeck sides sound like a jalopy coming down a gravel road. Brubeck’s more recent recordings have been colored by other instruments (clarinet, flute, even some orchestras and choirs for his classically-influenced composition) but are still utterly Brubeck-y in that attractive themes are weighed down by a certain stiffness of execution.
Not always, of course. Brubeck has a gentle, impressionistic way with a ballad. Tracing the pianist’s style is not complicated. He is an old-school stride player with a strong dose of classical bombast in his fingers. Brubeck’s sound was already set in stone before the influence of the essential modern jazz pianists could creep in. Brubeck betrays no awareness of Bill Evans and only a smidge of Bud Powell or Monk. Particularly on ballads, the pianist plays as if from another era altogether, which can be both charming and dull.
In the autumn of his career at the age of 86, Dave Brubeck has made a solo piano record of gentle ballads. Indian Summer contains no Brubeck-ian bombast, just meditative ballad playing. It does not force any kind of reassessment of Brubeck’s canon, but it serves as a pleasant counterweight to much of his music, maybe a kind of understated bookend that true Brubeck fans should not resist.
The songs are all slow and played with gauzy luxuriousness. The piano often sounds like a harp, strummed rather than hammered. At other times, it hops or skips with an easygoing stride feeling. But the range of expression is kept narrow. The titles tell you what is on Brubeck’s mind: “I’m Alone”, “So Lonely”, “September Song”, “Memories of You”. There are four originals and plenty of less-than-obvious standards. But even the familiar material, such as “Sweet Lorraine”, is not ripped. Every song seems like it is being encountered for the first time. Every song is treated with kid gloves.
Perhaps the most emblematic performance is “Thank You,” a subtle Brubeck original. The written theme is a minor, rhapsodic melody that sounds closer to a classical piece in many ways. It contains interesting traces of atonality in places and builds up less like a jazz improvisation than like a through-written piece. Brubeck is firmly in command here, but he risks relatively little. “Georgia on My Mind” is more relaxed and bluesy, as you might imagine, but it seems equally rote, a dash of Errol Garner affectation, a slow stride bounce, a limited amount of excitement.
But what is the right way to evaluate a recording like this? How many 86 year-old jazz pianists continue to record prominently? Hank Jones is Brubeck’s obvious contemporary, two-and-a-half years older and also still active. Like Brubeck, Jones has stripped down his playing in the last decade, editing it to its essentials. But as his recent work with Joe Lovano has shown, Jones still can play with fire and collaborative zip when the time comes. Brubeck seems to have long ago backed himself into a corner of his own invention.
In total, Indian Summer is a gentle and reflective collection that neatly summarizes Dave Brubeck’s musical personality. It is without the worst elements of Brubeck’s mid-career playing, the bombast and the just-for-the-sake-of-it polyrhythms and pseudo-classicism, but also without the sense of rumbling excitement. Still, as Brubeck faces the last stage of his musical career, you have to admire his sense of direction and fortitude. A collection that sensitively (if some somewhat boringly) stares absence in the face, Brubeck’s Indian Summer is a disc that true fans will want to listen to carefully.
(Review by Will Layman, originally published at www.popmatters.com)
LUCIO CAPECE/AXEL DORNER/ROBIN HAYWARD – KAMMERLAM
Label: Azul Discografica
Release Date: March 2007
Tracklist: 3 untitled tracks, with lengths of 8:16, 23:24 and 16:59.
Personnel: Lucio Capece: soprano sax, bass clarinet; Axel Dörner: trumpet; Robin Hayward: tuba
Berlin improvisers Dörner (trumpet) and Hawyard (tuba) were joined by Argentinian reedsman Lucio Capece in 2004 to form the trio known as Kammerlärm (chambernoise). This is their first full-length release, culled from two recording sessions at Dörner’s home in 2005 (why has it taken so long to come out on CD?). It’s very much in the vein of ‘reductionism’, or, as Dan Warburton puts it in his review of the album for Paris Transatlantic, ‘next-to-nothingism’ – extremely quiet free improvisation, concerned with sound and texture rather than melody or linear development (musical narrative), and with the relation of sound to silence as much as with the sound itself. The aim (as with most good improv) seems to be an attempt to create some sort of mental/ intellectual/ physical state impossible to attain any other way (except, perhaps, through meditation) – somewhere in between full consciousness and sleep.
Quite a daring area of music then, and full of possibilities – yet, a few years on from the beginning of this style of, in the 1990s, one may validly question whether any progression has really been made from the original concept. Indeed, one could question whether what started out as uniquely exploratory music now actually counts as ‘exploration’ at all.
So where does this leave us? How are to we relate to ‘Kammerlärm’? As the official album description puts it, the music “evinces a strict reserve with respect to ‘self-expression’ ” – no possibility of emotion there, then – “an acute awareness of the materiality of their instruments” – interesting conceptually, at least – and “a sustained exploration of the possibilities of instrumental playing.” The latter’s certainly true, but it again brings us back to that question – where does this leave us, what does this leave us with? Let’s take one example: Dörner’s extended techniques, ranging from grainy multiphonics to valve clicks and pops, pitchless hisses and draughty glissandi. These can be very effective – yet, more often than not, when used as the sole means of performance (not that Dorner can’t do other modes – he’s an extremely fine jazz player), they can leave one completely cold, as with Dorner’s solo album simply titled ‘Trumpet’, where, for about half the record, he seems to be impersonating an aeroplane taking off.
A recent editorial for ‘The Wire’ magazine made me think about these issues again in relation to the music of saxophonist John Butcher, another improviser whose musical vocabulary is very much built on the use of extended techniques. As this editorial put it, the listener reaches a breakthrough when they realise that the techniques are the music, that they are not some external mode of virtuoso decoration imposed onto the meat of the music itself, but that they are where the musical itself argument unfolds. Butcher himself points out that you wouldn’t listen to Jimi Hendrix or Aboriginal music with this separation between technique/form and content – no such distinction is made between the musical effect and the emotional effect it produces.
This is all very well, and it does help a great deal in the case of Butcher. But that is only one case, and it’s not possible to argue, I think, that extended techniques in themselves have any inherent value. Without effect, they’re nothing – and this record, for me, does not have the effect that Butcher’s do. I can see how it would be interesting, but it doesn’t make me feel – and I just can’t get around that obstacle.
(Review by David Grundy)
CATO SALSA EXPERIENCE & THE THING WITH JOE McPHEE – TWO BANDS AND A LEGEND
Label: Smalltown Superjazz
Release Date: April 2007
Tracklist: Who the Fuck; The Witch; Too Much Fun; Tekla Loo; Louie Louie; You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me; The Nut; Baby Talk; I Can’t Find My Mind
Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone, pocket trumpet, vocals/ Cato Salsa Experience — Cato Thomassen: guitar, vocals; Bard Enerstad: guitar, organ, theremin, vocals; Christian Engfelt: bass, vocals; Jon Magne Riise: drums/ The Thing — Mats Gustafsson: tenor & baritone saxophone, electronics; Ingebrigt Haker Flaten: double bass, electronics; Paal Nilssen-Love: drums
Additional Information: This line-up has also recorded two EPs for Smalltown Superjazz: ‘Sounds Like a Sandwich’, from 2006, and ‘I See You Baby’ (recorded at the same sessions as the album under review). All are available for download at emusic.com.
The meeting between Mats Gustaffson’s free jazz group The Thing and garage rock band Cato Salsa Experience began at a concert during the Kongsberg Jazzfestival in Norway in 2004, and has continued through a number of releases: a couple of EPs, the first released in 2006, and another, featuring additional material recorded at the sessions for this album, in 2007.
Thurston Moore’s liner-notes, dated from the moment they were written (like Ralph J. Gleason’s perhaps more insightful ones to ‘Bitches’ Brew,’ or some minor-league wannabe beat poet), are written in some kind of stoned/slacker/experimentalist ‘hip’ lingo. They’re actually pretty fun, at the same time as being totally ridiculous, and I can’t resist the temptation to quote from them here: “Is this superjazz? Does The Thing want to rock the fuck out? Is Paale Nilssen a love machine? Do Cato & Bård rip the shit outta guitar? Are you cramped? Can you find yr mind? Can you shake yr ass? Is it Nation Time!?” (Nation Time being the title of one of McPhee’s free jazz albums from the 70s).
It feels somewhat superficial – sticking two fingers up in the air, a rather simplistic rebellion ethos, where, if we can make the loudest noise possible, we’re making some great statement. McPhee knows that there’s more to the music than this, so does Gustaffson, so, surely, does Thurston – but they’re all happy to go along with the ride.
Digression. About six month ago, Marcus O’ Dair’s article on ‘death jazz’, in the Guardian newspaper, lumped together various different styles and acts indiscriminately – from Weasel Walter to Japan’s Soil and Pimp Sessions, Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib, Gutbucket and David Keenan of Tight Meat (for more on his performance with Sonny Simmons, see the gig reviews). O’ Dair was trying to create the idea of a music which melded the attitudes of punk and free jazz, creating the new ‘death jazz.’ That both have broadly similar ethoses is nothing new, although the means of execution were very different (compare the music of Cecil Taylor to the Sex Pistols and you’ll see what I mean – one attains a ‘primitive’ energy through greater musical simplicity, the other through extreme musical complexity). Yet the blanket ‘Death Jazz’ term overlooks fundamental differences between some of these music: while some of these bands may pretend to have the same attitude as free jazzers, in fact, their fault is the same as that which they accuse rock bands of having: pretending to be extreme when you’re not really, and having a simplistic understanding of the music. For instance, Death Qunt’s Craig Scott blasts rock music as being “advertised as extreme when it’s the most commercialised horrible nonsense with nothing rebellious about it whatsoever.” I’d argue that this turns out to be a criticism of ‘death jazz’ too.
Some of it (Acoustic Ladyland especially) actually seems aimed more towards a no. 1 single than to any kind of real ‘underground’ – just as a faint jazz sheen adds some sense of sophistication to pop musicians like Katie Melua, which is helpful as a marketing tool, so the ‘death jazz’ market adds a daredevil edge to make jazz people seem ‘in with the kids’, and makes people who like rock music think they like jazz. Weasel Walter says, “My music is very personal and not geared towards mass acceptance in any way,” and I’d concur, but for others, it’s not the case.
And so, back to this particular record. How does it fit into the ‘death jazz’ category? Well, it’s a pretty obvious attempt to meld rock with jazz, both in terms of material – a cover of PJ Harvey sits alongside a cover of James Blood Ulmer – and instrumentation and style (rock band plays with free jazz group). To some extent, this fusion is sanctioned by the presence of Mats Gustafsson (whose superb album with Peter Brotzmann is included in this magazine’s discs of the year list) and veteran reedsman Joe McPhee. McPhee is two things which are not often present in this ‘death jazz’ scene (a strange thing considering the origins of the music in a music associated very much with the civil rights struggle and radical politics in the 1960s): black and American. Furthermore, he clearly possesses a wicked sense of humour, which really sparks off with these Scandinavians – you can see this even more clearly on their EP, recorded at the same sessions, which mixes a tribute to Don Ayler with a cover of Groove Armada’s ‘I See You Baby’ – McPhee intoning the lyrics with relish.
Opener ‘Who the Fuck’ is a fairly straight cover of the PJ Harvey song. I can’t say I was too keen on the lead vocals, which sound like they were recorded from a distance, or through some sort of filter, or something. Fairly unremarkable – they don’t really take Harvey’s tune anywhere. ‘The Witch’ opens with a squeaky bass solo before settling for a heavy riff and some double-horn skronk. After the brief (and fun) ‘Too Much Fun’ comes ‘Tekla Loo’, the most successful track, which opens with McPhee reciting a poem, before a groove kicks in and everything then descends into noisy guitar/sax chaos. This really manages to merge the collective energies of free jazz and rock music, as the whole record attempts to do, well.
But too often, the two strands, though fairly successful in their own right, don’t really sit together – it feels more like straight rock with freaky improvised interludes, or, if you prefer, improvised free jazz book-ended by straight rock melodies and changes. For instance, ‘Louie Louie’ feels like two different songs sandwiched together (‘Sounds like a Sandwich’ was the title of this group’s EP, and seems appropriate): the rock song section, with vocals supported by punchy saxes, is good, and so is the improv section (lungbusting Gustaffson sax with McPhee on trumpet), but they just don’t gel together.
The following track, ‘You Ain’t Gonna Know Me Cos You Think You Know Me,’ is a surprise – a gentle jazz ballad, with Gustafsson blowing breathily over acoustic bass, joined by the drummer and McPhee’s gentle counterpoint on trumpet, then some slightly surreal wailing high vocals and guitars. Out of context, it wouldn’t seem remarkable – perhaps even pedestrian (and the vocals don’t really do it for me)– but it’s a useful point of respite from all the noise.
As if to make up for the momentary dip in energy, ‘The Nut’ is brutal – the first two minutes are a repeated (unison) guitar and drum pattern overlaid with distorted, smeary organ. When Gustaffson’s baritone comes in, he briefly plays a knotty tune, leaves it to McPhee to solo with just the drums, then joins him so that they can wail together, and then he takes a solo with his Brotzmanesque-tone and vocalized sound.
‘Baby Talk’ is a James Blood Ulmer tune, originally performed by the Music Revelation Ensemble (David Murray, Amin Ali, and Ronald Shannon Jackson) on their 1980 album ‘No Wave,’ an early example of an attempt to fuse jazz with punk. Those were heavy cats, but their version sounds almost tame in comparison; this group give it another noisy workout that is at once both rollicking and somewhat distressed, with strident horns, crashing drums, and incessantly busy guitars.
Like track 2, ‘I Can’t Find my Mind’ opens with a solo, this time guitar, full of feedback and distortion, a fuzzy sonic haze out of which a few shards of what could be said to resemble melodic phrases pop out occasionally; after a few minutes of this, another of those heavy basslines comes in, with the beefy horn sound, and vocals. It’s a song by punk band The Cramps, and consists of a series of ridiculously straight blues chords, played out slowly, dragged out, grinding – presumably meant to be some kind of showstopping finish, I find it rather irritating, but some may find it compelling: a kind of doomy feel, ending with a cry.
And that is my experience of The Thing, with Cato Salsa Experience and Joe McPhee. Succesful in some parts, but more often than not a somewhat uneasy hybrid. Make of it what you will.
(Review by David Grundy. The article by Marcus O’Dair on death jazz is available online at http://music.guardian.co.uk/jazz/story/0,,2207440,00.html)
CLAUDIA QUINTET – FOR
Release Date: May 2007
Tracklist: I’m So Fickin’ Cool; August 5th, 2006; Be Happy; This Too Shall Pass; Rug Boy; For you; Rainy Days/Peanut Vendor Mash-Up; Three Odes: Admiration (for Peter Garland), Nostalgia (for Jan Garbarek), Pity (for Mary Cheney).
Personnel: Drew Gress: acoustic bass; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, electric tape preparation (6); Matt Moran: vibraphone, vocals/lyrics (6); Ted Reichman: accordion; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone.
In a way, this group’s material is built upon paradox; at a first glance, it could sound pretty “simple” to the ears of many obsessive new music aficionados who only live for endangered rhythmical species and finger contortions. Give it a coupla (make that three, or four) attentive tries and think again, as under the appearance of sheer “linear” themes or minimalist repetitions there’s a puzzling world of details and structures that, taken as a whole, furnish the compositions with the richness that’s typical of a great “progressive” band mixing contemporary jazz, Reich, Piazzolla and Bulgarian folk played with the same attitude of a technically hyper-advanced bionic busker.
“For” is Claudia’s fourth CD – note the title’s pun – each of its tracks being dedicated to someone, famous or not (check for yourself). Besides the well-known percussive bravura of leader’s John Hollenbeck who – incidentally – penned all the pieces, lots of kudos should ideally go to Ted Reichman, whose accordion is the real protagonist of compelling situations ranging from the melancholia-tinged immateriality (“This too shall pass”) to the plain virtuosity (“Be happy”). This should not detract from the astounding musicianship and adroitness of the other Claudians (Drew Gress on bass, Matt Moran on vibraphone and Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax) completing the line-up of an ensemble that acts as the perfect trait d’union between the necessity of something complex and the will of relaxing the nerves every once in a while, still without being able of actually lowering our guard, given that a circuitous construction can always be lurking behind the corner of a single-note melody. Don’t worry if you can’t find a definition for the Claudia Quintet; just rejoice for their newborn creature, as these guys are extremely serious in what they do.
(Review by Massimo Ricci, originally published at ‘Touching Extremes’ – http://spazioinwind.libero.it/extremes/touchinghome.htm)
DAVE DOUGLAS QUINTET – LIVE AT THE JAZZ STANDARD
Label: Koch Records
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: CD1: Earmarks; Tree and Shrub; War Room; Indian Point; The Cornet is a Fickle Friend; The Next Phase (for Thomas); October Surprise; Seth Thomas. CD2: Meaning and Mystery; Navigations; Redemption; Little Penn; Living Streams; Leaving Autumn; Magic Triangle (bonus track); A Single Sky (bonus track).
Personnel: Dave Douglas: cornet; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Uri Caine: Fender Rhodes; James Genus: contrabass; Clarence Penn: drums.
Additional Information: The Quintet performed at 6-night run at the Jazz Standrad from 5-10th December 2006. The complete recordings are available at http://musicstem.com/album/178.
‘Live at the Jazz Standard’ showcases trumpeter Dave Douglas – on cornet this time – and his quintet, performing live at New York City club the Jazz Standard on various nights in December of 2006. Joining Douglas here are tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, Fender Rhodes specialist and musical magpie Uri Caine (known for his jazz versions of Mahler and other classical composers), bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn. Originally released as complete download-only sets on Douglas’ own Greenleaf Label website, here Douglas has pruned the sets down to 18 cuts over two discs. Furthermore, he’s also focused the selection on original compositions never released on any previous albums. In that sense, fans of Douglas’ past work with this ensemble on such studio efforts as 2002’s ‘Infinite’ and 2006’s ‘Meaning and Mystery’ will surely enjoy this, as it essentially plays as an all new recording, and not just a live documentation of the quintet. In fact, disc two focuses on compositions Douglas wrote while delving into the iconic work of innovative pocket-trumpeter Don Cherry, and were initially intended for inclusion on ‘Meaning and Mystery.’ This is soulful, visceral, moody and propulsive post-bop that often leans heavily toward late-’60s and ’70s modal and free jazz. Well worth hearing.
MARC EDWARDS – ION STORM/ 12 VOTES
Label: Alpha Phonics
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: (Ion Storm) Ion Storm; Binary Systems; Molecular Excitation; Star Flakes (Star Ejections); Floating in Space. (Twelve Votes) Live at the Hook – Ion Storm; Morning Dew; Floating in Space; Live at ABC No Rio – Ion Storm/Morning Dew/Floating in Space; Interdimensional Gateway.
Personnel: (Ion Storm) James Duncan: trumpet; Ras Moshe: saxophones; Tor Synder: electric guitar; Marc Edwards: drums. (Twelve Votes) – Blaise Siwula: alto sax; Jefrrey Hayden Shurdut: piano (on ‘Interdimensional Gatway’); Tor Synder, Ernest Anderson III: electric guitars; Francois Grillot: bass; Marc Edwards: drums.
Additional Information: Both albums are available for download at emusic.com and itunes. More information about Marc Edwards, and about the band, can be found at http://www.allaboutjazz.com/ php/musician.php?id=3102 and www.myspace.com/ slipstreamtimetravel.
Marc Edwards is best known for his stint with the 1976 version of the Cecil Taylor Unit, also featuring tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, that produced the oft-praised ‘Dark Unto Themselves’. These days, his project is the New-York based band ‘Slipstream Time Travel’, originally with saxophonist Sabir Mateen, now with Ras Moshe filling the sax chair, along with James Duncan on trumpet and Tor Synder on electric guitar. As Edwards comments in an interview on the ‘All About Jazz’ website, he got used to playing without a bassist, and has thus evolved a muscular, powerful style designed to fill out the layers in the music that a bassist would normally fill, so the music doesn’t feel stripped-down at all: in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Thus, on the bass-less ‘Ion Storm’, where Edwards is the sole member of the rhythm section, there’s more meat on many records with a bassist.
These two new releases on the label Edwards founded in 1991, Alpha Phonics, are both characterized by their aggression and volume levels. Of the two, ‘Ion Storm’, with his regular band, is the more jazz-based and ‘accessible’; ‘12 Votes’ adds the 2nd guitar of Ernest Andersen III, and, on the final track, alto sax and piano, to create a storm of sound which sometimes recalls the live performances from Pat Metheny and Derek Bailey’s ‘Sign of Four’ in volume level and intensity.
The two guitars produce squals of Sharrockian dissonance, chattering streams of sound that feel as if they could wail and wail and all night long. There’s little respite from the aural assault, although the fourth, and longest track, recorded live at ABC No Rio, features a spook jazz interlude and some walking bass, before descending back into the psychedelic (psychotic?) maelstrom.
But it’s with the addition of Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut’s piano on the final track, ‘Interdimensional Gateway,’ that things are really pushed to the max – the texture becomes thicker than ever, perhaps too thick, recalling the sludginess of the Metheny/Bailey collaboration I mentioned above, and a lot of big-band free improvisation. With no solos or apparent form as such – just everyone playing at once, everyone soloing at once, in the manner of say Alan Silva’s ‘Luna Surface,’ or elements of Peter Brotzmann’s music – it’s can be hard to find a way in, to penetrate the thicket of noise, and the best way to experience it is probably as a hallucinatory wash that batters you into total immersion/submission. Shurdut’s piano exists more as a presence, an aural haze, an entity of sound rather than line. Rather than the crisp percussiveness which the instrument can produce, it becomes smeared by the other musicians so that it exists as just another element in the texture: you know it’s there even if you can’t really hear what its doing. The bass, meanwhile, is a penumbral rumbling presence trying to make an order, a line through the screaming thicket of sound-wall-noise – a hopeless task!
Well, neither of these records are subtle, and both are very, very noisy, but I haven’t felt this exhilarated for quite a while, and it’s fun being caught up in such a screeching, no-holds barred slab of music. (Review by David Grundy)
KURT ELLING – NIGHT MOVES
Release Date: April 2007
Tracklist: Nightmoves; Tight; Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me; Undun; Where Are You, My Love; And We Will Fly; The Waking; The Sleepers; Leaving Again/In The Wee Small Hours; A New Body And Soul; I Like the Sunrise.
Personnel: Kurt Elling: vocals; Laurence Hobgood: piano; Willie Jones, III: drums; Christian McBride: bass (1-4,6,10); Rob Amster: bass (5,7,8,11); Rob Mounsey: electric piano, keyboards (1, 4, 6); Guilherme Monteiro: guitar (3,6); Bob Mintzer: tenor sax (1); Howard Levy: harmonica (3); Gregoire Maret: harmonica (6); The Escher String Quartet (5,8).
This is likely to be a divisive record with people brought up with the milliard of Sinatra clones likely to find little to enjoy in the uncompromising set by American singer Kurt Elling. For those of us who have grown up listening to singers such as the late Betty Carter who have remained defiantly faithful to the tenets of jazz however, this new disc is very much to be welcomed.
Largely eschewing a programme of standards, Elling’s rich tone lends itself to a set of originals, in many cases being settings of poetry. In two of the instances where he elects to sing repertoire from the Broadway songbook, these are based upon transcriptions from solos by the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Whilst the reading of “Body & Soul” is something of a 10-minute tour de force (enough to make you forget this tune’s reputation as a vehicle for saxophone prowess), the distinctly unsentimental arrangement of the small string ensemble on “Where are you” renders this a definitive version of the tune in my estimation. This is one of the best things on the whole album. The other two standards are bolted into medleys incorporating themes by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Keith Jarrett – the version of “Change partners / If you never come to me” highlighting just how good the lyrics of these tunes are. This is a particularly inspired coupling. Unfortunately, the rendering of Duke Ellington’s “I like the sunrise” that closes the disc only serves to demonstrate that, amongst that composer’s many talents, he did not always hit the bull’s eye when it came to song writing.
The rest of the disc offers an example of Kurt Elling’s versatility and includes a funky version the pop song “Undun” with Bob Mintzer contributing some choice tenor. There is also a short, snappy version of Betty Carter’s own tune “Tight” that allows the singer to pay his respects the late chanteuse. No small part of the success of this disc is due to the well-crafted arrangements by Rob Mounsey and Laurence Hopgood, who also takes the piano chair in Elling’s regular trio. Willie Jones III does sterling job on drums and bass duties are shared between Rob Amster and guest Christian McBride.
All told, this is a CD that gets better with each successive listening and, if some of the risks taken do not quite work, overall there is plenty to recommend it. Should one track on this disc demonstrates Ellings’ prowess it is the setting of Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” where he is accompanied solely by Ron Amster’s bass. After an initial hearing, the accompanying hook sounded familiar and it eventually dawned on me that it was borrowed from Bach’s “Sleeper’s awake!” There is a passage where Elling climbs up several octaves to land on an almost falsetto G. The effect is pretty much electrifying.
Well recorded and offering a varied programme, “Night moves” is a disc that has ensconced in my CD playing over the last few weeks. Hip, swinging and demonstrating a considerable degree of skill where the integrity of the music is never compromised, this disc proves Elling to be the peer of this generation of male jazz singers. A very good record indeed. (Review by Ian Thumwood)
KAHIL EL’ZABAR’S INFINITY ORCHESTRA – TRANSMIGRATION
Label: Delmark Release Date: April 2007
Tracklist: Soul to Groove; Speaking in Tongues; Transmigration; Nu Art Claiming Earth; Return of the Lost Tribe.
Personnel: Kahil El’ abar: percussion, leader; Ernest Dawkins: alto sax, percussion; Joseph Bowie: trombone, percussion; Ilyes Ferfera: alto sax; Grat Martinez: baritone sax; Arnaud Rouanet: tenor sax; Marc Closier: tenor sax; Karlis Vanags: sax; Noris Kolmanis: sax; Benoit Berthe: sax; Fabien Deyts: trumpet; Yann Grillon: trumpet; Piero Pepin: trumpet; Vincent Gaugere: trumpet; Dominque Darrouzet: trumpet; Jean Dousteyssier: clarinet; Christian Patzer: flute; Jeremi Ortal: trombone; Guillaume Ballin: trombone; Clement Billardello: guitar; Xavier Corpice: guitar; Natalie Gaucher: vocal; Bindi Mahamat: vocal rap; Remi Bernis: vocal rap; Stephane Castanet: DJ; Nicolas Perrin: DJ turntablist; Olivier Soubles: piano; Marianne Thiebaut: djembe; Manue Peran: djembe; Jonathan Verbaere: djembe; Yacoura Silla: djembe, balaphon; Yvain Chambard: balafon, percussion; Pascale Martinez, Estelle Renauld: percussion; Herve Mignon: electric bass; Xavier Hayet: acoustic bass; Phillipe Gaubert, Antonin Mallaret, Yoann Scheidt: drums.
Additional Information: Recorded live in Bordeaux, France, in 2005.
I was all set to write-up a party-friendly, spazz-happy record, but to tell you the truth, it just didn’t hold my attention and was really wrong for my current mindset. I need something more random and less hip, something maybe not necessarily mind-blowing, but interesting and exotic and ridiculous. I need to distance myself from the DJs and laptop-artists and solo-outfits and half-cocked ideas and immerse myself in something bigger, some sort of cultural melting pot of styles and backgrounds and musicians. I need something more than a quartet or a quintet or a sextet of players, I need a fucking small village of musical minds playing as one. I need something both new and old, a bridging of eras and mindsets, something that stretches out in all directions with exuberance, excitement and joy, and something celebratory to bring in this holiday weekend. So, what the hell, I’m heading to a port city in the southwest of France to experience the live, multi-layered, ethnic barrage of free jazz, big band, soul-jazz, funk and hip-hop by a 39-piece orchestra. While I may actually be spending this pleasantly cool and quiet Chicago Friday night huddled over my laptop with a Honker’s Ale and an attention hungry cat, as far as my mind and ears are concerned, I’m sitting front-and-center at the National Theatre of Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France, drunk on their world-famous wine and smiling broadly at the orchestrating antics of Kahil El’Zabar as he leads his Infinity Orchestra through the rambunctious hour-long set of Transmigration.
El’Zabar is a true Chicago jazz musician; he is multi-talented, highly committed and part of more eccentrically wonderful projects than there is time to list. A product of the AACM, he is a percussionist, arranger, composer, conductor, clothes/costume designer, educator and community leader. As a musician, he began at a young age honing his skills with early incarnations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and along with playing alongside everyone from Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Cannonball Adderley, he has lead and played in groups like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the JUBA Collective and the Ritual Trio. There are many other interesting tidbits to El’Zabar’s career as well, for example, clothes designing for Nina Simone, artist in residence/Master of Carnival in Bordeaux, or arranging the stage performances of The Lion King, but we really should concentrate on the album at hand.
The origination of the Infinity Orchestra reaches back to 1978 when El’Zabar pieced together an all-Chicago ensemble that let him experiment with his increasingly ambitious big-band compositions. In fact, one piece from those experimental days appears on this release, the album closer “Return of the Last Tribe.” Inspired then by the works of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Archie Shepp’s big-band excursions and now influenced by myriad of geographically concentrated styles including free jazz in France (especially BYG Actuel releases, though not nearly as challenging), indigenous African percussion (most notably the balafon and djembe) and American rap and turntablism, El’Zabar has arranged and orchestrated a skillfully performed and joyous album with his French 39-piece cross-generational ensemble in Transmigration, which may not be perfect, but is certainly a treat to experience.
The album opens with the very curious “Soul to Groove,” certainly not what I was expecting at least. Kicking off with a turntable solo, a solo free jazz tenor sax enters two minutes later wailing away like there’s no tomorrow. It’s not cheesy in the least, which in itself is a success. Bombastic orchestra cheers and funky guitar riffing egg on the duet before dissolving back to just solo turntable once again; it is certainly not the first pair of the two genres, but it is handily pulled off. Now “Nu Art Claiming Earth” on the other hand is not nearly as successful and actually bends toward unlistenable. This times rhymes are added to the mix care of French rapper Bindi Mahamat, and with no offense to his flow, it just doesn’t work. The song drags on for fifteen-minutes through a barrage of different movements, but if anything, just disenchants the promising album opener.
The centerpiece of Transmigration is the 24-minute “Speaking in Tongues,” though while simple from an arrangement standpoint contains fantastic musicianship and is a very rewarding track. Kicking off with the melodic percussive sound of the balafon, a West African xylophone of sorts, it meanders through three phases each spotlighting a different soloist, trumpeter Piero Pepin, clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier, and alto saxophonist Benoit Berthe. Like every solo on the disc, they are inspired and fantastic, and in fact, the solos are the main attraction of the album. On “Return of the Lost Tribe,” the only two non-French musicians, Chicagoans Ernest Dawkins (New Horizons Ensemble) and Joseph Bowie (Defunkt) each provide emotional outbursts to the grooving orchestral swing led by El’Zabar. Again, it would be a far cry to call any of it classic, but it is very enjoyable and a much-welcomed aural escape from most of what gets released these days.
So after a ridiculously jading week, it feels great to lose myself in the heart-felt eccentricities of Kahil El’Zabar and his orchestra. No it won’t win you many cool points in the hipster realm of things and no it won’t blow your mind from a musical you-have-never-experienced-something-like-this-before standpoint, but it will put a grin on your face, make your head sway and probably send you to the liner notes a couple times to see who just ripped that ridiculous clarinet solo. What else could you want? Well, maybe a bottle of Bordeaux’s world-famous wine…
(Review by Michael Ardaiolo, originally published at audiversity.com).
SONNY FORTUNE – YOU AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC
Label: 18th & Vine
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: Sweet Georgia Brown; You and the Night and the Music; Charade; ‘Round Midnight; Besame Mucho; Love Song; The End of a Love Affair; For Duke and Cannon; Bebop.
Personnel: Sonny Fortune: alto sax, flute (4, 6); George Cables: piano; Chip Jackson: bass; Steve Johns: drums
Fortune, like Charles Tolliver (whose ‘With Love’ is one of this issue’s discs of the year), belongs to what could very well be described as the lost generation of jazz. These men, and like-minded musicians, such as Billy Harper and Stanley Cowell, have been rather consistently overlooked, the reason being that their heyday, in the late 60s/early 70s, coincided with the rise of fusion and the sidelining of the sort of jazz idiom that they worked in: modern post-bop with nods to free jazz and the avant-garde (in spirit and energy if less often in musical content). Fortune, to be fair, did have some involvement in the fusion movement, appearing on Miles Davis’ extraordinary live double albums ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’, and these could be his best known appearances on record, although that honour could also go to his days as a sideman with McCoy Tyner, during the period when the latter was recording for Milestone records, and really beginning to find his voice as a leader, after a few uncertain years following the death of Coltrane. He also had brushes with the avant-garde, playing on Pharoah Sanders’ 1969 freakout ‘Izipho Zam.’
Like Sanders, his Coltrane influences were always pronounced, and he acknowledges this fact, but they were not as overwhelming as one sometimes felt they were with Tyner’s other 70s saxophonist, Azar Lawrence, and Fortune is most definitely a player with an individual style. His soprano sax playing had a hard edge very different from the fervent Orientalism of Coltrane’s approach, his alto tone was sharp and tart, and his flute added textural refreshment, though there was always the lingering feeling that this is an instrument often used in jazz for novelty effect, (even Eric Dolphy didn’t give his greatest performances on it).
‘You and the Night and the Music’ finds him in the sort of post-bop mode, which, if this can be said about any one style in the notoriously diverse jazz scene of today, has come to constitute the music’s mainstream tradition. He’s joined on this date by a fine rhythm section, and many seasoned jazz listeners will undoubtedly relish the presence of pianist George Cables. Maybe not an absolute top-league soloist, but nonetheless a very attractive player, he has provided reliable backing over the years to the likes of Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, and had particularly notable stints with Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. I’ve heard him described as “everyone’s favourite sideman,” and with that in mind, he perfectly suits this date. While Fortune is the best-known player of the quartet, it’s not about showing-off, or an ego-trip for the leader – it’s a comfortable medium, with plenty of virtuosity, if in somewhat contained form: tracks never outstay their welcome, and sometimes fade out. Nevertheless, the penetrating quality that was especially noticeable in Fortune’s stint with Tyner is still there, heard in some characteristic rapid-fire runs which swoop upwards to piercing high sonorities, then end with a brief downward flourish. This seems to inspire Cables, who has some uncharacteristically heated moments in which right hand runs are juxtaposed with crashing left hand chords, Tyner-style. That’s not really his forte, though, and he clearly prefers to lay down a relaxed, laid-back, self-possessed vibe, seen at its best on a track like ‘Charade’, where his solo has a palpable sense of joy about it – satisfaction, even glee.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling slightly dissatisfied as I listened: the most apt word I can find to describe the CD is ‘solid’, whereas I’d rather it was ‘exceptional,’ or at least innovative. Maybe I’m demanding too much, but I did find myself asking: who needs another version of ‘Round Midnight’? True, it’s a little different in that Fortune delivers it, with limpid grace, on the flute, giving it a cool, relaxed tone, but that does make it feel somewhat distanced – the melody coasts past without really registering any impact. It’s become so familiar that to give it any sort of resonance, something quite special or unusual has to be done with it – a prime example of that would be Bobby McFerrin’s ethereal vocalised version with Herbie Hancock on the ‘Round Midnight’ soundtrack, which shouldn’t work, but does. As it is, here, you get exactly what you might expect: everything is in its right place. There are times though, when that’s not enough, when what you actually want is something with more rough edges, which employs fire rather than polish.
And, to be honest, the whole record is similarly predictable, especially when you consider how powerful, passionate and inventive Fortune’s performances with McCoy Tyner in the 70s could be. Consequently, it’s the sort of thing that’s not really going to rock anybody’s boat overmuch, but, still, it’s good to know that guys like Fortune are still making music, and that there are still times when his playing really sparkles. (Review by David Grundy)
ERIK FRIEDLANDER – BLOCK ICE AND PROPANE
Label: SkipStone Records
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: King Rig; Dream Song; Airstream Envy; Road Weary; Night White; Block Ice & Propane; A Thousand Unpieced Suns; Rushmore; Rusting in Honeysuckle; Cold Chicken; Yakime; Pressure Cooking; Valley of Fire.
Personnel: Erik Friedlander: cello, tuning forks; Scott Solter: engineer, live processing.
A veteran of New York’s downtown scene (and the son of famous jazz photographer Lee Friedlander) Erik Friedlander’s perhaps best known for his work with John Zorn, and, with a grounding in classical music and session work (in contexts ranging from Courtney Love’s band to Hollywood musicals), he’s an incredibly gifted musician technically, whatever genre he’s performing in. Before starting on the cello, his main instrument, he played guitar from the age of 6, and this new solo album in some ways marks a return to those experiences, as well as to other memories from his childhood.
His previous solo cello disc, ‘Matador’ (2003), consisted of improvisations inspired by French surrealist poetry. ‘Block Ice and Propane’ is considerably less avant-garde, and is probably his most accessible work so far. In the official ‘electronic press kit’ (a short promotional video available online), he fills in some of the background: “Every summer my parents would pack us up for months of camping. Cities, campgrounds, parades – thousands of miles of highway travel. Writing these pieces put me back in that camper.” The album then, consists of a series of compositions and improvisations (it’s often hard to tell which), inspired by his childhood memories of travel across the continent – a kind of aural road movie. In fact, it’s easy to picture it as the soundtrack to an actual road movie, and, despite being a concept album, it’s similar to many of those movies in that it’s more about mood, atmosphere, and character than specific narrative incident.
Solo cello is an unusual choice for an album, particularly a jazz one (I personally think it’s stretching things to call this jazz – but, saying that, what you would call it instead is also beyond me). This is not a problem, though: Friedlander exploits the capabilities of his instrument to the full, although here he tends to focus on a particular sound quality, a particular type of resonance, playing the cello pizzicato, as if it was a rich, deep-toned guitar, and spinning out melodies alternately buoyant and rustic or dreamy and hazy (as in the gorgeous second track).
He himself says that playing the cello in this way, which involves reaching back to what he calls the “finger-picking” techniques of his guitar background, enabled him to create a music that “sounded like Americana – very simple, unadorned, very earnest, with pretty melodies that were very direct.” There’s a pronounced folky feel, but not in the sense that he plays traditional folk melodies – it’s perhaps more an idea of folk music and culture, a filtering of low art through high art, which takes some of its characteristics as inspiration but retains a separateness, the individual voice of the musician involved in its creation never being subsumed by the traditions he draws from (or creates, in the case of Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalaichan Spring’).
It also raises the idea that there might be a specifically midwestern sound, seen also in the solo work of Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny (particularly his album ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ with bassist Charlie Haden, and some of Bill Frissell’s more ‘American’-style albums, with their evocative songs like ‘Strange Meeting.’ As with John Surman’s wonderful ‘The Spaces in Between’, an album that I feel is, in many ways, quintessentially English, it taps into a particular way of looking at the world that can be said to be (partly) a national characteristic – or at least a characteristic of a nation’s art. Thus, I don’t feel that it’s too much of a stretch to say that ‘Block Ice and Propane’ is, in many way, quintessentially American. You may feel resistance to such a claim, may feel that I’m simply tapping into a sentimentalised idea of what America means, a cliché we’ve seen and heard in hundreds of movies and books: something vaguely elegiac and nostalgic, but ultimately not grounded in reality. It’s hard to deny it’s charms though, and so, in this case, I think I’ll have to write ‘in praise of dreams’ (as Jan Garbarek’s album title puts it) – not that this is the only thing that music can do, but it is one thing it does well.
Also, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that, while everything sounds very effortless and spontaneous, this sort of stuff doesn’t just come rolling out, especially considering that this is solo cello, and that puts it into a different class. The cello is mostly unadorned, putting enormous demands on Friedlander to be engaging at all times (although he is helped out a little bit by the reverberant sound engineering, which fills the sound out, and the subtle electronic background to track 2). ‘Airstream Envy’ is one of the best demonstrations of how he is: it begins with the sort of phrasing and arco tone you’d expect from a Bach cello suite, then transforms into a medium-tempo Appalaichan hoe-down.
There are a few, scattered nods to the avant-garde, with the more anguished, droning, de-tuned sound of ‘Road Weary’ and ‘Pressure Cooking,’ and the virtuoso plucking of ‘Cold Chicken.’ Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to approach this expecting anything other than low-key melodicism: what prevails is the folky Americana feel I’ve been outlining above. I find this very attractive; some may find it rather dull and mind-numbing (though all the other reviews I’ve read have been very positive). We can hardly criticise it for being too melodic, although I will say that it’s all much of a muchness – no track in particular really stands out. It’s very pleasing, an excellent demonstration of Friedlander’s gifts, and unusual for being a solo cello record, though not an absolutely phenomenal album. (Review by David Grundy)
GLASGOW IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA WITH BARRY GUY – FALKIRK
Release Date: November 2007
Tracklist: Improvisation; Witch Gong Game II/10
Personnel: Emma Roche: flute, baroque flute; Matthew Studdert-Kennedy: flute; Nick Fells: shakuhachi; Daniel Padden: clarinet, voice, percussion; Nicola MacDonald: voice; Robert Henderson, Matt Cairns: trumpet; George Murray: trombone; Pete Dowling: alto sax; Raymond MacDonald: alto and soprano sax; Graeme Wilson: tenor and baritone sax; John Burgess: tenor sax, bass clarinet; Bill Wells: keyboard; George Burt, Neil Davidson: guitar; Peter Nicholson: cello; Maya Homburger: baroque violin; Una MacGlone, George Lyle, Barry Guy: double-bass; Mike Travis: drums.
Although they have already released two discs with the likes of Evan Parker and Maggie Nicols, “Falkirk” marks my first encounter with the GIO, a collective of clever musicians coming from the most disparate backgrounds (the press release defines them as “jazz, contemporary classical, experimental pop and sound art”). The CD, recorded live at Falkirk’s Callendar House in 2005, contains a graciously variegated 16-minute improvisation and a very long piece by double bassist and composer Barry Guy – a collaborator of the Orchestra since the beginning in 2002 – called “Witch Gong Game II/10”. In this track, which is obviously the album’s backbone, the score consists of a set of panels containing painter and percussionist Alan Davie’s graphic signs, which should indicate “different kinds of music floating over a black void”. This implies a symbolic message of unity and communion through the act of playing together, whatever the genre and the technical expertise involved, in “the darkness of an indifferent universe”. Besides Guy, violinist Maya Homburger is featured as a special guest. The aim is high given the artistic intent, yet the ensemble is tight enough to guarantee several moments of really interesting emotional outburst, swaying music that changes in speed and intensity at the flick of a switch but succeeds in making the listener “reflect about the difficulty” rather than “look for distractions”. On a few occasions, the mixture of articulation and freedom made me think of Keith Tippett’s Centipede; elsewhere, beautiful horn arrangements lead to territories akin to Frank Zappa’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra. This stuff blasts frequently and rubs rarely, all the while giving the idea of a serious commitment from those concerned.
(Review by Massimo Ricci, originally published at ‘Touching Extremes’ – http://spazioinwind.libero.it/extremes/touchinghome.htm)
HERBIE HANCOCK – RIVER: THE JONI LETTERS
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: Court and Spark; Edith and the Kingpin; Both Sides Now; River; Sweet Bird; Tea Leaf Propechy; Solitude; Amelia; Nefertiti; The Jungle Line.
Personnel: Herbie Hancock: piano; Wayne Shorter: soprano and tenor saxophones; Lionel Loueke: guitar; Dave Holland: bass; Vinnie Colaiuta: drums; with guests – Norah Jones: vocal (1); Tina Turner: vocal (2); Corinne Bailey Rae: vocal (4); Joni Mitchell: vocal (6); Luciana Souza: vocal (8); Leonard Cohen: vocal (10).
This was the surprise winner of Album of the Year at the 2008 Grammy Awards – the first jazz album to win since 1965, when Getz/Gilberto took the gong. Some may point out that Getz’s mellow bossa-nova was hardly the cutting-edge of jazz back then, and Hancock’s latest isn’t exactly the cutting-edge either. But when an artist of his stature (forgetting, for a moment, the misfiring flirtation with cheesy disco music or the abysmal ‘Perfect Shock’) covers the songs of one of the most interesting lyricists and musicians of her time, the results are bound to be at least moderately interesting. An added bonus, too, is the presence of guest saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who’s on the form of his life at the moment, his playing with his current Quartet having gelled to the extent that I think it easily rivals the classics he made in the 60s such as ‘Speak No Evil’ or the albums with the Miles Davis Quintet. Here, he adds his usual pithy touches, which is appropriate given that Hancock chooses to emphasise the spaciousness of Joni’s music, while ensuring that it doesn’t overly simple by adding a little jazz complexity. The end result is understated yet not minimal. Mind you, at times, Shorter plays with such delicacy that he almost disappears into the ether entirely: towards the end of ‘Sweet Bird’, he occasionally doesn’t even plays notes, instead playing breathy noises that sound as if they’re about to become notes but just hang in the air instead.
The guest vocalists were one of the things that made me worry when I first read about the project: it seemed as though they were chosen simply because they were currently in fashion. As such, this would continue the trend on ‘Possibilties’, where, for example, Christina Aguileira is hardly a match for Hancock’s abilities, regardless of genre – her technically impressive but rather empty vocal pyrotechnics are miles away from Herbie’s melodic and harmonic inventions). My suspicions about the guest-list for ‘River’ were confirmed when I read in an interview that the decision was producer Larry Klein’s, yet, ultimately, it is only through examining the music that we can see
Norah Jones has a pleasant voice, but neither she nor Corrine Bailey Rae have the depth and gravitas needed for Mitchell’s songs – they sound too young, too innocent, too bright, too fresh (Jones perhaps slightly less so), whereas Mitchell’s voice always had a world-weariness and melancholy mixed with flashes of optimism. For that reason ‘River’ is perhaps the weakest track on the record, despite being one of my favourite Mitchell songs – the original version, on ‘Blue’, emphasises the lyrics and the melody, with its unobtrusive, sparse piano accompaniment – song as story-telling. Rae, though, starts off in a strange mock-Cockney accent (she’s from Leeds), and, crucially, she glides over a line which constitutes a sort of turning-point in the original (“I made my baby cry”), with almost no emotional emphasis. Mitchell herself does guest though, on ‘Tea Leaf Prophecy’ (the fact that she’s only on one track indicates that it’s more Hancock’s project than hers) – her voice sounds a bit rougher round the edges than in her youth, especially at the beginning of the song, but she’s still good.
The band has a somewhat impressionistic approach to the songs, particularly on the purely instrumental tracks, which find the musicians subtly alluding to the melody in little fragments that float around in thickets of harmonies. This indirectness may disappoint some people on first listen, but as Hancock says, this is the record where he’s paid attention to the lyrics as never before. ‘Solitude’ is unlike any other reading of the Duke Ellington standard I’ve heard in the way that it floats around the famous tune. ‘Nefertiti’, reinvented from the repetitive original, is nice too, and has the same tension: a sense of disquiet at the same time as melodious and attractive beauty – only this time simmering very gently, rather than threatening to boil over as with Tony William’s drum surges in the original. Listen out, in particular, for the way Hancock and Shorter respond to each other’s trilling runs about a minute and a half in.
‘The Jungle Line’ closes the album, but feels slightly out of place: Leonard Cohen reads the lyrics as a poem rather than singing them – a nice touch, although it might have benefited from a little singing as well. As it is, Cohen’s mysterious, gravely narration make it feel almost as if it’s come from a different project. There’s much to admire about the track though, such as Hancock’s piano coda, and the way he builds to a loud climax before throwing in the catchy main hook again, very quietly, like a ghostly afterthought.
Overall, it lacks a certain something – variety, perhaps, as almost all the performances are down-tempo (with the exception of ‘Edith and the Kingpin’, which is taken at a fair clip, but still retains the same pensive mood). I think it’s more than just that, though: Mitchell’s music is deeply rooted in her experience (which frequently translates into universal human experience as well), both the highs and lows, the optimism and the pessimism, the naivety and the disillusionment, but this band interprets is as almost solely regretful, wistful, mellowing-out-with-a-glass-of-wine-with-the-curtains-drawn stuff. Despite doing this slight disservice to the material, it’s impeccably played, and there are many moments of invention and quiet revelation in the improvisations that the musicians spin round the songs. The moodiness of Hancock’s recent acoustic work suggests a certain narrowing in his expression, but ‘The Joni Letters’ is a step up from ‘Possibilities’ – not just because Hancock’s returning to jazz, rather than pop (despite covering the material of a pop singer, albeit one heavily influenced by jazz, and one who played with leading jazzmen), but simply because it’s a recording with more depth, subtlety, and atmosphere.
(Review by David Grundy)
PHIL HARGREAVES/GLENN WEYANT – FRIDAY MORNING EVERYWHERE
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Do not Sing; A Door is Open; Force of Circumstance; Dudu; Sorry; To the Singer; The Lost City; He Did; Neighbourhood; Summer Again; Oilal; Questions for the War; I Will Move
Personnel: Phil Hargreaves: voice, flute, cello, programming, found sounds; Glenn Weyant: Kestrel 920, prepared guitar, piano, found sounds.
Additional Information: Available as a free digital download (MP3 or FLAC format) from the website of Phil Hargreaves’ Whi-Music label (http://www.whi-music.co.uk/fme/index.html), or as a CD by request (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Phil Hargreaves is a saxophonist/flautist/vocalist/cellist/composer, active on Liverpool’s improvised music scene, who has played with the Frakture Big Band and Simon H. Fell, and has made a fascinating CD with saxophonist Caroline Kraabel (‘Where we Were: Shadows of Liverpool’, on Leo Records), where improvisations recorded over a couple of years in various resonant acoustic locations around the city (town and concert halls, domes, churches, libraries, pubs, and even under bridges and in road tunnels) are edited into a single soundscape, in which the environment seems to play just as much of a role in dictating the nature of the music as the proclivities of the two musicians.
‘Friday Morning Everywhere’ is a similar project, at least conceptually (it actually sounds quite different). Hargreaves and Glenn Weyant (a sound-sculptor based in Tuscon, Arizona) have been in online contact for a number of years through the freejazz.org discussion forum, and decided to collaborate, even though they have never actually met each other in person. Instead, they sent each other recordings, which were then edited, looped and layered. This might suggest the Cage-ian randomness of ‘sight’, an album by Keith Rowe’s MIMEO (Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra), in which eleven musicians, spread across Europe, placed 5 minutes of sound anywhere those chose onto a blank CD-R; the 11 discs were then superimposed onto a single disc, which was released without any of them having heard the others’ music. However, Hargreaves and Weyant opt for a more controlled approach.
Probably the best person to explain more is Hargreaves himself, in a short explanation he has provided on the whi-music website: “the MO for this was that we each sent the other some solo/seed recordings including environmental recordings of our two locations. We then played along with them, manipulated them and generally do the things that people of our ilk are prone to do, and then posted them around and back till we felt we’d finished. In this event, I got to do the finishing off; the voices went on near the end of each track, and it was my decision to go for shorter pieces…Even though it was recorded, we’re improvisers, and as such I (and I think we, as well) tried to keep to the spirit of improvisation, by respecting earlier decisions, and not over-interfering with the flow, letting the sound dictate the direction. Hopefully, as a result, it’s a record of the time it was created in, and the people who lived in those times.”
Though the pieces are short, and a great deal of work has obviously gone into putting them together, that spontaneous feeling is there, something found in the best free improv: a mixture of craft and abandon, exploration and consolidation, innovation and tradition. That said, there aren’t really any obvious frames of reference – this is pretty much unique, and quite hard to describe. Hargreaves puts in much plucking and scraping on the cello, and adds the occasional flute, while Weyant uses prepared guitar and piano, but most noticeable in the texture is the Kestrel 920, a self-designed sound-sculpture/instrument which he built from junk in his garage when his free jazz saxophone playing was disrupted by the arrival of a baby daughter. It has an extremely complicated working mechanism, which I won’t go into now – suffice to say that it is primarily a percussion instrument, operated through strikes, strokes, and blows.
It imparts quite a spacey feel, considerably bulking out the sound, and giving it almost orchestral proportions. Indeed, one thing this album has in abundance is atmosphere: layers are built up in complex, intertwining ways – the two-year period taken to make this is understandable on that basis. These pieces, though they have the feel and elements of improvised music (and Hargreaves has said he wanted to preserve this feel), are carefully crafted in ways that would not be possible in a live real-time performing environment, with just two people, and that says something about the wonders of modern technology.
Nevertheless, there are problems, apparent most obviously in the first track, ‘Do Not Sing’, which seems unsure as to exactly what it wants to be: with its moody, repeated pattern (which, on the surface, seems simple, but, if you listen closely, is actually built up of several subtly intertwining layers, probably deriving from the Kestrel 920), it sets itself up as a sophisticated pop song, and the fact that this is overlaid with vocals would seem to confirm that impression. However, these vocals are delivered in what one must presume is a deliberately bizarre way – for ‘naive’, or ironic effect? They don’t really follow any melodic line, and they’re not quite speech, not quite song (but not Schoenbergian sprechstime either). They would seem to indicate a deliberate ‘weirdness’, a deliberate ‘experimentalism’, yet this doesn’t really fit with the ‘backing track.’ Perhaps the aim is to combine a more primitive, folky ethos with modernity; whatever the case, in the end, the piece is caught between two poles, and falls short of what it could have been.
The most obvious function of the vocals is to give the tracks some focus, to reconcile them with traditional ‘song’ form, and to provide some sort of thematic and lyrical thread (although the subject matter of the poems that Hargreaves sings are pretty disparate, from love to war to singing itself). However, I’m not sure that this really works – he admits that they were added late on, and it might have been wiser to let the textures unfold more gradually, to reveal their details over a longer period.
Consequently, the most successful tracks are generally the instrumental ones, such as the mysterious ‘Lost City.’ I realize that I shouldn’t judge the vocals in terms of conventional standards (if we did this, Captain Beefheart would be dismissed out-of-hand), but I do still yearn for something slightly more melodic (though the style is admittedly effective, as Hargreaves’ voice takes on particularly biting, gruff and harsh overtones when he assumes the persona of an unnamed warmonger on ‘Questions for the War’). Still, even if the album is not entirely a success, it does conclude with an attractive piece, a quiet reverie that suggests resolution, as Weyant’s Debussyian piano accompanies Hargreaves’ poem about a peaceful moment lying in, of all places, a graveyard. There is definitely potential here for future collaborations, and I look forward with interest to what these men will do next. (Review by David Grundy)
PAT METHENY/BRAD MEHLDAU – METHENY/MEHLDAU QUARTET
Release Date: March 2007
Tracklist: A Night Away/ The Sound of Water/ Fear and Trembling/ So Much Music Everywhere/ Towards the Light/ Long Before/ La Tierra Que No Olvida/ Santa Cruz Slacker/ Secret Beach/ Silent Movie/ Marta’s Theme (from Passagio per il Paradiso)
Personnel: Pat Metheny: electric guitar, 42-string Pikasso guitar (2), acoustic guitar (4), guitar synth (5,9); Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.
Additional Information: Studio recording, New York, December 2005. Available on itunes.
I probably don’t need to include too many background details, as most readers will be familiar with them, so I’ll present them in brief only: big-haired, multi Grammy-winning, 50-something fusion guitarist, who’s made occasional forays into the avant-garde, meets thoughtful, classically-trained jazz pianist, best-known for his trio work and for daring to include covers of songs by artists like Nick Drake and Radiohead in his programmes. Last year saw the release of ‘Metheny/Mehldau’ (also on Nonesuch), which did exactly what it said on the tin, presenting the two playing together, mostly in duet, but with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard filling things out on a few numbers. Comparisons with Jim Hall and Bill Evans’ famous 1960s collaboration inevitably reared their collective heads, and there was a general abundance of praise and positive adjectives, coupled with a few doubts about blandness and sameness in terms of texture and composition. 2007’s follow-up reverses the balance of its predecessor; the majority of the tracks on ‘Quartet’ feature the expanded group, with Grenadier and Ballard, and are interspersed with a few duets.
Well, clearly it takes some class and sensitivity to make this sort of thing work on a basic level: guitar and piano are not the most natural fit, and Metheny and Mehldau do have a pretty solid level of interaction; one will pick up a melodic idea from the other and transform it, leading onto another idea, and thus keeping up momentum and flow in the improvisation. Trouble is, it never really feels like anyone is stretching themselves: Ballard keeps a steady, rockish beat, Grenadier plays repetitive grooves and hooks to keep everything bubbling away at a gentle swing underneath, Metheny shows off some trademark licks and stylistic tics, Mehldau has a few melodic prods before settling for repetition to build excitement and merging into the background with the guitar.
The pianist is perhaps a more interesting soloist than Metheny, if a little more erratic; he tends to favour right hand melodic lines with a minimum of left hand interjection, although his style is quite varied, and he’ll sometimes rely on phraseology from blues or even country music. For me, the most interesting points in his playing come at the beginning of his solos, when it sometimes sounds as if his fingers are almost stumbling over the keys – a deliberate effect, as if he’s hesitantly trying to say something, and getting it out imperfectly. It almost creates a sense of effort, of questing – but in the end, it’s too languid for that: introspective, but not with the purifying melancholy of Bill Evans (often cited as an influence) – more aimless, less able to revel in beauty of sound (harmony/melodic contour). In an interview for the Guardian about the making of this album, he comments, “I want a spontaneous jazz solo to have a narrative arc, and not just be a pasted-together collection of ideas,” but in a way, that’s what his solos here do feel like – they start off strongly, before giving up and petering out, taking the line for a walk and then deciding to pack up and head home instead. The overall effect is rather frigid, and I think that’s why I’ve never really been able to connect with his playing. It’s very polished, very sophisticated and assured, but it leaves me cold.
Such a fault is not just that of an individual musician, but of the album too. There’s little emotional variety or depth; aside from Mehldau’s faintly troubled ‘Fear and Trembling‘ (with Metheny on guitar synth throwing in a bit of electronic distortion in between those intensely irritating high-pitched, trailing-off notes he places at the end of phrases), it ambles along in a strange middle ground, caught between quiet meditation (which the initial, more successful album focused on) and vaguely buoyant mid tempo numbers. Recorded at the same sessions as the Metheny/Mehldau, these performances do feel a bit like off-casts from the first project, rather than a fully fledged sequel: on a set of undistinguished material, the Quartet never does anything more than go through the motions. It’s all somewhat dispiriting, especially if you compare it to the work of someone like pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, a young-ish musician emerging as a leader in his own right from under the shadow of David Murray, in whose group he has played for some years. While Metheny and Mehldau’s collaboration may be more polished and apparently effortless, it’s ultimately far less compelling. It’s not just how you say it, but what you say as well – this group knows exactly how to say things, how to give a pleasant, highly competent surface sheen, but when you strip that away, there’s not really an awful lot there. (Review by David Grundy)
MARCUS MILLER – FREE
Label: Dreyfus Jazz
Release Date: June 2007
Tracklist: Blast; Funk Joint; Free; Strum; Milky Way; Pluck (Interlude); When I Fall In Love; Jean-Pierre; Higher Ground; What Is Hip?
Personnel: Marcus Miller: bass, bass clarinet, soprano sax, keyboards, sitar, vocals; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; Patches Stewart: trumpet, flugelhorn; David Sanborn: alto sax; Tom Scott: tenor sax; Corinne Bailey Rae: vocals (3); Keb Mo: vocals; Gussie Miller, La Lah Hathaway: vocals; Bernard Wright, Bobby Sparks: organ, synths; Andrea Braido, Paul Jackson, Jr.: guitar; Teddy Cambell, Poogie Bell: drums
Additional Information: A UK/Japan-only release, the album will shortly appear in America under the title ‘Marcus.’ The label will be Concord Records, and there will be four extra tracks.
Corinne Bailey Rae also appears on this release, a much more pop-oriented album by multi-instrumentalist/producer Miller. She sounds much more at home in this setting, crooning away over the dream and easy soul groove of ‘Free’, though Miller’s slap bass sound is a bit intrusive underneath and doesn’t really suite the mood of the song. The cover turns Deneice William’s original version into something more lilting and breezy, and I think I actually prefer it – it’s got more zip but it’s not too whizzy. Mind you, the closing alto sax solo lets things down a bit – it’s laboured and unsubtle and relies on very, very clichéd stock phrases.
On the album as a whole, Miller continues the trend set by his previous studio outing, ‘Silver Rain’: slick, polished grooves, with much slap-bass, star guest vocal appearances and nothing very adventurous or memorable. The opener finds him playing sitar in addition to his multitude of other roles, but only in order to deliver a cheesy Oriental-flavoured reminiscent of the sort of unsuccessful, vaguely ethnic pop that gets thrown under the ‘world music’ banner. David Sanborn makes an appearance too, but only for a forgettable solo that he could have probably played his sleep.
Some promise is shown during the opening section of ‘When I Fall in Love’, as Miller sets out the familiar melody with a lovely bass clarinet tone, but the song is soon spoiled by cheesy organ and synth-string sounds and a clunky drum beat that comes in for Miller’s bass solo, which doesn’t suit the mood at all.
Miller doesn’t seem to realise that there’s to life than creating butt-shaking grooves. The best groove music does create these, true, but it does something with it that somehow feels important, rather than settling for Miller’s slick superficiality. Take the following examples: James Brown’s or Fela Kuti’s raw sexuality and drive, Miles Davis’ aggressive thickets of sounds from the mid-70s, Herbie Hancock’s joyous extended jams, with a little bit of melancholy thrown in to the mix. Compared to these, Miller just feels too one track. On the other hand, when he attempts variety, as on ‘When I Fall In Love’, it comes off as cheesy and tacky. He’s undoubtedly a highly skilled musician, and, as he showed on his earlier work, an arranger and composer of some skill, but he needs to get out of this easy coasting and go for something with a bit more depth to it. And he’s never escaped those dated 1980s touches either. (Review by David Grundy)
ROSCOE MITCHELL – COMPOSITION/IMPROVISATION NOS. 1, 2 & 3
Release Date: March 2007
Tracklist: I (from Composition/Improvisation 2); II (from C/I 2); III (from C/I 3); IV (from C/I 1); V (from C/I 2); VI (from C/I 2); VII (from C/I 2); VIII (from C/I 1); IX (from C/I 2).
Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: soprano saxophone; Evan Parker: soprano and tenor saxophones; Anders Svanoe: alto and baritone saxophones; John Rangecroft: clarinet; Neil Metcalfe: flute; Corey Wilkes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Nils Bultmann: viola; Philipp Wachsmann: violin; Marcio Mattos: cello; Craig Taborn: piano; Jaribu Shahid: bass; Barry Guy: bass; Tani Tabbal: drums, percussion, Paul Lytton: drums, percussion.
This release sees the mouth-watering prospect of a Transatlantic Art Ensemble, bringing together 5 members of Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble of Chicago and Note Factory with 9 members of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and has thus been eagerly awaited by improv fans since it was recorded in September of 2004. The unusual summit meeting took place as part of the “Unforeseen” symposium for improvised music in Munich, curated by the Munich Kulturreferat and the musicology department of the Ludwig Maximillian University, which examined real-time creativity for a week, with lectures, workshops, and commissioned works by Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker. The two composer/improvisers assembled the 14-piece ensemble, which performed Parker’s music on September 10th, and Mitchell’s music on September 11th.
A great concept, but only sporadically compelling in execution. The music quite consciously straddles the line between contemporary classical composition and free jazz/improvisation. For the most part it sounds like chamber music — all 14 musicians seldom play in unison. The one major exception is the Globe Unity Orchestra-like free-for-all in Part III, which begins sounding like a Muhal Richard Abrams composition, and then gives way to an extended Parker tenor solo, eventually joined by the rest of the band in a standard free improv blow-out. The strings (Philipp Wachsmann on violin, Nils Bultmann on viola, Marcio Mattos on cello and Barry Guy and Jaribu Shahid on bass) play a crucial role throughout in establishing a more classical-sounding timbre than one would expect from a Mitchell/Parker summit. Percussion (Paul Lytton and Tani Tabbal) is muted with a few dramatic exceptions. Woodwinds (Mitchell, Parker and Anders Svanoe on saxes, John Rangecroft on clarinet, and Neil Metcalfe on flute) are prominent throughout, intertwining with the strings to create a Second Viennese School (Schoenberg/Webern/Berg) soundscape. Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Craig Taborn on piano are also both prominently featured. Bizarrely enough, the complete ‘Composition/Improvisation’ pieces don’t seem to appear in their entirety on the record; if this is the case, we get a somewhat bizarre juxtaposition of different movements from different works (according to the ECM website, Parts I, II, V, VII and IX derive from C/I No. 2, Parts IV and VIII from C/I No. 1, and Part III derives from C/I No. 3.) Indeed, while the different tracks do seem to cohere together, it feels as if there’s something missing.
I’m curious about the Evan Parker performance the night before — does it sound roughly similar? I suspect that the answer is no, and I hope ECM releases a companion disc soon. The problem with a one-time gathering such as this is that the musicians do not have time to develop an understanding of one another, develop a common language, and spur one another to their best efforts. While the playing is fine, it mainly sounds hesitant, perhaps too a result of the constraints imposed by Mitchell’s compositions/frameworks for improvisation. Only Part VIII really takes off into some unpredictable intensity. There are many other passages of lovely chamber music, and I’m sure that other listeners who will find this more compelling than I do.
GRACHAN MONCUR III – INNER CRY BLUES
Label: Lunar Module Records
Release Date: December 2007
Tracklist: G Train (for Duke Ellington); Inner City Blues; Hilda; For Pops (for Louis Armstrong); Blue Rondo (for Jackie McLean); Sonny’s Back (for Sonny Rollins) – (i) Sonny’s Back! (ii) Clifford Browning
Personel: Erik Jekabson: trumpet; Grachan Moncur III: trombone; Mitch Marcus: tenor sax; Ben Adams: vibraphone; Lukas Vesely: bass; Sameer Gupta: drums.
Grachan Moncur III is not as well-known as he should be, but has been one of the most important jazz musicians and composers around, particular in the 60s when he was signed to Blue Note records and appeared on such revelatory albums as those by Jackie McLean’s ‘Pianoless Quartet.’ Somewhat forced into the avant-garde, after being pretty much black-balled for demanding the rights to his own music, he then went on to record with the likes of Archie Shepp, but, for me, it is in the way he exemplified the ‘inside-outside’ approach that his real importance lies.
This recent album came out of slightly unusual circumstances – Bay area vibraphone player Ben Adams posted a comment on Moncur’s MySpace page back in 2006, to which Moncur responded with an invitation to play together. The result of this improbable collaboration, Inner Cry Blues, features homages to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins – very much a case of going back to jazz roots, rather than exploring the vanguard area with which he is more commonly associated.
Like the Sonny Fortune album reviewed a few pages back, this is good, straightforward swinging music. The musical language spoken by the group synthesises elements from cool jazz and hard bop, largely dispensing with Moncur’s post-bop/avant garde vocabulary. What results has a very different feel to Moncur’s 60s Blue Note appearances – despite the title, which suggests raw emotion and the expression of persona feeling, the music itself is much more optimistic, more relaxed. Even the tracks dedicated to Moncur’s late mother-in-law and to his daughter who died tragically at a young age show none of the bleakness of tracks like “Ghost Town”; on the contrary, there seems to be a strong element of warmth and hope in them. While this isn’t necessarily a bad-thing, it does mean that the music lacks a certain tension and sense of musical exploration.
That said, the group’s focus on a comfortable, unassuming organic melodic flow is attractive: Adams claims to be teaching his quintet to behave with the looseness of a trio, and for the most part, this comes through. In addition, the album incorporates some fetching new compositions, especially the title track (which sounds like a New Orleans funeral dirge) and the jaunty tune “Hilda.”
Moncur seems to forgo the ‘inside-out’ approach on this one, instead settling for the ‘inside’ – but, after all, he went ‘out’ during his free jazz period, so he’s entitled to come back ‘in.’ While this isn’t nearly as compelling as his earlier music, it’s probably not that helpful to constantly refer back to Moncur’s earlier days: in its own right it’s an attractive, straight-ahead jazz record – nothing more, nothing less.
DAVID MURRAY – SACRED GROUND
Label: Justin Time
Release Date: June 2007
Tracklist: Sacred Ground; Transitions; Pierce City; Banished; Believe in Love; Family Reunion; The Prophet of Doom
Personnel: David Murray: tenor sax, bass clarinet; Cassandra Wilson: vocals (tracks 1 & 7); Lafayette Gilchrist: piano; Ray Drummond: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums.
David Murray has reunited his Black Saint Quartet, sans earthly departed pianist John Hicks, whose shoes are filled by the able Lafayette Gilchrist. Along with Ray Drummond on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums, it’s a fantastic lineup that on this album is also aided by the presence of Cassandra Wilson.
Ms. Wilson acts as the album’s bookends, performing the opener and closer, singing words penned by the prolific Ishmael Reed. Reed also wrote the liner notes, and admits that upon being asked to write lyrics for Cassandra Wilson, at the ripe age of 68 and in awe of Ms. Wilson, all he could think was Wow! “Like some zit afflicted adolescent” (his words).
‘Sacred Ground’ sets a hushed backdrop for Wilson’s sensuous vocal stylings. Along with her gorgeous voice, the message is at the forefront: “We’ve come back to claim our dearest legacy/we’ve come back to claim our very own/to you they’re just a box full of bones/but to us they’re our loved ones who shouldn’t be left alone.” Reed drew his inspiration for Sacred Ground from a film about the banishment of thousands of American blacks from their homes between 1890 and 1930 in the South and Midwest; the instrumental track 4, ‘Banished’, is based upon the same source.
The sensitive balladry accompaniment that floats behind Wilson’s lyrics during the verses morphs into a loose, freer mid section of the piece with Murray on bass clarinet. Lafayette Gilchrist is phenomenal on this track and throughout the album; it makes me wonder why his solo efforts haven’t clicked more for me, as I’ve also enjoyed his playing on the other recent David Murray Quartet with strings album that was released a while back. Furthermore, when I saw the Murray Quartet here in Chicago a while back, Gilchrist was a highlight of what I otherwise found to be a quite lacklustre show. But I digress….
Wilson’s vocals re-enter for a refrain that continues the upward trajectory of the piece, which ultimately coming to a peak before sliding back down to the song’s original restrained dynamic, with a final verse by Cassandra. The band really nails the ballad feel and mood, which in a jazz setting is like nothing else in the world for me. Certainly a bold scene setter for the remainder of the album.
‘Transitions’ is a solid piece that typifies what I’ve come to expect of David Murray (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing): a solid instrumental piece with a nice head, and then a form over which Murray blows with his liberal sense of time, phrasing, and singular approach to the horn. Like him or not, as has been said in previous discussions about the merits of David Murray, he has certainly created his own bag on the horn that is instantly identifiable.
This is as good a time as any to mention the fact that I love Andrew Cyrille’s drumming. His feel, use of space, and sense of swing all really do it for me and I find myself honing in on his playing throughout the album. He plays an excellent solo in this track that lays bare his sense of melodicism on the drums.
‘Pierce City’ is a stand out track on the album, featuring Murray at his best, one of best solos I’ve heard form him on record; intense playing without sacrificing some dynamic interplay with the ensemble.
Utilizing the Greek mythological Cassandra as an inspiration for the lyrics, Ishmael Reed wrote the final track, ‘The Prophet of Doom’, which features Ms. Wilson singing over a straight blues form. It’s a laid back feel that even features some finger snapping as Cassandra sings about her mythological namesake.
I think this is a great modern jazz album. It’s not revolutionary in terms of innovation, but it’s a fantastic recording in the idiom that has a strong message to go along with the great playing by the whole band. It will get a lot more mileage in my collection than Murray’s previous release, Waltz Again, which was perhaps more novel but to my ears lacked some essential element that fuels longevity in listening.
(Review by Daniel Melnick, originally published at http://soundslope.com/vocab/ david_murray)
MARK O’ LEARY – ON THE SHORE
Label: Clean Feed
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: Staring at the Sun; Dancing with the wind; Morning / Harvest; Evening;
Personnel: Jeff Kaiser, John Fumo: trumpet; Ma
Guitarist Mark O’Leary’s name may not be the first thing you look for when considering a new record – part of that may be due to his being based in Cork, Ireland, which is hardly the most well-know centre for left-field music in Europe. Nevertheless, he’s worked prolifically over the past two years, releasing six albums in that time, none of which feature the same line-up (although, interesting, all are trio records). As a further indication of his versatility and ability to experiment, he’s played with everyone from Paul Bley to Sunny Murray, Han Bennink, Matthew Shipp, Henri Texier and electronics artists Gunter Muller, as well as performing Norwegian and Swedish folk music.
The line-up on this record departs from the trio format for a very quartet with a very unusual combination of instruments: O’ Leary on guitar, Alex Cline on drums and a double trumpet front line consisting of Jeff Kaiser and John Fumo. Apart from Jacek Kochan’s “Another Blowfish”, with Eric Vloeimans and Piotr Wojtasik on trumpet, I’m not aware of any other quartet with a double trumpet front line.
The music on this record is light, spacious, elegant, … I would almost say the musical equivalent of high quality champagne, very tasty, with bubbles, something to savour with every sip. The guitar plays a very prominent role on the whole CD, often with a very low tone, reminiscent of some of John Abercrombie’s albums, but more avant-garde, more creative, with the two trumpets and the drums adding shades of sound that bring depth and sculptural relief to the music, even if they’re pushed a little to the back in the sound editing, a nice touch which adds to the overall atmosphere.
The whole quartet is absolutely brilliant. Alex Cline’s playing is precise, accurate, accentuating loosely, performing the difficult feat of drumming on music that is essentially without explicit rhythm. The two trumpets use every shade and sound their instruments can produce, in various intensities, volume changes and lengths, because there is mostly no melody to hear – texture, tonal changes and contrast is all there is, especially exemplified by the long title track.
O’Leary himself gets every possible sound out of his guitar as well, and whether it’s plain acoustic, or one of the many effects on his electric guitar, his playing is not focused on the playing itself but on the musical moods he creates, and it’s also coherent throughout the album, regardless of how he uses his instrument. O’Leary doesn’t hesitate to push his foot switches once in a while, bringing scorching fusion-like solos, pushing the trumpets and the drums to high levels of intensity as in “Point Sketch”, but most of the music is subdued, tentative, fragile, creating open-ended soundscapes, composed with skill and feeling, building layers of music to create a very distinct mood, which is nostalgic, sad, but also reverent, jubilant or mysterious at times. You can hear seagulls and whales, or even sirens, the surf in the distance, or lapping waves close-by, … that’s how evocative the music is without needing to try to imitate those sounds.
Most of it sounds too beautiful to be the result of spontaneous improvisation, too carefully crafted to have been left to chance, but then again, it sounds too open to be composed, and these are great musicians, so you can’t tell. One could also argue whether this is jazz or not, but asking the question is irrelevant, and answering it even more. This is absolutely excellent music. That’s the most important thing.
(Review by Stef Gijssels)
WILLIAM PARKER DOUBLE QUARTET – ALPHAVILLE SUITE
Label: Rogue Art
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Alphaville Main Theme; Journey to the End of the Night; Natasha’s Theme; Interrogation; Alpha 60; Doctor Badguy; Oceanville Evening; Civilization of Light; Outlands; Natasha’s Theme II
Personnel: Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Rob Brown: alto sax; William Parker: bass; Hamid Drake: drums; Mazz Swift: violin; Jessica Pavone: viola; Julia Kent, Shiau-Shu Yu: cello; Leena Conquest: vocals (on ‘Natasha’s Theme’ & ‘Natasha’s Theme II’).
The great thing about William Parker is that he doesn’t stop looking for new approaches to music, as long as they’re acoustic and based on genuine interplay between real musicians. On this CD he brings a double quartet, his usual band consisting of himself on bass, Rob Brown on alto sax, Lewis Barnes on trumpet and Hamid Drake on drums, augmented with Mazz Swift on violin, Jessica Pavone on viola, Julia Kent on cello and Shiau-Shu Yu on cello. Leena Conquest guests on vocals on “Natasha’s Theme” and “Natasha’s Theme 2”. Or, if you want, a male quartet and a female quartet.
Like Matthew Shipp’s tribute to Jean Genet on the French RogueArt label, this one is a tribute to and inspired by another great French piece of art, Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Alphaville”. In this movie, the futuristic city Alphaville is dominated by the logic of computers and ruled by an evil scientist named Von Braun, who has outlawed love and self-expression. And “love and self-expression” are of course themes close to Parker’s heart and they have permeated his career and art.
Adding the string quartet helps to evocate the music of the film itself, with the eery tension and typical movie suspense full of romantic drama and sentimental outbursts. But the strings here are luckily more modern, more avant-garde, offering a great contrast with the free jazz musicians, sometimes limiting themselves to pizzicato chattering in the background, sometimes driving heavy unisono lines accentuating the jazz solos, with an especially gloomy and menacing counterpoint in the long “Dr. Badguy”.
The overall effect is utterly bizarre, creating a kind of busyness which is too much to grasp at once, because there is too much going on, but still in a coherent way, following its own logic. The jazz dominates, and it’s great as you can expect from these artists and there are times, especially in the longer pieces that the strings let them do their thing, leaving some breathing space, but never for long : there they are again, to chase the jazz quartet forward, jabb it in the sides, kick it back, emphasize it, play along in moments of frenzy, move it to weird territory, or offer shades and an overall darkness that is highly unusual, to say the least.
Without specifically saying that the string quartet would represent the cold futuristic logic of the evil scientist and the jazz band the proponents of love and free expression (or female vs male :-), at least the tension between good and bad and the overall mood of the film is well-captured by the concept of the double band. And the music is excellent to. Like Parker’s “Requiem”, this is one you should listen to often before you can appreciate it to the full.
(Review by Stef Gijssels)
CHRIS POTTER – FOLLOW THE RED LINE: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
Release Date: August 2007
Tracklist: Train; Arjuna; Pop Song # 1; Viva las Vilnius; Zea; Togo
Personnel: Chris Potter: tenor sax, bass cclarinet; Craig Taborn: Fender Rhodes electric piano; Adam Rogers: electric guitar; Nate Smith: drums.
For the last half century, the tenor saxophone has been the top dog in jazz, the instrument that carries the most heft in the community. It’s the heavyweight voice that typically isn’t cute or clever. Not many tenor saxophonists will settle for being coy.
Chris Potter, album-by-album and show-by-show over the last ten years, has made a bid for the tenor title. He has been playing with the best bandleaders (from Dave Holland to Steely Dan), and he has been leading his own potent groups. Though Potter does not possess a larger-than-life persona, he builds gargantuan solos with the personality of a freight train: slow at first, then surging and bold, and finally explosive and spectacular. Potter’s band Underground is his most hard-hitting outfit, and this document of the band’s tenure in the legendary Greenwich Village basement club bristles with daring and funk energy.
Follow the Red Line features not only Potter’s tenor but also a fully integrated rhythm section: Craig Taborn’s Fender Rhodes electric piano, Adam Rogers on electric guitar, and Nate Smith’s drums. This is a band that could court cliché—an electric “fusion” band that integrates funk rhythms with jazz—and that would seem to be lacking an important tool: a bass player. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Under-ground is a band that pulses with invention. With Potter out front, the band is precisely the opposite of generic. Each player is pressed into varied service: Taborn plays bass lines as well as ripping chords, Rogers is both distorted and clean, choppy and legato, and Smith is polyrhythmic fallout—a dizzying clatter of arms and legs in flowing groove.
Even compared to the band’s first studio outing from early 2006, this is a progression. While the tunes still begin with intelligently composed, carefully voiced arrangements, there is a boiling beneath the surface that rises quickly enough to the surface. On “Arjuna”, for example, the ensemble section bristles with Smith’s nasty stickwork, then Taborn’s solo starts at a simmer and starts to flare up as the punches of left-hand Rhodesplay is complicated by Rogers stuttering guitar. When Potter enters, it is predictably with his own stuttering ‘plosions of breath, adding another pointellistic layer to the polyrhythm. The solo climaxes in a series of serpentine rips that alternate with architectural steps through the harmony.
Equally impressive are the more consonant moments, such as the statement of melody on “Pop Song #1”, where a pleasant and inevitable tune is set amidst a flow of surprising chords. Rogers plays with a pungent simplicity, and Taborn patiently waits for each downbeat before playing his gospel-infused chords. On Potter’s solo, however, the band gets into an improbably hot funk groove that seems to build off the basic guitar line. “Viva las Vinius” is first built off a single rhythm lick, and the band seems ready to ride the thing through the whole performance. It’s even more of the treat, then, when Potter’s solo begins in a slowed-down free time that very gradually builds from slow and quiet back to the full strength of the original groove.
It’s an extra treat that Follow the Red Line allows Potter a long stretch for his outstanding sound on bass clarinet. Bass clarinet is a doublers specialty, of course, and inevitably gets jazz fans thinking about Eric Dolphy. So it’s wonderful to hear Underground place the oddball horn in a Rhodes-and-guitar pop ballad on “Zea” and then allow it to begin “Togo” in a Bennie Maupin vibe, muttering from its lower register as the rhythm section slowly picks up on the percussive groove. This last tune eventually gives way to a one-chord jam groove (and a burning tenor solo) that suggests how Potter’s electric band ultimately converges with the likes of Medeski, Martin, and Wood on the one hand and class Sonny Rollins on the other.
The magic in Red Line is ultimately in the drama that each player brings to his solos, each of which builds like a scene from a Hitchcock film. Top honours, as so often, go to Taborn’s versatile Rhodes playing. But they are Potter’s fiendish tunes and his group conception. In a year that saw the passing of Michael Brecker, Potter seems to have emerged as a steely-toned tenor player who blends harmonic adventure with groove. It’s not a question of talking about Potter as a Brecker successor—they’re totally different players and, frankly, I think that Potter’s range and imagination is wider. But it’s a joy to hear this young master make a hard-edged, Breckeresque step forward, with what is a very fine record.
(Review by Will Layman)
ARCHIE SHEPP – GEMINI
Label: Archie Ball
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: CD ONE – ‘The Reverse’. The Reverse (alternate version 1); Revolution (Mama Rose); Burning bright; Trippin’; Time stood still; Intertwining spirits; La manzana; Eva; Pannonica; The Reverse; The Reverse (alternate version 2); CD TWO – ‘Live in Souillac’ (2002). Hope Two; Call Him; Do you want to be saved; Ujaama; Rest Enough.
Personnel: Archie Shepp: tenor & soprano sax, voice; Tom McLung: piano; Wayne Dockery: bass; Steve McCraven: drums/ Guests (on ‘The Reverse’) – Stephane Guery: guitar; Chuck D: voice. DISC 2 – Shepp, with Amina Claudine Myers: piano, voice; Cameron Brown: bass; Ronnie Burrage: drums.
The first disc is a pretty ragbag collection of studio recordings, most notable for featuring Chuck D, lead vocalist of Public Enemy, and an eloquent and politically sensitive rapper whose concerns tie in with those of Shepp and the 60s ‘New Thing’. After Shepp appeared in with Public Enemey at a press conference and concert they gave in Paris, he went to cut these tracks with Chuck at the studio. Unfortunately, they’re pretty mediocre, with the rapper improvising some bland, pat lyrics about jazz history and how great Shepp is, over some uninspiring music. It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly productive session: several alternate takes are included. Perhaps things would have been more successful if Shepp had tried to fit into a more directly hip-hop oriented context, as he’s tried with his (unrecorded) Born Free Band, which features French rapper Vicelow and Jalal, of the Last Poets – although that’s hardly a roaring success either.
Overall, I think it would be fair to say that Shepp is not the artist he once was; politically radical (to an extent) he may still be, but musically he’s become increasingly conservative. That’s not necessarily a problem: witness Anthony Braxton’s treatment of Monk and Charlie Parker, toned down a bit from his avant-garde work, but with no compromise to artistic integrity, and absolutely no blandness. Shepp could be a pretty ferocious performer, if a bit erratic, and he could have perhaps found a happy medium between the avant-garde and the traditional stuff that he always seemed to want to lean towards: a little known trio record, taped in Montreux, called ‘Steam’, finds him ripping through standards, Monk tunes, and originals, without the extreme dissonances of his free jazz work, but with all of its intensity. In fact, his affinities are less with the be-bop that so many of the avant-garde jazzers came from (Dolphy, Braxton – to a certain degree, Ornette, Jimmy Lyons especially), and more with earlier styles – the vocal extravagance and impishness of Fats Waller, the tenor tones of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, marching bands, old-style balladry (with a distinctive twist). In his best work, he manages to balance invention and innovation with such tendencies, producing beautiful performances like his impressionistic smears on Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, from the 1965 album ‘On this Night.’
More recently, though, the increasing traditionalism seems to have diluted, rather than rooted his music, and it’s hard to find many epiphanies in what he does now, which is all a bit samey (whereas before, the criticism could have been that he was perhaps too erratic, too multifaceted). The bands he surrounds himself with are always efficient, if not in the absolute top-rank of jazz improvisers – people like Kenny Werner, Santo di Briano, Tom McLung, Ronnie Burrage, Cameron Browne – and there is something of a feeling of coasting (which also crept into the 70s and 80s music of Pharoah Sanders). For a man who had so much potential, to have become, essentially, a middleweight posing as a heavyweight, as a result of past glories, is a bit of a shame.
All that said, the second disc, recorded live in 2002, is very listenable, and one of the few opportunities we have of getting to hear the band he’s been playing with for the past few years. ‘The New Archie Shepp Quartet’, on the Italian Pao records, also documents this group, and manages to make something fresh out of ‘Mama Rose’, one of the most over-performed pieces in his repertoire (it’s on disc one of ‘Gemini’, and numerous other albums). However, it’s pretty hard to get hold of, even online. For this reason, then, the live portion of ‘Gemini’ serves a useful documentary function as much as anything.
Shepp’s quartet plays what I suppose could be best characterised as post-bop, with ex-AACM pianist Amina Claudine Myers adding a distinctive gospel flavour (and sharing a vocal duet with Shepp on ‘Call Him’ – her voice is very passable, if not the most distinctive; Shepp’s, on the other hand, as people who regularly buy his records will be able to tell you, is distinctive but not really passable (unless you’re in the mood)). You could maybe call it a ‘primitive’ style, and, whatever its weaknesses, its got spirit; plenty of blues holler and guttural roar with heavy-vibrato – a bit like his tenor playing, I suppose, but not really to my taste.
Taken as a whole, the album offers no real revelations. I quite enjoy it when the mood takes me, but it’s obvious that this is not up there with the music of Shepp’s heyday. For a more interesting example of his recent work, check out ‘Kindred Spirits’, a recording with African percussion group Dar Gnawa, also on Archie Ball
(Review by David Grundy)
SOIL AND ‘PIMP’ SESSIONS – PIMPOINT
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: Dawn; A.I.E; Makuroke; Mashiroke; We Want More!!!!!; Zambezi; Red Clay; Hype of Gold; Pluto; The Party; Funky Goldman; The Slaughter Suite; Scales; Sahara
Personnel: Tabu Zombie: trumpet; Motoharu: sax; Josei: piano; Akita Goldman: bass; Midorin: drums; Shacho: agitator.
Following on from last year’s last superb ‘Pimp Master’, Soil and Pimp look to be gaining a bit of recognition – largely, one would suspect, due to the advocacy of Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson (this comes out, in the UK, on his own Brownswood label). Still, their releases are still pretty hard to get hold of, and the whole Japanese jazz movement of which they are a part is only gradually emerging from being an underground scene (artists like Quasimode and Sleepwalker, who create music with the same ethos, don’t have much of a profile outside Japan at all, or so it seems to me). I suspect that this movement will run its course fairly soon, and be no more than a passing trend – I’m not sure that there are that many places it can go, or wants to go – but, for the moment, it is a true breath of fresh air, blown into the stultifying worlds of inhabited by the sort of unadventurous singers adored by Michael Parkinson, or the bebop/postbop that seems to be pretty much de rigeur on the jazz festival circuit, here in the UK.
In a moment, I’ll get onto what it is that makes Japanese jazz, and Soil and Pimp in particular, so refreshing, but before that, I’ll note that this is now S & P’s fifth full release (not including singles/EPs, and the like), and it slightly lacks the fire that their previous albums had, with less compelling performances and tunes. I suspect that what will happen is that, as with the Bad Plus (who also released an album this year, the so-so ‘Prog’), or EST’s interminably samey albums, what was initially a fresh and exciting concept, will become tired through overuse, losing its appeal because it is never really moved on or developed.
Nevertheless, thought the rot may be just beginning to set in on ‘Pimpoint’, it doesn’t have too much of an adverse effect – this is still immensely enjoyable music, and S & P’s gimmicks are still fun and involving enough not to seem too much like gimmicks. Their music is both retro and modern, treating the jazz of the past in a genuinely innovative way. Basically, the group is set up as a standard quintet –sax, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, with the occasional presence of ‘agitator’ Shacho, the club promoter who initially brought the group together, and whose contribution seems to involve whipping the crowd up or making random interjections through a megaphone, and standing around smoking cigars in the band’s video. They play bebop, but at twice the speed, to create a ‘rock’ feel without having to subsume jazz content to the simplified harmonic language and boring clichés of rock music (as with the dire, and much over-praised Acoustic Ladyland).
All the musicians are fantastic players, and, on this album, the sax soloing of Motoharu in particular stands out. His rough-hewn tone is several notches down from the gruff screaming of a Brotzmann or the sanctified hollers of a David S. Ware; there’s perhaps a bit of Jackie McLean’s sourness in there, maybe even an echo of David Sanborn in the combination of a hard-edged sound with a populist feel, but Motoharu’s style is distinctively his own.
Much of the excitement of the music comes from the fact that it is delivered at such a dazzling speed, and variety isn’t too much of an issue when they can consistently keep octane levels so high. Live, they must be a fantastic prospect – far more involving than the sort of gig where the regulars sit around head-nodding over yet another Charlie Parker-esque solo on some jazz standard! In terms of atmosphere, the aim is clearly more for the euphoria of a club environment – the wonder is that this is achieved without compromising on solos, the odd dissonance, or the use of jazz vocabulary.
On ‘Pimpoint’, though, they seem to be trying to broaden out the sound a little here, and that actually makes things less, rather than more interesting. At times there’s a more funky, James Taylor Quartet-esque feel, which may please some – although I’m not sure acid jazz is really S & P’s strongpoint. ‘Funky Goldman,’ as the title might indicate, sees them opt for an easy funk groove, soft electric piano, and even the slightly surreal touch of vocodered vocals: for the latter as much as anything, it reminded me of one of Herbie Hancock’s dodgy late 70s ‘disco’ records like ‘Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now,’ or ‘Sunlight.’
Thankfully that mis-step is limited to just one track, but when they try the typical S & P approach on Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’, it does rather show up the essential one-dimensionality of their approach (which the novelty of treating the trumpet with echo effects doesn’t really redeem). I know it’s not what they’re trying to do, but I do sometimes long for just a sprinkling more sensitivity and depth – true, they do throw in a few moments of some delicacy and they can be quite subtle and waltz-like (‘Hype of Gold’), but such respite doesn’t last for long. Oh well, notwithstanding a rather lovely version of ‘Mo Better Blues’ on their last album, I guess ballads ain’t what they’re about…
What they are about, though, is exemplified on the superb fourth piece, ‘Mashiroke’, which feels ‘slightly Latin’, as Roland Kirk might have put it. For sheer joyful exuberance it’s hard to beat, and I for one can’t resist the combination of a great melody, a propulsive, locked-in rhythm section and soloists who know precisely what buttons to press and when. Jazz hasn’t sounded as convincingly like party music since the 40s or 50s, I suspect, and, in making that happen once more, S & P have succeeded where so many dire fusion/ smooth jazz efforts have failed. So enjoy this for the unabashed entertainment it provides. (Review by David Grundy)
KEITH TIPPETT – FIRST WEAVING: LIVE AT LE MANS
Label: Red Eye Music
Release Date: June 2007
Tracklist: (Disc 1) – First Thread; Second Thread; Third Thread; Fourth Thread; (Disc 2) – Fifth Thread; Sixth Thread; Seventh Thread
Personnel: Keith Tippett: piano; Julie Tippetts, Maggie Nicols, Vivien Ellis: voice; Paul Dunmall, Simon Picard, Larry Stabbins: tenor sax; Lee Goodall, Elton Dean, Gianluigi Trovesi: alto sax; Pino Minafra, Gethin Liddington, Jim Dvorak, Mark Charig: trumpet; Paul Rutherford, Malcolm Griffiths, Dave Amis: trombone; Oren Marshall: tuba; Paul Rogers: bass; Tony Levin, Louis Moholo-Moholo: drums
There has been a tendency among jazz writers of recent times to sideline musicians like Keith Tippett, and perhaps even snigger at them behind their expensively gloved fingers; 2007, and he still thinks that free improvisation and rubbing wine glasses together constitutes the way forward – after all, it’s so old hat, isn’t it, all that revolution and unity talk, it’s so early seventies, all a bit of a childish frippery (pun intended), quite out of keeping with the happy and fulfilled society we have now (i.e. that this sort of thing was fine with Vietnam but makes us feel awkward in times of Iraq).
Or, as with Scott Walker or Kate Bush or any other musician of genuine worth, you could argue that Keith Tippett has simply pursued and developed his singular multidimensional line as rigorously and generously as possible. While the bulk of his work in recent years has concentrated on his solo piano improvisations/compositions, or his long-standing free jazz quartet Mujician, he has never stopped developing his ideas, and the comparative lack of releases from his larger ensembles has inevitably been due to economics rather than unwillingness.
For the last decade or so his Tapestry Orchestra has been his large ensemble of choice; he burst onto the scene in 1970 amid much curious publicity with the gigantic Centipede (100 legs = 50 musicians, although 55 players are listed on the published recording of Septober Energy and live performances would swell the numbers up even further), an assemblage of all the musicians with whom he was working at the time, that glorious time without boundaries or genre creeds, so that groups like Soft Machine, King Crimson, Nucleus, Patto and the Blossom Toes are represented either in greater part or in full, plus most of the British and South African New Thing contingents with whom Tippett was playing regularly and many others besides. While essentially an unwieldy beast – on the Septober Energy album there are among the personnel three drummers, six bassists, eleven saxophonists and a full classical string section – and while Septober Energy itself can now be viewed as a brave but only partially coherent sequence of “events,” it, along with the near concomitant Escalator, helped set my ideas of music in motion, and watching them in performance at the London Lyceum, aged seven, is an experience I have still not forgotten.
Seven years later, at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, my parents and I saw his next big band, Ark, a far more manageable 22-strong ensemble (the name stems from the fact that there were two of each instrument in its line-up), performing his new four-part suite Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film. At the height of post-punk, here was an unashamed extension – not a throwback, but an extension – of 1967 ideals, full of drones, incantations and occasional outbursts of violence as well as surprisingly straightforward post-Ellington jazz voicings, sloppy in the Christian Wolff/Carla Bley sense, but airtight when it needed to be. The subsequent Ogun double album – like Septober Energy, still available on CD – is a work of unalterable but very touchable beauty.
Tapestry was formed in the nineties, and the 2CD set Live At Le Mans which has just been released was recorded in 1998. In certain circles this performance has been spoken of with a sense of awe comparable to Mingus at UCLA in ’65, but Tippett has until now been resolute about not releasing it; the idea was to get the band into the studio, smooth out the rougher compositional edges of the extended work (First Weaving) and put down a definitive recording, but this being an era of the coldest rationalism, economics again ruled this out of the question – as indeed, and far more sadly, did the passing of Tippett’s first saxophonist of choice, Elton Dean, early last year from complications arising from heart and liver disease, not yet sixty; and I suspect that this may have been the decisive factor in the performance’s eventual release.
While there are undeniably rough edges to the structure of First Weaving, both concept and performance are so strong on this record that it simply becomes a joy to hear Tippett heading and directing a large group in the way only he can. This is a comparatively compact twenty-piece line-up, though its resources are so skilfully marshalled that frequently the orchestra sounds as though double that number are playing, without causing the occasional logjams to which Centipede, even at their most powerful, were prone. There is also, as is similarly characteristic of Tippett, a decided focus on the orchestra as one unit rather than a collection of soloists since there are very few soloists throughout the work and quite a lot of collective improvisation work by individual sections, or duets and trios by various members.
Always a fan of Mingus, Tippett nevertheless catches the unwary listener off guard practically from the beginning of the “First Thread” where, after some call and response between the three singers and the two drummers (Louis Moholo and Tony Levin; now that’s what I call a battalion) – the singers uttering “ka-ta ka-ta” like a happier Fuckhead sample from The Drift, the drummers responding with stiff military rolls – the band launches into a joyful gospel vamp (very “Better Git Hit In Your Soul”) over which we have two ecstatic duets, by saxophonists Lee Goodall and Simon Picard, and then by Gethin Liddington (a student of Tippett’s who is aligned to the F-Ire Collective which also spawned Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland et al) on trumpet and trusty veteran Malcolm Griffiths on trombone, deliciously sliding over each other’s smears like sheets of chocolate satin.
Then the mood darkens for the “Second Thread,” one of Tippett’s great, slowly escalating incantations; over low, doubtful horns, the singers intone Julie Tippetts’ unrepentantly spiritual lyrics (memes like “Overpowering” and “Overwhelming” gradually mutating into “Oh! Forgiving” and “Oh! Relief”). Then Maggie Nicols is left alone, over a brooding improv trio of flute (Goodall), bass clarinet (Gianluigi Trovesi) and saxello (Dean), initially offering a disturbing mutation of “Lili Marlene” before dissolving into her sotto voce flurries of contained ecstasy.
The Third and Fourth Threads are very closely linked; both take Mingusian post-bop melodic/rhythmic heads as their starting point before developing in other unexpected ways. In the Third Thread this leads to a furious debate between three snarling tenors (Picard, Dunmall and Larry Stabbins) which is eventually resolved by a beautiful, balladic alto solo from Elton. The waltz fragment glimpsed in this section (reminiscent of “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too”) is developed more fully and sinisterly in the Fourth Thread, as various band members, including Dunmall on a squealing set of Northumbrian bagpipes, scribble and growl intensely in front of the backdrop; but this too leads (following a sighing duet between Marc Charig’s cornet and Paul Rutherford’s trombone) into a lyrical ballad section with a fantastic alto solo from Trovesi, the Italian perfectly capturing the sugar/poison blend which seemed to be a characteristic of the Dean/Pukwana/Osborne/Warleigh/Watts school of turn-of-the-seventies Brit improv alto playing.
The Fifth Thread, and the second CD, begin with an astonishing prayer for peace, written and lead sung by Julie Tippetts – and how this remarkable woman has suffered for following her husband into the world of contemporary improvised music; even now her activities arouse derisive reactions from cowering nonentities like Will Hodgkinson, side-sniping in broadsheets about sixties girl singers who ended up somewhere different, eagerly spoonfeeding the showbiz demographic necessary to preserve the façade that process and destination do not matter in music, as if they weren’t indispensable to an ideal society – “Almighty…” the trio quietly sing, “hear my breath on the wind…I can’t…” (meaningful pause) “…let you go.” It is breathtaking and transfers into the world of the holy when, as the trio begin to improvise, the rest of the orchestra begin to play wind-up music boxes; a forest, a blessing of an orchard of wind chimes underlying carefully controlled harmonies of which Brian Wilson would (if he’d followed up, or been allowed to follow up, the implications of “George Fell Into His French Horn”) have been rightly proud.
Towards the end the singers move into a medieval roundelay, which itself provides the segue for the dazzling Sixth Thread, which opens with a merry estampie sung by the third member of the trio, the great Vivien Ellis, in tandem with Oren Marshall’s tuba, even though its merriment is darkly ambiguous (“Scattering nightly a dream to the sleeper/Gathering lightly, she leans to the Reaper”) as her song is interrupted by crosscurrents of brass familiar from the beginning of the fourth section of Frames. The music then explodes into sterling, glistening beams of controlled chaos, which somehow manages to encompass a 500 mph trumpet solo by Pino Minafra – played through a megaphone (!) – which sounds like the ghost of Mongezi Feza trying to regain contact with Earth, an utterly beyond-bizarre vocal breakout into “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” a grumbling stomach of a conversation between the trombone section and Marshall’s tuba, dancehall chants of “Seven Eleven” and squeals, honks and howls aplenty. Throughout the double-drum approach is shown to work with brilliant force as Moholo and Levin hammer away as though typing with scythes.
After that Tippett can only tie the composition up, and Seventh Thread is perhaps the section which could have done with a little more work. Its opening promise of a straight 12-bar blues is alluring, but never one to rest for long, the orchestra immediately gives way to a gulping and roaring improvisation by the trumpet section, sounding as though they are hauling themselves up by their own rusty pulleys. Then the orchestra returns for some more all-out freeplay before Paul Rogers’ bass drags everyone back to the original opening statement of “ka-ta, ka-ta” and Edinburgh Castle drum rolls and we get a brief moment of collective swing before Tippett ironically – or possibly unironically – signs off with the old Count Basie flourish.
The audience goes wild, even if I suspect that the Seventh Thread was a work still somewhat in progress in 1998; I wouldn’t have minded a few more Brotherhood-ish shoutouts at the end. But Final Weaving is a tremendous listening experience, and the best illustration of the compelling power of Tippett’s music is the fact that so many of the members of Tapestry were also members of Centipede over a quarter of a century previously; there is an exceptional loyalty at work here which must prove heartwarming for the composer. Tippett’s remains a very singular but unbreakably collective compositional vision; I am not sure whether Final Weaving will alter my outlook on music so thoroughly as its predecessors did, but it is unmissable. As ever, Tippett’s sleevenote signs off with his lifelong motto: “May music never become just another way of making money” – and he does so with such a forgiving generosity that you know instinctively and instantly that it is Jools Holland’s fault, not his, that Tapestry haven’t appeared on Friday night BBC2. At least, not yet.
(Review by Marcello Carlin: originally posted at ‘The Church of Me’ blog – http://cookham.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html)
McCOY TYNER QUARTET – McCOY TYNER QUARTET
Label: McCoy Tyner Music (Half Note Music)
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit; Mellow Minor; Sama Layuca; Passion Dance; Search for Peace; Blues on the Corner; For All We Know.
Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor sax; McCoy Tyner: piano; Christian McBride: bass; Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts: drums.
Additional Information: Recorded live at Yoshi’s, Oakland, California, Dec. 30-31st 2006 (broadcast on NPR’s ‘Toast of the Nation’, New Year’s Eve 2006). The first release on Tyner’s own record label.
Tyner’s style now is still recognisably his own, though it has undergone various subtle evolutions over the years – from the modal accompaniment which alternately rooted and energised John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, to the massive, percussive, African-influenced sound of his albums as a leader in the 1970s, to today’s more gospelly, churchy tone. What’s maintained throughout is that oiling, roiling, and cresting feel he creates from the piano, using it to provide great waves and bursts of sound.
As you can see, it’s easy to use natural metaphors to describe his way of playing, and I’m going to go for another now. What most people have come to expect, and love, in his playing, is what I call the ‘thunder and lightning approach’: tinkling, lightning-fast and scintillatingly melodic right hand runs up and down the higher register of the keyboard, commented on by with sequences of thunderous left hand chords, which alternately create tension and release, discord and resolution.
On this latest album, though, there’s a slight move away from that: instead, we get a much chunkier sound, with both hands often playing just chords, rather than the juxtaposition of these in the left hand with the linear approach in the right-hand. It’s almost like Brubeck in his heyday in its thickness – though it doesn’t really sound anything like Brubeck, of course. Another change is that Tyner skimps a bit on the almost Rachmaninov-like lyricism that usually pervades his solo piano playing, which is a shame, as no one else really dares to play with that floridity nowadays (it’s all about sober, dignified restraint (Brad Mehldau) or spikiness (Ethan Iversen, Matthew Shipp, Lafayette Gilchrist)).
The music as a whole is fairly patient in its development. Maybe Tyner’s taking things a bit slower now: rather than rushing right in and sustaining peaks of intensity for minutes at a time, he builds to climaxes. He has been in ill-health recently, so that’s perfectly understandable – compare how thin and drawn he looks on the title cover with the fairly rotund, jocular figure of around 10 years before – so it’s understandable. Still, I did admit to feeling a slight pang at the slight diminishment of energy, although the climaxes, when they come, are exhilarating, and this more considered approach has its own rewards, teasing out the joy of the chord changes and tunes rather than using them as springboards for consistently high-energy improv.
The group he’s assembled is a strong one. Starting from the rhythm section, McBride, whose profile seems to have dipped slightly (though, of course, he’s still the bassist of choice for many, and one of the best around), is typically strong. Jeff Tain Watts is not the most obvious choice to play with McCoy, but, while his drumming never deviates very much from providing straight rhythmic beats and patterns, he’s perfectly capable of dropping some Elvin-Jones cymbal crashes at appropriate points to keep things nicely energetic.
This was Joe Lovano’s second date with an octogenarian pianist released in 2007 (the other being ‘Kids,’ a duet album with Hank Jones), and he is on excellent form. Buoyed, no doubt, by the ecstatic New Years’ crowd at Yoshi’s, he’s much more fiery than he has been in recent years, and this makes a nice contrast to his lovely, intimate rapport with Jones. Inevitably, there are traces of Coltrane, but his playing is alternately more tart and tender – half-way between the gruffness of Pharoah Sanders and the hardness of Michael Brecker. A gruff vocalised tone even comes in at times – he’s tended to go more for elegance and precision recently – so it makes a nice change to hear him spin out some down and dirty phrasing on his smear-filled solo from ‘Blues on the Corner.’ Most of all, Lovano sounds like he’s enjoying himself – one of the best-known players in today’s jazz mainstream, he can afford to take a few risks, to let his hair done, and still sound completely self-assured and polished.
The tunes are all familiar from Tyner’s previous work: perhaps his most catchy composition, ‘Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit’, which advances over a rollicking bass line, the wonderful Latin-tinged groover ‘Sama Lacuya’ (perhaps the record’s standout track), and three tracks from his 1968 Blue Note album ‘The Real McCoy’. Nevertheless, it never feels like tired old ground, and some of the performances feel like re-interpretation rather than re-hashing. ‘Blues on the Corner’ is the prime example, stretched out from its brisk 5 minute treatment as the closer on ‘The Real McCoy’ for a more luxurious 10 minute version which really emphasises the blues elements (especially during Christian McBride’s solo). Overall, this is a fine, if not exceptional record, and will surely be enjoyed by a large proportion of Tyner’s many fans. (Review by David Grundy)
MATTHEW SHIPP – PIANO VORTEX
Label: Thirsty Ear
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Piano Vortex; Key Swing; The New Circumstance; Nooks and Corners; Sliding Through Space; Quivering with Speed; Slips Through the Fingers; To Vitalize.
Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Joe Morris: bass; Whit Dickey: drums
Shipp was clearly one of the most important musicians of the 90s, both as a leader and as pianist in one of the great jazz groups, the David S. Ware Quartet, and he remains a man who produces challenging, thought-provoking, and above all intelligent music. Some may quibble at his experiments with electronics (‘jazztronica’), pre-programmed beats, dubbing, hip-hop, and the like – and I don’t think anything would claim them as completely successful, despite their moments of interest – but it is in the field of purely acoustic jazz music that his talent really lies, and he demonstrates that to the full here. The format helps– the piano trio (which seems to be coming into vogue again, what with EST, Tord Gustavsen, The Bad Plus, and all the rest of them selling albums at the top of the jazz charts) really allows his voice to shine through, without distractions, without unnecessary embellishments.
This is not his first trio record: he’s previously cut ‘Circular Temple’ with William Parker and Whit Dickey, and ‘Multiplication Table’ with Parker and Susie Ibarra, but this one is probably the most accessible of them (though that should not imply a lowering of standards, by any means). Joe Morris, equally adept on guitar, as demonstrated on the rather fine ‘Rebus’ with Ken Vandermark and Luther Gray, also out in 2007, is here feature on bass, and Whit Dickey once more takes drum-kit duties. The emphasis is on Shipp, as soloist and composer, but there’s a pleasingly interactive, empathetic feel too – ‘locked-in’ would be an appropriate well-worn cliché to use, though there’s a feeling of looseness and freedom as well.
There are elements of blues and swing on the record, as well as more romantic moments, but the structures and the interplay are definitely free jazz. For all the sense that the musicians are in control at all times, there’s still a feel of openness and possibility, a preponderance of inventive quick-thinking and of surprising twists and turns taken by the various performances. The title track clearly defines this approach: yes there is clearly defined rhythm, the bass does walk, and the drums play a steady pattern, but Shipp manages to avoid a theme statement as such – no head-solos-head for him. Even if what he plays is melodic and mostly within the usual scales, this means there’s no comforting point of reference: you have to make the effort to go out there with the pianist, as he adeptly creates slight patterns but leaves them somewhere in mid-air as soon as he’s played them, in order to pursue new ideas. It’s in such an approach that some of the most exciting contemporary jazz is being made: an awareness of tradition –sometimes an explicit acknowledgment of it – and an adventurousness that both comes from that tradition and transcends it, in a quest for new and fertile ground for musical exploration and experimentation.
For all that, Shipp can be as bluesy as it gets: the second track, ‘Keyswing’ is the closest he’s ever come to mainstream jazz, ‘To Vitalize’ is a non-traditional reading of what is in essence a boppish tune, and ‘Slips Through The Fingers’ is almost romantic, but, on the whole, as its title might indicate, ‘Piano Vortex’ foregrounds the exploratory approach. Standout tracks include ‘Sliding Through Space’, with its eerie arco bass work, and thundering, menacing chords in the piano, almost cinematic in nature, creating suspense and restrained tension. ‘Quivering With Speed’ then expands on this tension, with Morris and Dickey propulsing the music forward, pushing Shipp into what feels like unmapped territory.
And that’s the great thing about this music. It’s accessible, in the sense that the trio uses known lyrical, melodic and rhythmic concepts to guide them along to some new places, but it never compromises. The accessibility makes the journey lighter, but no less interesting, and it’s the fascinating journey that ‘Piano Vortex’ offers which really makes it stand out, even if no final destination has been found. After all, you could argue that such records as these which don’t necessarily reach any obvious endpoint avoid complacency and keep both listeners and musicians on their toes. And that’s something much needed at a time when jazz often risks sinking into apathy, into an indifferent rehashing of the old or a misguided attempt to seem ‘relevant’ by engaging with the new, at the expense of the elements which make this genre so great in the first place. All hail Shipp, Morris and Dickey, then, for sticking to their guns and producing this absorbing music. (Review by David Grundy)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – FREE JAZZ.ORG SAMPLER, VOL. 2
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: (DISC 1) Spark Trio – Tidal Wave; Berenson/Barnum/Marconi – Staring it Right in the Eyes; Wright/Bailley – Philadelphia 2/06; Marc Edwards & Slipstream Time Travel – Ion Storm; Dan Brunkhorst – Abraham; End Times Trio – Unexpected Explosions in a Midwest Suburb; Barry Chabala – Oswald Contemplates His Existence; Carey/Khoury – Untitled Improvisation/March 7, 2003.
(DISC 2) Phil Hargreaves – The End of the Street; Lee Tusman/Voodooartist – Earsplode Dos; Massimo Magee – Dual Emission; Mittimus: Nothing is Really Free Now, is It?; Padma Sound System – Cubist Monastic Trio; Grass Hair Duo – GHD24Feb07-3; Glenn Weyant – Bite Me WalMart (Suite Excerpt); Fire and Flux – An Aphorism on Time.
Personnel: (DISC ONE) (1) Ras Moshe – Tenor Sax; Matt Lavelle – Trumpet; Todd Capp – Drums; (2) Adam Berenson – Piano; Scott Barnum – Bass; Bill Marconi – Drums/Percussion; (3) Jack Wright – Saxes; Alban Bailley – Guitar; (4) James Duncan – Trumpet; Ras Moshe – Saxophone; Tor Snyder – Electric Guitar; Marc Edwards – Drums; (5) Dan Brunkhorst – Slide guitar, machines; (6) Frank Trompeter – Alto/Tenor/ Soprano Saxophone; Mark Schwartz – Guitar and Preparations; Richard Gilman-Opalsky – Drums and Percussion; (7) Barry Chabala – guitar; (8) Mike Carey – Bass Clarinet; Mike Khoury – Violin; (DISC TWO) (9) Phil Hargreaves – Found sounds, Cello, Soprano Sax and Voice; (10) Lee Tusman – circui-bent kid’s toy guitar processed and recorded through Ableton Live; (11) Massimo Magee – Tenor Sax, Amplifier, Homemade instrument #1 and recorder; (12) Mike Yarrish – Upright Bass; Matt Sekel – Guitar; (13) Heidi Wilson Sax, Aryen Hart Vocals & Electronics, Yeshe Dorje Balophon & treatments; (14) Dan Pell – drums, Heath Watts – soprano sax; (15) Glenn Weyant – Kestrel 920 and Piano; (16) Benjamin Kates – Alto Sax; Richard Gilman-Opalsky – Drums and Percussion
Additional Information: Both samplers are available as MP3 downloads at http://www.freejazz.whi-music.co.uk/. CD copies are available on request, and may be purchased from some of the artists at their concerts. Cover art by Glenn Weyant and Phil Hargreaves.
Freejazz.org is a discussion website (no prizes for guessing what’s discussed there!) whose regular contributors include a number of musicians. In 2004, it was suggested that they ought to produce a sampler of their work, which duly came out on Phil Hargreave’s whi-music label (turn back for a review of his album with Glenn Weyant, ‘Friday Morning Everywhere’). Three years later, the second instalment came along: a double album this time, with longer tracks. Once more, files are made available as free MP3 downloads, or on physical CDs if requested.
The provenance of this release raises interesting questions about the role of the internet, which also arose in 2007 with Maria Schneider’s highly acclaimed ‘Sky Blue’, released through the artistshare website (where profits are plunged back into the production of more albums), or with musicians, such as Henry Grimes, who make self-produced work available on their websites, rather than going through record companies, and thus get to reap the rewards of their labours themselves. Phil Hargreaves had this to say about the first sampler, on freejazz.org: “it’s been a success, I would say, and the fact that it continues to be of interest is good as well: a CD would have faded into the back catalogue by now, but the web keeps it all alive.”
It’s necessarily a varied collection, considering the contributors, brought together by the internet, and it suggests the possibilities of technology (as illustrated on the cover by the fusing of a computer motherboard with an aerial view of Angkor Wat in Cambodia). Indeed, as well as more traditional acoustic free jazz (mostly small groups – sax/drum duos, piano trios), much of the material on the sampler is more in line with contemporary experiments in electronic music. Whether it reflects the state of free jazz as such, as its title seems to suggest, is another matter. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem: despite the title of the website, not all the contributors produce music in that genre, even if it is within the scope of their interests.
Several of the pieces are pretty much straight free jazz: the first piece, by the Spark Trio, starts off with tough-toned solo saxophone engaged in Brotzmanesque overblowing, before drums and a curiously quavery, almost parodic trumpet come in for some hard blowing, eventually ending up on a melodic phrase, stroking it a few times, and ending with a drum solo. There’s nothing wrong with it as such, although I can’t help feeling (as I’ve felt with some of Brotzmann’s recent work) that there’s only so far you can go with this stuff, and that it ends up repeating itself. It feels – dare I say it? – like it’s reached a creative dead-end, banging its dissonant head against a wall with no way out: the fiercely burning flame that was being grasped in the early days of this music has dwindled somewhat to become more of a glow. Indeed, that reservation is something I also feel about the other free jazz tracks on the record: Grass Hair Duo, with its clear debt to Coltrane and Ali’s Interstellar Space, or the closer, a very brief and furious piece from Fire and Flux.
As Sonny Simmons frequently says, perhaps you need a dose of old-fashioned melody as well – after all, Ayler started off with simple, hummable heads before launching off into the stratosphere. I think the main problem, though, is that what was initially radical and exciting has now become familiar, just another style, like the jazz genres it initially reacted against. I found it hard to resist the idea that I’d heard all this before – albeit, under different names, on different albums, and from different times – that it was just treading over the same old ground. Free music was supposed to be about breaking new ground, breaking stultifying norms – yet maybe it’s become its own stultifying norm. It should be noted that I am NOT trying to get at the artists – God knows they need exposure, and the music they make is not going to make them much money in today’s consumerist world, where anything ‘difficult’ seems to be automatically discarded as ‘rubbish.’ But I have to be honest in expressing my thoughts, and I do feel somewhat uneasy.
More interest was raised by the pieces which try to do something a little different, such as the second track, by a piano trio whose abstract and angular explorations recall some of Matthew Shipp’s work, or the electronic atmospheres of Dan Brunkhorst’s ‘Abraham’, full of beats and bobs, with a melancholy accordion sound wheezing away, drifting in and out of the texture. Padma Sound System take this more measured, downbeat feel even further on their ambient, almost new-agey ‘Cubist Monastic Trio.’ Their piece nevertheless retains an edgy quality, which also characterises Lee Tusman’s ‘Earsplode Dos’, where a toy guitar is played through electronics, making many weird, computer-game noises.
Free improvisation is another big influence on many of these players: Barry Chabala’s guitar solo sounds like a more gentle Derek Bailey (always the point of reference for avant-garde guitar, though so individualistic he sounds like no-one else, even if his ghost echoes in all their playing ). But more obviously it has the sound of jazz electric guitar (Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow), and is much more melodic, less deliberately broken-up and abstract. Unfortunately, as a result, it seems to be caught in a continuum between these two poles, unsure which way it wants to go, and thus it does meander a bit, after a promising beginning.
A lot of the pieces make interesting use of electronic manipulation and ‘found sounds’: perhaps most notably, Phil Hargreaves’ ‘At the end of the street’, which opens Disc 2. He’s displayed an interest in the interaction between instrument and environment, ‘real world’ sounds and ‘otherworld’ sax sonorities, in his album with Caroline Kraabel for Leo Records, ‘Where we Were: Shadows of Liverpool’ (2004), which was recorded over a number of year at various resonant locations around the city (in libraries, churches, and halls, under bridges), and edited into a kind of sound collage for the final release. I listened to this piece for the first time late at night, while drifting off to sleep, and the environmental sounds were truly eerie and effective, floating in from the edge of consciousness, becoming part of the musical texture in a convincing way. The track is marred by Hargreaves’ vocals, which don’t seem to follow any particular melody, and kind of drift along aimlessly and out-of-tune: deliberate I’m sure, but I’m not a great vocals fan anyway, and when they’re delivered like this, it really puts me off. A shame, as the words themselves are interesting (“once I journey to the end of the street, I’ll reach eternity” – a curious mixture of the mundane and the ephemeral), and the overdubbed bass/sax improv that follows (Hargreaves is equally capable on both instruments) is promising.
A recent collaborator of Hargreaves, Glenny Weyant, also contributes a piece. Like Australian improv violinist Jon Rose, he has gained some notoriety for playing fences, this time between Mexico and the US, in a statement that’s political as much as musical. Here though, he sticks to piano, and to an instrument of his own invention, the kestrel 920. With these, he echoes the minimalism of Reich, through stark, repeated piano figures, and the minimalist-influenced ambience of Eno in the otherworldy sounds created by the kestrel. It’s an engaging piece, which would be very at home on some film soundtrack, accompanying a journey into the desert, streaks of light remaining in the sky at dusk, progressively reaching epiphany, or perhaps darkness – there’s a sense of reaching for a goal as things become more and more frantic, although it ends up merely fading out.
As you’ve probably gathered, I haven’t space to consider every contribution in detail, even in this fairly lengthy review, and so I should probably conclude with this request: download it, get a CD copy, listen to it for yourself. It’s a fascinating collection of contemporary music, and well worth hearing.
(Review by David Grundy)
UTE WASSERMANN – BIRDTALKING
Label: Nur Nicht Nur Release Date: 2006
Tracklist: Siamese; Labial Pops; Glottal Song; Multipel I; Multipel II; Trill Territory; Labial Plonks; Subsong; Nightcap Personnel: Ute Wassermann: voice
Additional Information: This album is pretty hard to get hold of, so your best bet is to order it from the distributors, at http://www.nurnichtnur.com/index.html.
not for the fainthearted this.
ute wasserman makes pure abstract vocal sounds.
she don’t dress it up much.
you just gotta get in there with her.
hold on tight and concentrate.
I first came across about a year ago.
I’d just been totally bowled over by
this trumpeter birgit ulher live in newcastle
and I wanted to buy some product.
birgit recommended this cd with ute wasserman on it.
she also features regularly with
richard barrett and they have a duo album out.
and she’s a regular member of barret’s fORCH ensemble
who were on radio 3 just the other week.
saturday night oct 6th 2007.
if you missed it ask yourself what you were doing instead
and then ask yourself how your life got so wrong
that you weren’t in front of your hifi with your heaphones on.
ok what we got on this here album is
9 tracks of unadulterated vocal free improvisation.
well, strictly it’s 5 tracks unadulterated.
2 tracks where wasserman accompanies herself
using electronic reverberation and then
2 tracks which contain 2 vocal tracks laid on top each other.
it is unhurried music. it isn’t going anywhere.
it’s slow music. it sure as hell don’t cook.
and if you’re in love with the idea of someone
tearing forth with something emotionally meaningful
this aint for you as far as I can relate to it.
wasserman keeps it very simple. she makes a sound
and she follows it up with more sound.
she uses overtones, yodelling, multiphonics.
sometimes she goes ping.
it’s mostly short phrases that stop and start
one follows the other.
she don’t tend to use coughs or splutters
or words. as I say it comes across as purely abstract.
it’s 9 tracks around 9minutes, 7 minutes, or 5 minutes..
one track as short as 2min25secs.
although I don’t think each track necessarily
has its own life form. it’s that european free improv
thing of breaking up the total soundscape
into bite size chunks and calling these chunks
separate tracks. I think you could edit out the gaps
between tracks and sink into it as one long soundscape.
it’s sparse. there’s not loads going on at any given moment.
it’s best to sit back and relax and let her take you with her,
play it loud and go inside the sound with the lady
ok let’s try and give you an idea of the sound.
you’ll get a shout with throaty hoarseness in it.
the shout will elongate the length of a breath
and she’ll follow that sound through to its conclusion.
maybe she’ll warble it, or dip it down and down
and she’ll put a high whistling overtone on it.
or she’ll yodel it and split the sound.
it has a siberian slant to it overall if I can place it anywhere.
there are no obvious jokes or native american indian colourings.
most of her phrases seem to last the length of a long breath.
she don’t do a lot of staccato rhythm.
she don’t chase a beat, and take sharp breaths to do it.
she follows her breath. you will hear voice thrown out and
bent around the room. maybe she’s playing. maybe it’s playful
but I don’t know.
it’s cool. it’s intelligent. get it.
stay in with it on a saturday night
and improve your life.
(Review by Anthony Whiteford)
WEASEL WALTER QUARTET & DOUBLE TRIO – FIRESTORM
Label: ugEXPLODE records
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Ignition; Firestorm; Meditations on Violence; Continual Rage; Shock Troop; Self-Immolation Blues; Refraction
Personnel: Elliott Levin (tenor sax) Marco Eneidi, Marshall Allen (alto sax) Mario Rechters (alto and sopranino sax, zurna) Damon Smith (electric upright bass and acoustic bass) Lisle Smith (bass – 1,5) Marc Edwards (drums – 1,5) Weasel Walter (drums)
Additional Information: Recorded live at three concerts in New York (Tonic & The Stone) and in Philadelphia (Danger House), during February 2007.Available for download at emusic.com or through itunes.
Weasel Walter, best known as the drummer and leader of long-running punk-jazz/no wave/ prog band The Flying Luttenbachers, here concentrates on full-blown free jazz with energy levels worthy of Brotzmann/Cecil Taylor: noisy, white-heat, and extremely intense. In the man’s own words, the improvisations presented on the album “express highly articulated violence and fury.” Recorded at three different gigs, three slightly different ensembles are featured, perhaps the most powerful of which appears on ‘Ignition’ and ‘Shocktroop’: the rhythm section is doubled, with Marc Edwards (who’s recorded a similarly explosive session with his band Slipstream Time Travel) joining Walter on drums, and Lisle Ellis joining Damon Smith on bass, while saxophonists Marco Eneidi and Elliott Levin demonstrate an ability to play for an extended period of time at the sort of boiling point that, if it features at all in more mainstream jazz, only features to articulate a climax; here, it is the main means of expression. As Smith puts it in a response to Derek Taylor’s review for the online review centre Bagetellen, “we obviously go for a single-minded approach here on purpose…we know where we are going and go right there.”
The focus is exclusively on the energy, force and density of the group interplay – it makes no secret of the fact; indeed, it positively revels in it. You get exactly what you expect. To generalize, while free improvisation may be about discovery, about hearing unexpected sounds (so that, paradoxically, the unexpected becomes the expected), free jazz is a style with a clear sonic range and force. Nevertheless, it’s not emotionally one-track, as claimed in what is probably the most frequent criticism made of it (apart from the fact that it supposedly offends people’s ears and sensibilities) – it can be very complex, from joyful to despairing to moody and melancholic, often several at once – music of conflict, of conflicting emotions, colliding musical ideas as well as complementary ones. This idea of conflict is raised by the titles (‘Continual Rage,’ ‘Meditations on Violence’, ‘Shock Troop’, ‘Self-Immolation’, and so on), something especially pertinent to these times, when the events in Iraq, and worldwide, trouble so many artists and citizens. As well as providing the possibility of a contemporary frame of reference, the idea that this is in some way zeitgeist music (just as the ‘New Thing’ tied in with the civil rights struggle and the problems of American global expansion and imperialism in the 60s and 70s), such concerns tie in with comments that Walter has made elsewhere, suggesting that he regards his work as a cathartic experience of some sort: what he calls an attempt to find beauty in “the madness and horror of life.”
I know of one person who finds the sort of inner peace in free jazz (a highly troubled and disturbing form of music, if judged by conventional standards), that others might find in an ECM disc – perhaps this is what Walter means. It is certainly an expression of something very powerful to the musicians, that can also be powerful to the audience; in the right situation, and if they’re in the right mood, it can be one of the most shearly visceral musical experiences known to man.
Obviously it is an approach with its limitations, but this is true of all music: I don’t think that any genre, any style can be all-encompassing, despite the desire of a visionary/madman like Alexander Scriabin, in his unfinished ‘Mysterium’ project, to create an artistic event which would somehow involve/express the whole of humanity, and conclude with the ending of the world. This sort of free jazz is no more limiting than fusion, or be-bop, or trad. jazz, or any other style you care to name.
If you like this type of music, you probably don’t need much convincing, and you’ll undoubtedly love this record. And, despite the deliberate lack of diversity, there is much to enjoy for the less favourably disposed listener: Walter’s high speed, thrash-influenced drumming, full of insistent staccato patterns and frantic bass drum work, more Dave Lombardo than Sunny Murray; Richters and Ellis’ addition of some different textures by doubling on high-pitched and noisy electronics; the presence of legendary 84-year old altoist Marshall Allen – taking a break, if you want to put it that way, from leading the Sun Ra Arkestra, and still going absolutely full-pelt too.
I’ll leave the last word to Walter: “I haven’t heard much good full-bore freaking out in the last few decades and my concept with this particular project is simply to push that aesthetic further, primarily for my own listening enjoyment…I offer people a blast of energy with this CD and I hope people can enjoy it.”
(Review by David Grundy)
STEVE COLEMAN – INVISIBLE PATHS: FIRST SCATTERING
A solo record from M-base musician Steve Coleman, this one was bound to be interesting. He’s renowned for making ‘head music’ – he’s into obscure rhythmic concepts, and with titles like ‘Ascending Numeration Reformed’ and ‘Fecundation 070118’, he’s once again not exactly presenting himself as the most accessible artist around. But despite the theoretical complexity that seems to underlie these compositions and improvisations for alto saxophone, they’re remarkably easy to negotiate aurally: with his clear tone and supple melodic phrasing, they have a lovely liquid, flowing quality to them, and a real sense of concentration, of engagement (Coleman occasionally punctuates the sax lines with grunts that seem deliberately constructed as a part of the music (as opposed to the rather more superfluous mumblings of Keith Jarrett)).
LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST/HAMID DRAKE – DUETS: LIVE AT THE VISION FESTIVAL 2006/ LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST – 3
Pianist Gilchrist started late, at the age of 18, but he’s certainly been a fast learner: self-taught, he joined David Murray’s group in 2000, and now on to his second record as a leader (and first with a trio). Like Miles Davis with ‘On the Corner’, he’s expressed a desire to move jazz back to the streets. “Everything I write is dance music,” he’s said in an interview. “You’re supposed to move to it in some kind of way. Even if it’s just nodding your head or patting your foot, the body is involved.” Nevertheless, the muscular angularity of his playing and compositions perhaps owes as much to classical music as it does to modern urban black music; on the duet recording with Hamid Drake, he also shows his debt to free jazz, and to the high energy approach of Cecil Taylor, with a thunderous, dramatic performance that’s full of dark, heavy left-hand work, matched all the way by Drake’s earth tremors.
Things are a bit more patient on ‘3’: he doesn’t clog things up too much, leaving a lot of space, concentrating on finding interesting, often dissonant chords and phrases, rather than simply playing for the sake of it. Like Jason Moran, he concentrates on spiky rhythmic complexity and is strongly influenced by hip-hop: both players have got a lot of praise in the jazz press (Gary Giddins is a fervent admirer of Moran), but I do tend to find their playing somewhat cold. This was admittedly not the case in Gilchrist’s previous recorded appearances, as a sideman with David Murray (where he could whip up quite a storm), and in his own debut as a leader, where a larger band allowed for more colouristic and emotional variety.
Ultimately, ‘3’ is a formative record – he’s still not quite a fully mature solo voice, but he’s articulate, musically and in interviews, and his artistic aims are laudable: “I think the community needs to be disturbed at this point. The community needs to be disturbed by music. If it’s instrument music, I think the sound of it, the tone of it, should have a certain urgency. And it should reflect the real world.” Amen to that. Let’s hope Gilchrist can build on the potential showed here and start to really express such a desire in his work.
MATS GUSTAFFSON/ YOSHIMI – WORDS ON THE FLOOR
If only for one moment, this album should be noticed: something extraordinary, that I can honestly say I have never experienced before while listening to a piece of music. About 32 minutes into track 2, Gustaffson introduces some wind-like electronics behind Yoshimi’s vocals, and it genuinely seemed to me as though a cool breeze was coming at me from the speakers, a simbiosis of senses I’ve never felt before. This was probably due to mental association – the sound of rain might have made me feel cold – but still, it was an intriguing sensation.
The rest of the record is solid improvisation, for a difficult combination of instruments – the voice of Yoshimi, lead singer with experimental rock group The Boredoms, and the multi-instrumental antics of Gustaffson, one of the leading lights in the European free jazz/improv scene at the moment (his record with Peter Brotzmann and Paale Nilsson-Love, ‘The Fat is Gone’, is in this magazine’s top ten list for 2007). A somewhat surprising pairing, it works pretty well: Gustaffson tones down his approach somewhat – the context necessitates a more subtle style of playing – but this remains very challenging music. An interesting listen.
JOE LOVANO/ HANK JONES – KIDS: LIVE AT DIZZY’S CLUB COCA-COLA
Pretty much standard issue sax/piano duet, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any less attractive: ruminative, melancholy, romantic, wistful, occasionally sprightly and upbeat. Jones and Lovano have collaborated before, on the quartet date ‘Joyous Encounter’, and it’s nice to hear them continue the empathetic partnership they demonstrated their in a more stripped-down setting. ‘Lazy Afternoon’ in particular is given a gorgeous, unfussy reading that steers the line between dryness and over-egged emoting with consummate care.
WYNTON MARSALIS – FROM THE PLANTATION TO THE PENITENTIARY
Marsalis’ rejection of the musical aesthetic of the 60s New Thing also extends to a less radically militant political outlook; he’s still angry about things, but he tends to express his feelings in a more debonair way. That said, this record comes on pretty strong, against a whole host of targets: though he’s a Bush opponent, and has been particular strong in his criticism of the way the government handled Hurricane Katrina, he doesn’t spare the left either. In fact, they probably get even shorter shift on this record.
As the title illustrates, he seems to be getting at the idea that blacks can do it to themselves as much as being victims of whitey: he’s depicted on the cover painting with a gold chain round his neck that merges the slave collar with contemporary ‘bling’ – a neat visual trick that perhaps captures a subtlety the music doesn’t. ‘Where Y’all At’, on which he delivers a brief rap performance, makes some interesting points about the compromise, hypocrisy and failure of his, and previous generations, to bring about the social change they so loudly advocate: “All you ’60s radicals and world-beaters, Righteous revolutionaries, Camus-readers, Liberal students, equal-rights pleaders: What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders?” It’s a point well made, but Marsalis comes unstuck in the criticism of hip-hop that also pervades the track. Firstly, it seems perverse to attack that genre using its mechanisms (like playing jazz fusion to show how bad jazz fusion is). Secondly, Marsalis’ view of hip-hop is a simplistic one that ignores its valuable political engagement and social commitment. No one’s pretending that there are not problems, serious problems, with the genre, especially in its modern mainstream form, but in dismissing the entire genre Marsalis is presenting a typically confused message. ‘
The fact remains, that, in the end, even if you ignore all the posturing polemical force of ‘Where Y’All At’, and other tracks (Marsalis is not the most subtle writer of song lyrics), the music itself ain’t that great. The band is decent, though Marsalis is not really at his best (check out Live at the House of Tribes’ for a better recent example of his undoubted skill as a mainstream jazz performer); the vocals of young singer Jennifer Sanon have been much-praised, and she’s certainly a capable musician. An interesting point of comparison might be Leena Conquest on William Parker’s ‘Raining on the Moon.’ In fact, that’s the record it’s probably most constructive to compare this with: both feature prominent vocals and address issues of social and political justice (Parker’s more obliquely, perhaps). Yet whereas Parker’s is characterized by a more controlled emotionalism (even if it skirts sentimentality at times), and is very much about the polished performance of a top-notch jazz band, Marsalis lets himself get overwhelmed by the somewhat incoherent message he’s trying to get across. (When the man behind the million-dollar-earning Lincoln Centre, who’s been involved in high-profile, glossy advertising campaigns for big companies, calls a track ‘Super Capitalism’, you maybe raise an eyebrow). And that’s why ‘Raining on the Moon’ is in 2007’s top 10 and ‘From the Plantation…’ isn’t.
MOSTLY OTHER PEOPLE DO THE KILLING – SHAMOKIN!
“I like my jazz with some dirt on it, sometimes a lot of dirt”: so says bassist, and leader of this group Moppa Elliot. Don’t expect this music to be reverent: it isn’t, and it’s a great deal of fun. The tunes and improvisations are playfully wide-ranging in their allusions: from bossas to bugaloos, rock to smooth Jazz, and swing to disco, often within the same composition. All the musicians bring a diverse range of stylistic influences and experience of different playing contexts to bear on such chaotically varied music: saxophonist Jon Irabagon was once a member of rock band Bright Eyes, but also displays an encylopedic knowledge of jazz saxophone masters; Kevin Shea, on drums, also has an association with experimental rock; while Moppa Elliott has played with singer/songwriters, chamber pop and jazz acts, and various circus bands. Also featured is the fine trumpeter Peter Evans, whose own Quartet album is on the records of the year list, and demonstrates a more serious approach to deconstructing jazz tradition. In a suitably flamboyant closer, a tune by another trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ is subjected to a twenty-one minute performance that Elliott describes in the liner notes as a “jazz orgy, [which] includes references to the majority of recorded sound of the last century.” Indeed, these notes are just as fun and thought-provoking as the music itself, written under the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym ‘Leonardo Featherweight.’ A nicely irreverent record, yet one that’s full of serious musical intent underneath all the playfulness.
WILLIAM PARKER/ HAMID DRAKE – SUMMER SNOW
A second volume of duets from this master rhythm section, five years on from the first (‘First Communion/ Piercing the Veil’, recently re-issued in expanded form). The feeling is more meditative this time round, less rhythmically forceful (though they can really lock into a groove when they want to). Both play a wide variety of instruments: Drake on tabla, frame drum, and gongs, as well as his more usual drumkit, Parker on doson’ngoni, shakuhachi, dumbek, talking drum, water bowls, and bass. It tends to meander along somewhat inconsequentially – one never feels the musicians are stretching themselves overmuch, though they’re so absolutely in command that the results are still extremely professional – and shares some of the same faults that Don Cherry’s ‘world music’ suffered: rambling, lack of focus, a rather gimmicky use of ethnic instrumentation. Still, it will undoubtedly find fans.
MARIA SCHNEIDER- SKY BLUE
Gil Evans protégée Schneider funds and organises her recordings for the internet-only label ArtistShare: her 2004 recording Concert in the Garden, released through them, became the first disc to win a Grammy award with no in-store distribution. This latest disc is again available as a download from Artistshare, or as a nicely packaged physical CD (only website from her website, mariaschneider.com).
The Evans influence is obviously pretty strong, though Schneider displays an interest in more exotic textures (even if, paradoxically, here approach is a tad more populist and conventional than that of her mentor). Centre-piece, and longest track on the album is ‘Cerulean Skies’, a twenty-minute jazz tone-poem, commissioned for Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. Donny McCaslin gets plenty of space to blow some powerful tenor sax improvisations, but the real interest lies in the unusual textures Schneider spins. This she does through incorporating some unusual elements into the band: Gary Versace on accordion, wordless vocals by Luciana Souza, and a sample of Cerulean warbler birdsong, used for decorative effect, à la Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Elsewhere, some Latin flavours, and a heartfelt tribute to a friend who died of cancer are other highlights in an approach that’s lyrical, colourful and expansive. Along with Charles Tolliver’s wonderfully vibrant ‘With Love’, this is proof that big-band jazz does have a future in the twenty-first century.
JOE MORRIS/ KEN VANDERMARK/ LUTHER GRAY- REBUS
Fine free(ish) jazz with Morris, on guitar this time, playing alongside Chicago saxophonist Ken ‘volcanic’ Vandermark and drummer Luther Grey. On the fifth track, guitar and rums keep a roiling, tense motion beneath Vandermark’s brawny, muscular solo, giving a real edge to what might otherwise be considered a somewhat unremarkable tenor improvisation. Indeed, one could say that Vandermark’s playing obscures the focus somewhat – in sense, this is a track masquerading as something it is not: free jazz. Instead it is a track dedicated primarily to rhythm, and extremely edgy and subtle bass drums and guitar interaction. Not that Vandermark isn’t equally capable of engaging with the rhythmic stuff: he’s much more than just a free jazz blower, as he demonstrates here. It all adds up to a pretty good record.
DAVID S. WARE QUARTET – RENUNCIATION
The farewell performance by this seminal jazz group, recorded at the 2006 Vision Festival in New York, this perhaps illustrates why it was a good idea for them to split up while they did: while still powerful and compelling music – muscular, soulful, utterly heartfelt – it doesn’t have quite the same impact as their best work. I suspect that the group reached its peak with the 3-CD ‘Live in the World’ set, or the version of Rollins’ ‘Freedom Suite’, and it was probably a good idea for all concerned to develop their talents in different contexts.
It’s a fine album nonetheless: what Ware has learn most from Coltrane is that musical attainment can only come through spiritual struggle, and these pieces demonstrate a similarly hard-won arrival at a goal. Part three of the titular suite finds him playing consistently in the higher ranges of his sax, over the groundings of Shipp’s piano, which perhaps prevents him from flying as high as he could – though their interaction is solid. Brown’s drumming is ferocious and Parker hits the bass incredibly hard, slamming his way through to add to the impression of granite strength that the group generates. As well as the suite, the disc also features the rather wonderful ‘Ganesh Sound’, which definitely justifying repeated hearings.
EBERHARD WEBER STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY
A hell of a lot better than fellow ECM bassist Miroslav Vitous’ dire follow-up to his own ‘Universal Syncopations’, this finds Weber presenting a substantial (over 70-minute) collection of orchestral pieces, recorded live, with a wide range of collaborators, most notably saxophonist Jan Garbarek. I know someone who thinks JG’s work is a lot better here than it has been on his own recent releases (such as the soporific – and thus appropriately titled – ‘In Praise of Dreams’), although I always find it pretty hard to take more than a small dose of his playing. My own personal prejudices subsuming more balanced critical judgement, I’m sure. Still, there it is – Garbarek’s the main soloist (though Weber gets plenty of space of his own, with a three minute solo feature, ‘Air’, closing the disc). If you like the man’s playing, chances are you’ll be pleased. If, like me, you don’t, it’s probably still possible to swallow your prejudices and enjoy what is often rather fine music.
The record is a bit of a mixed bag, and there are perhaps just as many hits as misses: the beatboxing combined with steel pan percussion on ‘Hang Around’ is an interesting idea, but doesn’t really work, and things do tend to ramble. Still, at its best, the music has a feeling of sheer bounding optimism and hopeful lyricism that’s really refreshing: the opener, ‘Silent Feet’, and ninth track, ‘Yellow Fields’, are probably the best examples on the disc.
MIKE WESTBROOK (THE VILLAGE BAND) – WAXEYWORK SHOW
(For more on this album, see the Mike and Kate Westbrook interview feature earlier in the magazine). The Westbrook’s latest project finds them uniting the ghoulish fascination of the Victorian fairground with that of the internet in the titular suite. Kate’s lyrics are off-kilter and surreal – who else could get away with mentioning David Beckham in a jazz piece? – and the music perfectly captures the idiom the words suggest, with a mixture of the brooding and sinister, and a slightly tongue-in-cheek sense of the absurd. In the second half, vintage American jazz meets the British brass band tradition: Mingus and Jelly Roll Morton rub shoulders with a masterful reading of Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now’ that’s unfussy but genuinely affecting, and proves Kate Westbrook’s credentials as a straight jazz singer. The rest of the band, local players from in and around the Westbrook’s home-town of Dawlish in Devon, are also a pleasant surprise: alto player Stan Willis in particular is full of passion and drive. It may not be the most ambitious thing the Westbrooks have ever done (that may be their masterpiece, ‘London Bridge is Broken Down’, soon due for re-issue), but it’s thought-provoking, full of varied and intriguing atmospheres, textures, and emotions, and, above all, it’s rollicking good entertainment.
JOHN ZORN – FROM SILENCE TO SORCERY
One of Zorn’s classical music releases, this consists of ‘Goetia’, a work in eight fairly short movements for string trio, and two longer pieces, ‘Shibboleth’, where the trio is
expanded to include percussion and clavichord, and ‘Gris-Gris’, for percussion. Pieces are based around familiar Zorn themes of black magic, and are alternately mysterious, spicily rhythmic, and bracingly dissonant. Music itself is relatively undistinguished – I’ve never really been convinced by Zorn’s talents as a classical composer. The ideas are more interesting than the actual sounds they generate. This one’s got rather a minority appeal, I have to say.
(All ‘In Brief’ reviews by David Grundy)