Monday, December 30, 2019

Joshua Breakstone Trio: Children Of Art

The Joshua Breakstone Trio, with the journeyman guitarist joined by bassist Martin Wind and drummer Eliot Zigmund, pays tribute to the great drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messenger bands on the enjoyably swinging Children Of Art. It’s hard to go wrong with tunes by the likes of Lee Morgan (The Witch Doctor), Cedar Walton (Holy Land) and Benny Golson (the durable Stablemates). Stretching out at finger-snapping tempos, the trio provides a fresh perspective on pieces originally performed in quintet and sextet formats. By comparison, the session’s two down-tempo numbers, Horace Silver’s Lonely Woman and Breakstone’s own title track, seem tired and uninspired. Stick with the more quickly paced songs and you’ll be happy.
Capri 74151; Joshua Breakstone (g) Martin Wind (b) Eliot Zigmund (d); Teaneck, NJ, January 10, 2018; The Witch Doctor/ Splendid/ Holy Land/ El Toro/ Lonely Woman/ Stablemates/ Breakthrough/ Children of Art; 57:29.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Ensemble 5: The Collective Mind, Volumes 1 & 2

   A deep-seated commitment to close listening and instant reactions characterize the stalwarts of Ensemble 5. Trombonist Robert Morgenthaler, pianist Reto Staub, bassist Fridolin Blumer, and drummer/organizer Heinz Geisser have been working as a unit for years, and the band has a regular gig in Zürich. Each month, the quartet invites a different guest to join them for an evening of improvisation. The regularity of their performances combined with the fresh outlook of a new player each month puts the musicians in a very special place of getting comfortable with one another but with the wild card of unexpected ideas. There are no guests on the two volumes of The Collective Mind, recorded on a single day in March 2018, but there are plenty of surprising twists and turns in the richly nuanced and deceptively simple call and response structures that the ensemble favors. Morgenthaler’s smoothly conversational trombone, Staub’s fragmented attack on the piano, Blumer’s stately pizzicato or rich arco playing, and Geisser’s carefully modulated drumming coalesce in a sound world of continuing fascination. Free improvisers have been known to play at great length, but Ensemble 5 prefers to keep their instant compositions generally on the short side, with only one piece (No bones about it on Volume 2) breaking the nine-minute mark. That approach, at least to the recording process, leads to a degree of self-editing and concentration that definitely works to the benefit of the listening experience. In a sense, Volume 2 picks up right where Volume 1 leaves off, with another robust batch of absorbing free improvisations. Definitely recommended.
Volume 1: Leo CD LR 858; Robert Morgenthaler (tbn) Reto Staub (p) Fridolin Blumer (b) Heinz Geisser (perc; waterphone on *); Maur, Switzerland, March 18, 2018; Hidden corners/ Spreading the envelope/ Seeing with the inner eye/ Lotus garden*/ The collective mind/ The thread of continuity/ High-Wired/ As in a dream; 48:04.
Volume 2: Leo CD LR 864; Robert Morgenthaler (tbn) Reto Staub (p) Fridolin Blumer (b) Heinz Geisser (perc); Maur, Switzerland, March 18, 2018; Peacock dance/ Trompe-l’oeil/ What if?/ No bones about it/ 4+1/ Coco/ Blue-shifted; 39:32.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The music I most enjoyed in 2019

another year, another list ...
here's an alphabetical list of the releases of 2019 that I most enjoyed:
Whit Dickey - Tao Quartets (AUM Fidelity)
Dave Douglas - Devotion (Greenleaf Music)
Lafayette Gilchrist - Dark Matter (Lafayette Gilchrist Music
Iro Haarla/Ulf Krokfors/Barry Altschul - Around Again: The Music of Carla Bley (TUM)
Rich Halley - Terra Incognita (Pine Eagle)
Lapis Trio - The Travelers (Shifting Paradigm)
Matt Mitchell - Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi Recordings)
Miles Okazaki - The Sky Below (Pi Recordings)
William Parker/In Order To Survive - Live/Shapeshifter (AUM Fidelity)
Tomeka Reid Quartet - Old New (Cuneiform)
Steph Richards - Take The Neon Lights (Birdwatcher)
Adam Rudolph’s Go:Organic Orchestra/Brookyn Raga Massive - Ragmala (Meta/BRM)
Tyshawn Sorey/Marilyn Crispell - The Adornment Of Time (Pi Recordings)
Dan Weiss Trio Plus 1 - Utica Box (Sunnyside)

and let's not forget some reissues and historical releases:
John Coltrane - Blue World (Impulse!)
Eric Dolphy - Musical Prophet : Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
Bill Evans - In London (Resonance)
Esbjørn Svensson Trio - e.s.t. Live In Gothenburg (ACT Music)

special thanks to all the labels, publicists, and musicians for 
persevering in such dark times

Friday, December 13, 2019

Miles Okazaki: The Sky Below

Guitarist Miles Okazaki enlists keyboardist Matt Mitchell plus two of his long-time bandmates in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, for the distinctly absorbing The Sky Below. This new collection of original songs is derived somewhat mysteriously from the tunes on his 2016 release Trickster (Pi Recordings), coupled with the influence of the guitarist’s deep dive into the music of Thelonious Monk that resulted in a much-praised collection of solo versions of Monk’s complete works. As Okazaki explains it, “If Trickster was the introduction to the characters, the songs on this album are their children, bearing their features but finding their own way.” While there’s plenty of available information about how this thoughtful composer got from one set of compositions to the next, or details about the “virtual instruments” he designed via software, or his own musings about the myths and characters behind the songs, none of that would matter if this wasn’t beautifully realized music that thrills from the get-go. The rhythmic lock that Tidd and Rickman provide keeps things popping all the way through. Okazaki, using an array of effects and computer-generated sounds, and Mitchell, switching off between acoustic and electric pianos plus a synthesizer, trade solos in brisk and ever-surprising interactions. From the jittery wake up call of the cannily arranged Rise and Shine through the quietly intense Seven Sisters, the uptempo electronics of Monstropolous, the deliciously laid back feeling of The Castaway and on to the mostly peaceful lullaby To Dream Again that closes the set, there’s a genuine depth to the writing and playing that will surely keep listeners enthralled for a long time. Absolutely recommended.
Pi Recordings PI84; Miles Okazaki (g, elec) Matt Mitchell (p, Rhodes el p, Prophet-6 synth) Anthony Tidd (el b) Sean Rickman (d); Astoria, NY, June 13-14 & June 29, 2019; Rise and Shine/ Dog Star/ Anthemoessa/ Seven Sisters/ Monstropolous/ The Castaway/ The Lighthouse/ To Dream Again; 40:31.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Go: Organic Orchestra & Brooklyn Raga Massive: Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas

Under the influence of George Harrison and the Beatles, I became interested in Indian music for a few years before I started to seriously listen to jazz. So I’ve long been primed for the recent explosion of “crossover” music involving Indian music and jazz improvisation. One of the latest developments is Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas, a powerful two-CD set of music by the combined forces of Go: Organic Orchestra & Brooklyn Raga Massive. A pioneer of “world music,” percussionist Adam Rudolph has been active in a variety of contexts since his recording debut in the mid-Seventies. With kora master Foday Musa Suso and fellow percussionist Hamid Drake, Rudolph co-founded The Mandingo Griot Society in 1978 and began a lengthy association with Yusef Lateef in 1988. He has led a number of unclassifiable ensembles over the years, frequently including Drake, who plays drums on this release. For Ragmala, Rudolph has allied his Go: Organic Orchestra with Brooklyn Raga Massive, self-described as “an artist collective dedicated to creating cross-cultural understanding through the lens of Indian classical and Raga inspired music.” This huge cast of musicians, about 40 strong, is heard in music composed and “improvisationally conducted” by Rudolph. With instrumentation that includes various flutes, brass and reeds, a string section, keyboards, guitars, sitars, drums and a wealth of percussion from around the globe, plus vocalists including Gnawa singer Hassan Hakmoun, there are a multitude of textures and endless timbral combinations for Rudolph to draw upon. It’s a testament to his vision, and to the skills of the assembled players, that the music never descends into chaos. In tracks that run anywhere from just a minute or two to a couple of pieces that break the 11-minute mark, Rudolph’s instincts lead him to spread the joy around and allow everyone in the room some space in which to shine. Particular favorites include Rotations with its overlapping polyrhythms and wild horn parts, the lengthy Savannahs featuring yearning violin, harp, clarinets, voices and more over a simple drone, Seven Pearls and its dancing percussion, Turiya, deeply into a spiritual groove, and Africa 21, a health dose of sitar-inflected Afro-funk. As violinist Arun Ramamurthy, a co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, told Shaun Brady for his liner notes, “the individual sounds and different backgrounds” of the musicians are “all melding together in this beautiful union. It was a match made in heaven.” Ragmala is nearly irresistible, and totally recommended.
Meta/BRM 023; Graham Haynes (cnt, flgh, kudu horn, bamboo vaccine) Stephen Haynes (cnt, flgh, solo alto, pocket tpt, didgeridoo, conch, kudu horn) Peter Zummo (tbn, didgeridoo, conch, kudu horn) Libby Schwartz (Fr hn) Kaoru Watanabe (C flute, fue, noh kan) Michel Gentile (C flute) Sylvain Leroux (chromatic tambin, tambin, c flute) Ze Luis (C and alto flute) Mariano Gil (bass flute) Avram Fefer (ts, bcl) Sean Sonderegger (bcl, cbcl, ss) Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon) Ivan Barenboim (Bb clarinet) Jay Gandhi (bansuri) Arun Ramamurthy, Trina Basu (vln) Samarth Nagarkar (vcl) Neel Murgai (rhythm sitar, overtone singing) Sameer Gupta (tabla) David Ellenbogen (electric rhythm guitar) Abhik Mukherjee (sitar) Bala Skandan (mridangam) Mari Tanaka (tanpura) Charles Burnham, Julianne Carney-Chung, Sana Nagano, Gwen Laster, Richard Carr (vln) Stephanie Griffin (vla) Mia Theodoratus (harp) Marco Cappelli (el & ac guitars) Alexis Marcelo (kybds) Leco Reis (b) Damon Banks (el b) Harris Eisenstadt (bata [iya, itotele, okonkolo)] Rogerio Boccato (caxixi, mineiro, temple blocks, bells, wood box surdo) Hamid Drake (drum kit, okonkolo) Adam Rudolph (iya, itotele) Hassan Hakmoun (sintir, vcl) Abderahim Hakmoun (qarqaba, vcl); West Orange, NJ, December 2018; Disc 1 (57:06): Mousa Azure/ Rotations/ Ecliptic/ Savannahs/ Shantha/ Wandering Star/ Ascent to Now/ Lamentations/ Dialectic/ Thirteen Moons. Disc 2 (60:41): Glare of the Tiger/ Reflective/ Seven Pearls/ We Grieve/ Chakawali/ Turiya/ Syntactic Journey/ Sunset Lake/ Africa 21/ Gone to Earth.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Roberta Piket: Domestic Harmony

Among musicians, Billy Mintz has a reputation as an excellent drummer. But it turns out that he’s also a composer, and pianist Roberta Piket, who also happens to be his wife, is the right person to showcase his talent for writing lovely melodies. On the perfectly titled Domestic Harmony, Piket presents her husband with the gift of ten solo renditions of his original compositions. As she notes in her liner essay, his tunes “have an open quality which gives the performer the freedom to put forth her own viewpoint.” Her assured touch at the piano and her musical imagination stand her in good stead for this thoroughly enjoyable program. Mintz’s tunes come from a variety of inspirations, from the drum sticking pattern that informs the upbeat groove of Shmear to the look of a New York City sidewalk that led to Looking Down at the Stars. Many of these pieces have been performed on Mintz’s three CD’s as a leader, but this is a good opportunity to hear them stripped down to their essence. It’s a beautifully conceived and executed program, originally intended as a private recital for Mintz. Piket wasn’t thinking of releasing it until after the whole project was complete, but now we can all join her in wishing Billy Mintz a very happy birthday!
Thirteenth Note TNR-012; Roberta Piket (p; vcl on *); Paramus, NJ, no dates indicated; Ghost Sanctuary/ Beautiful You/ Looking Down at the Stars/ Shmear/ Flight/ Destiny*/ Your Touch/ Blinds Eye/ Ugly Beautiful/ Cannonball; 54:28.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Esbjörn Svensson Trio: e.s.t. Live in Gothenburg

The members of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio were very pleased with their October 2001 performance in Sweden, and now, with the release of e.s.t. Live in Gothenburg, we get the opportunity to hear e.s.t. on an extraordinarily good night. Recorded with great clarity and precision by the trio’s long-time sound engineer, Åke Linton, pianist Svensson, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström were then between their fifth and sixth studio releases after playing together for eight years. The late Svensson was a boldly talented keyboard artist, with a style that had echoes of Keith Jarrett, classical music, Monk, Bill Evans, the blues, and much more. For this hard-working unit, Svensson provided plenty of original melodies, drawn on this night from 1999's From Gagarin’s Point Of View and 2000's Good Morning Susie Soho. As he told an interviewer in 2004, he’s “the composer of the songs. I work with the material, basically at home.” The trio would then steer the tunes in different directions in the studio, then tinker and reinvent them further in performance. On this night in the Gothenburg Concert Hall, the band sounds truly inspired. The playing sparkles, the unit's interactions are playful and lively, and the energy of an engaged and enthusiastic audience is clearly felt. Not to be missed by anyone with any interest in the possibilities of the piano trio. Strongly recommended. ACT 9046; Esbjörn Svensson (p) Dan Berglund (b) Magnus Öström (d); Gothenburg, Sweden, October 10, 2001; Disc 1 (46:48): Dating/ Somewhere Else Before/ The Rube Thing/ From Gagarin's Point Of View/ The Wraith. Disc 2 (60:00): / Providence/ Good Morning Susie Soho/ The Chapel/ Bowling/ The Second Page/ Dodge The Dodo.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tyshawn Sorey & Marilyn Crispell: The Adornment Of Time

Tyshawn Sorey & Marilyn Crispell approach one another warily and respectfully on their perfectly poised duo release The Adornment Of Time. As Sorey writes, this 65 minute performance at The Kitchen in New York “represents the culmination of the several journeys” that the pair have made together since their first encounter at the Creative Music Studio in 2014. Pianist Crispell is well regarded among creative musicians for, in Sorey’s words, “her mindful decision making, intense listening, and the profound clarity” of her creative responses. For his part, Sorey has been attracting a lot of attention for his composing as well as his exquisite percussion work. There’s a spacious luminosity to this extended improvisation. As you would expect, the pair explores a broad range of instrumental colors and tempos. Particularly fine passages include Crispell’s rhapsodic interlude at around the 18-minute mark, the pair’s delicate call and response around 23 minutes into the piece after a minute or so of silence, the invigorating appearance of tuned bells at the half-way point, a deliciously intense passage in the second half of the piece, some creaky sounds from inside the piano, and the magnificent rave-up that brings things to a close. Absolutely recommended. And is there a better title for creative improvisation than The Adornment Of Time?
Pi Recordings PI83; Marilyn Crispell (p) Tyshawn Sorey (d, perc); NYC, October 21, 2018; The Adornment of Time; 64:57.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Franco Ambrosetti Quintet: Long Waves

The highly regarded Swiss trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti has been playing with jazz stars throughout his professional life. The earliest recording of his that I can find is from a 1963 concert with his father, saxophonist Flavio Ambrosetti, and the stellar rhythm section of Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes. Long Waves, the latest release by the Franco Ambrosetti Quintet, finds the now 78-year old veteran leading another all-star ensemble with guitarist John Scofield, pianist Uri Caine, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. There’s a palpable warmth to this session, a feeling from the very start of Ambrosetti’s original composition Milonga that the listener is being invited to share in the good spirits and congenial atmosphere that the music delivers. Ambrosetti brought three other tunes to the date, the snappy Try Again, and two songs dedicated to his wife, Silli’s Long Wave, a mid-tempo groover with inspired soloing by Scofield and Caine, and the ultra-relaxed Silli’s Waltz. The winning program is rounded out by One For the Kids, a piece by pianist George Gruntz that Ambrosetti recorded previously on his 1997 Enja album Warm Breeze, and a pair of tunes that have long been popular with improvisers, Willard Robison’s 1938 composition Old Folks, played very slowly, and an extended look at Bronislaw Kaper’s On Green Dolphin Street, taken at a cheerful toe-tapping tempo with solos by all hands. As the ever-astute Bob Blumenthal writes in his liner notes, the “sincerity and affection” on display throughout the program made him “feel like part of the family.” He’s right on the mark, and spending the better part of an hour with Long Waves is practically guaranteed to make your day a little brighter. Warmly recommended.
Unit UTR 4907; Franco Ambrosetti (tpt, flgh) John Scofield (g) Uri Caine (p) Scott Colley (b) Jack DeJohnette (d); NYC, January 30-31, 2019; Milonga/ Try Again/ Silli’s Long Wave/ One For the Kids/ Old Folks/ Silli’s Waltz/ On Green Dolphin Street; 53:33.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Iro Haarla, Ulf Krokfors & Barry Altschul: Around Again: The Music Of Carla Bley

In a perfect balance of artists and repertoire, the trio of Iro Haarla, Ulf Krokfors & Barry Altschul offers a dozen compositions by Carla Bley on their luminous Around Again: The Music Of Carla Bley. Drummer Altschul, of course, played some of these tunes when he was in the Paul Bley trio which introduced Closer, Batterie, And Now, the Queen, and Start in the mid-Sixties. That was at the beginning of this master drummer’s career, and a lifetime of wide-ranging experiences make him uniquely suited for this project. Pianist Haarla and bassist Krokfors have performed together frequently over the years in a number of different musical situations. Their intuitive interactions come as no surprise, and the supremely musical Altschul seems to be immediately on their wavelength, with the entire program of a dozen songs recorded on a single day in the studio. The TUM label’s extensive documentation for this session includes revealing statements by the members of the trio, along with biographical notes and comments on the songs and their histories. While it’s a nice bonus to have all those words bringing an added dimension to the enjoyment of this disc, it’s the impeccable playing and the obvious affection of the musicians for one another and for Carla Bley’s music that make Around Again an important and affecting 67 minutes. One of the best releases of the year, absolutely recommended.
TUM 054; Iro Haarla (p) Ulf Krokfors (b) Barry Altschul (d); Helsinki, Finland, November 11, 2015; Closer/ Vashkar/ Batterie/ Ida Lupino/ Around Again/ Olhos de Gato/ Intermission Music/ King Korn/ And Now, the Queen/ Útviklingssang/ Start/ Jesus Maria; 67:01.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Gasser 3: Espresso Galattico

The Gasser 3 is Jürg Gasser on tenor saxophone, Peter K. Frey on bass, and Dieter Ulrich on drums. As near as I can tell, Espresso Galattico is Gasser’s first recording since working with the large Swiss band Skyline back in 1991. His gruff sound and investigatory approach to improvisation are beautifully complemented by bassist Frey, most often heard as half of the long-running Kontrabassduo Daniel Studer/Peter K. Frey, and drummer Ulrich, who has been active on the Swiss free jazz scene since his recording debut with the Urs Blochlinger Tettet in 1985. This trio makes quiet and tightly focused freely improvised music, with the occasional foray into more intense modes of expression. On temptations and off we go, we encounter some powerhouse saxophone playing by Gasser, who’s clearly been hard at work while staying away from recording microphones for more than a quarter century. There is a decided emphasis on rapid responses within the trio, and while the notion that improvisers are having a musical conversation might be a trifle clichéd, that idea is effectively exemplified by units like the Gasser Trio. It’s always a pleasure to hear committed musicians in an egalitarian foray into free improvisation, and that’s precisely what Espresso Galattico delivers. Recommended.
Leo CD LR 845; Jürg Gasser (ts) Peter K. Frey (b) Dieter Ulrich (d, buegel); poss. Friedrichshafen, Germany, August 22-23, 2015; espresso galattico/ temptations/ ewig währt am längsten/ slow fox/ softly, but .../ talking/ joke/ off we go/ ciao; 51:58.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Rajna Swaminathan: Of Agency and Abstraction

Rajna Swaminathan plays mrudangam, the two-headed drum of the Carnatic music tradition in India. On Of Agency and Abstraction, Swaminathan drives her RAJAS Ensemble in a thoroughly winning fusion of Indian and jazz improvisation. Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, guitarist Miles Okazaki and bassist Stephen Crump are no strangers to cross-cultural endeavors, and they bring their combined experiences to bear on Swaminathan’s captivating compositions. Add violinist Anjna Swaminathan and vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy for a immersive experience with a dozen original compositions. Swaminathan’s delicately nuanced hand drumming guides the music with a firm sense of direction. The instrumental focus shifts from tune to tune, with the singing violin of Anjna Swaminathan often out in front. Noteworthy passages, and there are many, include the arco bass and guitar introduction to Vigil, Doraiswamy’s keening vocal on the relaxed Departures, the swirl of trumpet, violin and tenor sax on Communitas, Okazaki’s fractured guitar solo on Retrograde, the relaxed interplay between Grand’s tenor and Swaminathan’s violin on the loping Rush, Grand’s expansive tenor solo on Vagabonds, and throughout, Swaminathan’s invigorating rhythmic complexity. Since the Fifties, there have been more than a few projects that have combined jazz and Indian music in various proportions. In her compositions and well-crafted arrangements, Swaminathan’s music achieves a seamless blend that’s uniquely satisfying. Absolutely recommended.
Biophilia Records; RAJAS Ensemble: Amir ElSaffar (tpt) Maria Grand (ts) Anjna Swaminathan (vln) Miles Okazaki (g) Stephan Crump (b) Rajna Swaminathan (mrudangam) Ganavya Doraiswamy (vcl); Astoria, NY, December 18-20, 2017; Offering/ Peregrination/ Vigil/ Departures/ Ripple Effect/ Communitas/ Retrograde/ Chasing the Gradient/ Rush/ Vagabonds/ Tangled Hierarchy/ Yathi; 72:09.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Claudio Scolari, Daniele Cavalca & Simone Scolari: Natural Impulse

Restless energy and a dark lyricism are the key characteristics of Natural Impulse, an intriguing hour of sounds generated by the trio of Claudio Scolari, Daniele Cavalca & Simone Scolari. Various combinations of instruments underlie the inquisitive trumpet played by Simone Scolari. Cavalca and Claudio Scolari play all the other instruments, and are credited with composing and producing the music. From those facts, I would hazard a guess that they conjured up the backing tracks and then had Simone Scolari play over them. I suppose it’s also possible that they played live with trumpet, then overdubbed additional material. But no matter how they put this music together, it happily retains a spontaneous feeling. The unpredictably mutating mesh of synths, bass, drums and percussion, piano, electric piano, and vibes is endlessly engaging and full of surprising juxtapositions. Chasing Inspiration is a favorite, with trumpeter Scolari soaring over the spacious synthesizer and drum backing. The trumpeter lays out on the title track, a slowly percolating groove featuring Cavalca’s piano with overdubbed bass and drums. He also sits out the synth-heavy and spaced out Uptown Night Trip. Vibes, drums and synths begin the absorbing Insomnia, which develops into a stuttering rhythm as Scolari’s trumpet matches wits with Cavalca’s synthesizer gurgles and beeps. Hard to describe, perhaps, but Natural Impulse is an easily accessible and fertile mix of electric and acoustic sounds. A fun disc, easily recommended.
Principal CSDC 06; Simone Scolari (tpt) Claudio Scolari (d, perc, synth) Daniele Cavalca (synth, Fender Rhodes el p, vib, b; d on*); no recording information; Unknown Destination*/ American Skyscrapers/ Chasing Inspiration*/ Natural Impulse/ Moon Mood/ Dear John/ Uptown Night Trip*/ Insomnia*/ Over the Horizon/ South Hemisphere; 60:56.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The OGJB Quartet: Bamako

The OGJB Quartet is a new band with four long-established musicians. The initials stand for saxophonist Oliver Lake, cornetist Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Barry Altschul. As Fonda tells the story in the lengthy and copiously annotated booklet for their initial release, Bamako, his original plan was a trio with Altschul and Lake. When Kunle Mwanga of Earth Art Productions suggested adding Haynes to make it a quartet, Fonda and Altschul thought it was a great idea. Judging by this impressive debut, it seems they made the right choice. The program revisits previously recorded compositions, including Altschul’s Be Out S’Cool and Just a Simple Song, and Lake’s Stick and Is It Alright?, adds a couple of new tunes, and concludes with two examples of balanced and friendly group improvising, totaling about 10 minutes. Fonda and Altschul have performed together frequently, first in the FAB Trio with Billy Bang, and then The 3DomFactor with Jon Irabagon. These connections, and many more, are explored in Lawrence Donohue-Greene’s richly informative liner essay, and that web of relationships is evident in the “perfect synergy” that Joe Fonda finds within this unit. Haynes and Lake blend their instrumental voices with great care, with a range that extends from their peacefully entwined solos on Just a Simple Song to the more jagged and aggressive call and response on Lake’s Is It Alright? Their most unexpected collaboration is Haynes’ musical setting for Lake reading his poem Broken In Parts, with the composer on dousn’gouni, Fonda on bass, and Altschul on mbira. All told, an inspired and inspiring release. Warmly recommended.
TUM CD 050; Graham Haynes (cnt; dousn’gouni on *) Oliver Lake (as, ss; recitation on *) Joe Fonda (b) Barry Altschul (d, perc; mbira on *); Listen to Dr. Cornel West/ Bamako*/ Be Out S’Cool/ Stick/ GS #2/ Just a Simple Song/ Is It Alright?/ 3 Phrase 09/ OGJB #2/ OGJB #1; 63:17.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Dave Douglas: Devotion

Let’s stipulate that when the ever-astonishing drummer Andrew Cyrille is present on a recording session, it will be music well worth hearing, again and again. And so it is with Devotion, as Cyrille joins trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist extraordinaire Uri Caine for a beautifully realized collection of original compositions by Douglas, plus the title track, an 1818 composition by Alexander Johnson. Douglas and Caine have been playing together for decades at this point. As a duo practice, they’ve been working with the Sacred Harp tradition of choral music. That’s where the Johnson tune comes from, but the influence permeates Douglas’ pieces. Especially potent in this regard is the solemn ode to Dizzy Gillespie that Douglas calls We Pray. As Douglas informs us in a brief liner note, most of the pieces are devoted to specific individuals, including a pair for Italian pianist Franco D’Andrea (the quick-moving D’Andrea and the smooth ballad Francis of Anthony) and another pair for influential pianist and composer Carla Bley (the poised and bouncy Miljøsang and False Allegiances, a dark tango). The trio situation is a particularly fertile setting for powerful improvising and interactivity, and this unit certainly makes the most of its considerable resources. With three musical masters committed and at the top of their games, Devotion is a very special recording, with some stunning music that is often touched by something like grace. Not to be missed. Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1071; Dave Douglas (tpt) Uri Caine (p) Andrew Cyrille (d, perc); Astoria, NY, September 23, 2018; Curly/ D’Andrea/ Francis of Anthony/ Miljøsang/ False Allegiances/ Prefontaine/ Pacific/ Rose and Thorn/ We Pray/ Devotion; 54:21.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Michael Vlatkovich 5 Winds: Five Of Us

One of my favorite aspects of the first wave of jazz recordings in stereo, around 1957 and 1958, was the direct relationship between where musicians were positioned physically in the studio and the spatial dimensions of the finished product. When, for example, the baritone saxophone player was at the far left, he was also on that side of your listening room. The peripatetic and imaginative trombonist Michael Vlatkovich creates different musical situations for himself wherever he goes. Five Of Us is new from the innovative pfMENTUM label, source of many Vlatkovich projects, and the music is presented in that old school style. The ensemble is Michael Vlatkovich 5 Winds, with a line-up, from left to right, of the great David Mott on baritone saxophone, Lina Allemano on trumpet, Mr. Vlatkovich in the dead center with his trombone, Nicole Rampersaud on trumpet, and Peter Lutek on tenor saxophone and frankenpipe, which I discovered is “an attempt at converting a traditional Highland bagpipe into a MIDI controller.” (Lutek also expertly recorded, mixed, and mastered the disc.) Vlatkovich, who wrote all the pieces, authors some of the most cheerfully odd music you’ve ever heard, as you might guess from a glance at some of his song titles. The first nine tracks comprise the 5 Winds Suite, and there’s so much beauty packed into the melody and arrangement of Part 1: Six, the listener is ready for anything, secure in the feeling that whatever the 5 Winds throw at you will make you happy. And so it is, for more than an hour. It seems that limitations, particularly self-imposed ones, often lead to creative breakthroughs. Three brass and two reeds is an unusual combination, but a potent one when the players are as self-assured and accomplished as Vlatkovich and his partners. Key attractions are the leader’s limber and expressive trombone, the sheer beauty of the melody of For You, the gorgeous brass wail on a piece like Part 5: Five, Mott’s creamy baritone, and Vlatkovich’s inventive charts. I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of Vlatkovich’s music over the years, but Five Of Us might be his best outing of all. Heartily recommended. pfMENTUM PFMCD130; Lina Allemano, Nicole Rampersaud (tpt) Michael Vlatkovich (tbn) Peter Lutek (ts, frankenpipe) David Mott (bari s); Toronto, ON, June 3, 2015; Please Help Me I’m Blowing Bubbles/ 5 Winds Suite (Part 1: Six; Part 2: Twenty-Six; Part 3: Nineteen -> No. 7, Part 4: Zero; Part 5: Five; Part 6: One; Part 7: Twenty-Four; Part 8: Nineteen; Part 9: Ninety-Three)/ For You/ Natural Identical Flowers/ People in My Wallet/ (Alt), The Recognition of Rhythm in the Life of Worldly Things/ What Question Did the Man with Seven Ears and Three Eyes Ask the Plastic Surgeon?/ For the Protection of Yourself and Others You’ll Need to Wear Your Space Suit; 64:44.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Andrew Munsey: High Tide

Drummer Andrew Munsey makes his bandleading debut with High Tide, powering a quintet with Steph Richards on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ochion Jewell on tenor saxophone, Amino Belyamani on acoustic and electric pianos, and Sam Minaie on bass. As recordist and/or drummer, Munsey has worked closely with Richards on all of her recordings. Bassist Minaie played on Richards’ Take The Neon Lights and along with keyboardist Belyamani, is a member of saxophonist Jewell’s quartet. That makes for plenty of shared history within the group, so the quintet’s ability to seamlessly shift gears comes as no surprise. Munsey wrote all the pieces, except for Les Cing Doigts: Lento, the sixth section of Igor Stravinsky’s 1921 piano composition, respectfully arranged for quintet. Munsey’s originals come in a variety of styles. His drums lead us into the opening title track, a vaguely boppish number with an enticingly twisted melody line. Belyamani takes a nicely flowing piano solo on this one. On pieces like the brief Petite Feast and the even shorter Driftwood, the structure blurs the line between a solo and its accompaniment. Then there are more developed songs like Seedling, with a charming tenor solo, and Requite, a thoughtfully styled ballad with a theme out of the Fifties or Sixties. It sounds a bit like a Horace Silver tune played very slowly. The performance is graced by a peaceful and mildly obsessive piano solo by Belyamani and an unexpectedly lyrical solo by Richards on flugelhorn. Undertow is a dark and brooding number, with moans from the saxophone, brassy wheezes from the trumpet, and some mildly creepy stabs of electric piano. Schema is poised and minimal, as a nervously repeated piano note, complemented by rudimentary drumming and a simple bass line, underpins the occasional melody played in unison by Jewell and Richards. Bassist Minaie makes the most of his solo spot. Minaie’s delicately buzzing arco introduces the short Prelude: Tree Fruit, which features a stately melody imparted by saxophone and trumpet. The theme is elaborated and caressed in the slow groove of Skyline, which closes the set on a warmly exultant note. Tidal Wave is tough to pigeonhole, which is a good thing. This exciting and absorbing batch of well-played modern instrumentals is well worth hearing.
Birdwatcher; Steph Richards (tpt, flgh) Ochion Jewell (ts, kalimba) Amino Belyamani (p, Rhodes el p) Sam Minaie (b) Andrew Munsey (d); Brooklyn, NY, no dates specified; High Tide/ Petite Feast/ Seedling/ Driftwood/ Requite/ Undertow/ Schema/ Les Cing Doigts: Lento/ Prelude: Tree Fruit/ Skyline; 51:58.

Steph Richards times four

There was a time when I could keep pretty good track of all the musicians in the jazz world that I was interested in hearing. By tracking musicians from album to album, I would discover yet more names to follow. Alas, there are always more players to listen to, I'm getting older, and the existence of the internet mocks my internal database of improvisers. Still, there’s plenty of value to be gained by tracing a particular musician’s path, enjoying her work and, in the process, discovering yet more music to savor. The work of trumpeter Steph Richards occasions these thoughts.
My first exposure to her playing was Trio Music, a 2017 recording by Vinny Golia, Steph Richards & Bert Turetzky. I’ve been a Golia fan for ages, and I know he’s a busy guy. Double bass wizard Bert Turetzky is in his eighties. So based on her companions, I gathered that Steph Richards will be someone definitely worth hearing, and now having listened I’m not disappointed. Her dark sound seems to be infinitely adaptable, from wobbly to clear and bright. The quickness of her responses and her self-assured attitude in this freely improvised batch of performances are a delight. Turetzky, with his arco rumbles, and Golia, with his panoply of woodwinds and “ethnic aerophones,” are lively collaborators who first recorded as a duo back in 1986 for Golia’s Nine Winds imprint. Previous trio sessions for the pair have added such luminaries as trombonist George Lewis (1996 and 2003), trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith (1997), and bassist Barre Phillips (1998), which puts Richards in very good company. Over the course of a dozen fairly short improvisations, the trio explores a range of moods and approaches. The spaciousness of the music and the superbly recorded and mixed sound (thanks to Andrew Munsey, who we’ll get back to in this post) are a real plus here, helping the listener truly appreciate the individual sounds of each musician. While I have my favorites, including the buzzy and gnarly Cerberus (and what a great name for a trio improv!) and the unsettled slip-slide of Atazoy, any music fan that listens to Trio Music with an open heart will find much to enjoy. pfMENTUM PFMCD117; Steph Richards (tpt, flgh) Vinny Golia (winds, ethnic aerophones) Bert Turetzky (b); San Diego, CA, April 23, 2017; Solana/ Proprioception/ Cerberus/ As I was Saying…/ $19.95/ SunnySide Up/ Desert Wind/ Hector Shear makes his entrance…(could they really exist in Maine?)/ Atazoy/ The Paradox of Zazu Pitts/ Descendant Un Escalier/ The Duo That Became A Trio; 53:26.

Now that I knew that her work merited close attention, I latched onto Resonant Bodies, a duo project from 2015 featuring Stephanie Richards on trumpet, flugelhorn, and percussion, with percussionist Andrew Drury limiting himself to just a floor tom and timpani. When the pair listened to what they’d improvised, again recorded by Andrew Munsey, “the timbres suggested thawing glaciers to us--groaning, cracking, splitting, of large masses of ancient ice under extreme pressure, moving and melting.” Hence the album’s title, Thaw, with the fairly brief tracks named after glaciers on five continents. The duo conjure up some truly odd combinations of sounds, with the source often unrecognizable. There’s an appealing rawness to their encounters, as they ignore many of the usual qualities of music like melody, harmony, and tempo, in favor of brutal expression. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s a trip worth taking for fans of boldly adventurous improvising. Different Track 50004; Stephanie Richards (tpt, snare d, flgh, timpani) Andrew Drury (floor tom, timpani); San Diego, CA, November 2015; THAW/ Kilimanjaro 2040/ Fracture (for Larsen C)/ Mendenhall/ Drangajökull/ Kangiata Nunaata Sermia/ Nisqually/ Thwaites/ Panchchuli/ Snow Dome/ Athabasca/ RETREAT; 28:32.

Released, like Thaw, in the spring of 2018, Stephanie Richards’s first recording under her own name is Fullmoon. The format is another duet, this time with electronic musician Dino J.A. Deane who live-samples her trumpet and manipulates the results back into the mix. This makes for a wild and almost limitless encounter, sometimes busy, sometimes sparse, but always deeply intriguing. As a way of making music, improvised music in general is especially suited for headphone listening, and Fullmoon is a great example. Close listening reveals both the nuances of Richards’ mercurial trumpet and the finely honed interactions of instrument and sampler. By and large, Richards maintains a fairly clean, brassy sound, allowing Deane to “mess it up” with whatever effects he brings to bear. Highlights include the other-worldly atmosphere evoked on piano, the chilly purity of the very brief half moon, and the calmly meditative gong (part I). All told, a fascinating recital, rich in surprises and well worth a listen. Relative Pitch RPR1066 (CD, lp): Stephanie Richards (tpt, flgh, perc) Dino J.A. Deane (sampler); prob. San Diego, CA, no dates specified; new moon/ snare/ piano/ half moon/ gong (pt. 1)/ gong (pt. 2)/ timpani/ full moon (pt. 1)/ full moon (pt. 2); 32:46.

Steph Richards’ most recent release is Take The Neon Lights, where she helms a quartet with James Carney on piano, Sam Minaie on bass, and Andrew Munsey on drums. Richards, who composed all the tunes, co-produced the set with Munsey, who also mixed and mastered the session. Richards, who can whisper and growl with equal commitment, employs a wide vocabulary of shrieks, burbles, and fluttery bursts of sound. Add to that her careful manipulation of mutes and a trick bag of extended techniques, all allied to a fertile and fearless musical imagination. Richards’ open-ended compositions, doubtlessly influenced by her work with notable composers and bandleaders like Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, also build on her unconventional approach to the trumpet. Tunes like the mysterious and hard-driving Brooklyn Machine, the disquieting Rumor of War, and the densely propulsive Stalked By Tall Buildings unfold in series of unexpected twists and turns. Richards’ peregrinations are, naturally, the main focus here, but pianist Carney is worth some attention as well. From his scattered inside-the-piano work on Time and Grime to his brisk and meaty solo on Skull of Theatres, Carney seems preternaturally attuned to the many nuances of Richards’ playing. With Minaie and Munsey maintaining a careful rhythmic scaffold, and the adventuresome Carney matching wits with Richards, Take The Neon Lights is a compelling and nearly irresistible release. Recommended. Birdwatcher BW008; Stephanie Richards (tpt, flgh) James Carney (p) Sam Minaie (b) Andrew Munsey (d); Paramus, NJ, no dates specified; Take The Neon Lights and Wear A Crown/ Brooklyn Machine/ Time and Grime/ Rumor of War/ Transitory (Gleams)/ Skull of Theatres/ Stalked By Tall Buildings/ All the Years of Our Lives; 44:02.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Paul May & Carolyn Hume: Kill The Lights

When the drums and keyboard duo of Paul May & Carolyn Hume suggests that you Kill The Lights, they’re making a valuable suggestion for listening to their new Leo release. With the occasional quiet assistance of guitarist Bernd Rest, Hume and May devote the 44 minutes of Kill The Lights to a soundtrack for the flow of images that will seep into your mind if you rest easily in the dark as it plays. In essence, the musicians have subjected themselves to a disciplined sort of quiet improvisation so that listeners can be freed of any expectations in creating their own narratives. The overall sensation is peaceful and soothing. Hume is as dreamy on piano as she is on electronic keyboards, while May’s minimalist style is grounded in the deep thumps of a bass drum. Any kind of detailed discussion of the proceedings would be largely besides the point. But I do want to say that anyone who includes “intimate metals” as part of his percussion setup is okay in my book.
Leo CD LR 847; Carolyn Hume (p, kybds) Paul May (d, “intimate metals”) Bernd Rest (g); London, England, no dates specified; Horizontal Blue/ Sentry/ Surrender/ Shadow and Dust/ The Blacksmith and the Butcher’s Wife/ Kill the Lights; 44:24.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Houston Person: I’m Just A Lucky So And So

Veteran tenorman Houston Person is in his eighties, but he’s still blowing with his usual soulful and bluesy elegance on his latest HighNote release, I’m Just A Lucky So And So. The basic quartet, with Lafayette Harris on piano, Matthew Parrish, and Kenny Washington on drums, is augmented by trumpeter Eddie Allen and guitarist Rodney Jones on many of the pieces. A funky introduction by Jones is a bit startling at the beginning of Willow Weep For Me, but things settle down soon enough as Person caresses the familiar theme. One of the special pleasures of a Houston Person session is the care that he puts into song selection. A few of the pieces in the repertoire are familiar vehicles for improvisers, like Willow Weep For Me and Who Can I Turn To. But more often than not, Person has resurrected numbers that are not nearly as well-known. Music by Sammy Cahn, represented here by Wonder Why, I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, and Day by Day, seems to be especially favored by Person. As pianist Harris, a Person associate since 2014, told Willard Jenkins for his liner notes, the saxophonist has opened him up to “so many great songs that musicians don’t play and sometimes haven’t even heard!” The biggest surprise is the funky closer, Next Time You See Me, a hit for Junior Parker back in 1957 and not a common vehicle for improvisers. The most obscure piece is Alone With Just My Dreams, a posthumously uncovered song by bassist George Duvivier which was the title track of a 1991 album by trumpeter Joe Wilder. Befitting the source, bassist Parrish takes the introductory chorus. Parrish, a long-time member of pianist David Leonhardt’s group who appeared on Person’s Rain Or Shine in 2017, fits in perfectly. Guitarist Jones contributes the date’s sole original composition, the blues-like Song for a Rainbow. Trumpeter Allen is in excellent form throughout. He’s especially effective on Billy Eckstine’s I Want to Talk About You. The rhythm section of Jones, Harris, Parrish, and Washington is warmly supportive and faultlessly swinging at any tempo. Houston’s graceful approach to melody and his unfailingly lovely saxophone sound make all of his projects a joy to listen to over and over, and I’m Just A Lucky So And So is no exception. Happily recommended.
HighNote HCD 7327; Eddie Allen (tp on 1,3,4,6,8-10) Houston Person (ts) Lafayette Harris (p) Rodney Jones (g on 1,2,5,6,8,10) Matthew Parrish (b) Kenny Washington (d); Englewood Cliffs, NJ, November 30, 2018; 1.Willow Weep For Me/ 2.Wonder Why/ 3. I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry/ 4.I’m Just a Lucky So and So/ 5.Who Can I Turn To/ 6.Day by Day/ 7.Alone With Just My Dreams/ 8.Song for a Rainbow/ 9.I Want to Talk About You/ 10.Next Time You See Me; 55:32.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Dave Liebman/ Adam Rudolph/ Hamid Drake: CHI

Improvisation must be as old as music itself. After all, the first sounds we might recognize as musical arose from nothing. But of course, the tools have changed radically over the millennia, and the deeply conjoined trio of Dave Liebman, Adam Rudolph, and Hamid Drake uses anything they can to create something from nothing on their new CD, CHI. Saxophones, an array of percussion instruments from around the world, voices, electronics, and the occasional piano meet in a invigorating display of instant communication. Rudolph and Drake go back a long way together, to their time in the Mandingo Griot Society in the late Seventies. And since the late Sixties, Dave Liebman has established himself on hundreds of recordings as a free spirit and a reliably potent musical force. Their improvisations here range from under 3 minutes for the introductory Becoming to the quarter-hour of Emergence, and the titles they’ve assigned to their free-wheeling inventions are roughly descriptive of the music. Thus Flux is mostly a continuous changing flow with some intense drumming and an aggressive soprano saxophone solo. Continuum builds on Drake’s cymbal beat and Rudolph’s hand drums, with a keening saxophone emerging after two minutes and leading the way into a passionate musical conversation. The carefully sculpted Formless Form features Liebman’s slightly hesitant piano and steady but delicate percussion. Percussion dominates the first section of Emergence. Liebman enters with a sinuous soprano line, and the piece slowly builds to a exciting three-way improvisation. The sax drops out, the drummers engage one another, and the mood changes for a while into a more pastoral kind of feeling before revving up again and slowly drifting off. Whirl ends the program of nearly an hour with a piece centered on Rudolph’s sintir, a bass lute used by the Gnawa people of northern Africa. His swirling bass lines meld with Drake’s frame drum and lilting saxophone lines from Liebman to create a mellow conclusion to their encounter. Recommended.
RareNoise RNR102; Dave Liebman (ss, ts, p on *, wooden recorder) Adam Rudolph (hand drumset [kongos, djembe, tarija], p on #, sintir, multi-phonic vcl, perc, elec) Hamid Drake (d, vcl, frame drum, perc); NYC, May 8, 2018; Becoming#/ Flux/ Continuum/ Formless Form*/ Emergence / Whirl; 56:00.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Exodos: Heuristics

Exodos is a multi-national quartet, with brassman Guy Bettini, Fabio Martini on alto sax and various clarinets, and the dynamic and boldly interactive bass and drums team of Luca Sisera and Gerry Hemingway. Their Leo release is called Heuristics, defined as an approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method. There’s no guarantee that any given solution be optimal, merely sufficient for reaching an immediate goal. When the goal is a satisfying variety of improvised music, the field of possibilities is limited only by the imaginations of the players. This 59-minute disc of totally improvised sound is structured as if it were a Greek drama, with a Prologos followed by a Parados, the first song sung by the chorus after its entrance from the side wings. The main action alternates sections called epeisodias with songs called stasimons until we arrive at the conclusion, or exodos. The opening track beckons us slowly into the quartet’s edgy and restrained musical world. A conversation between Bettini and Martini is enlivened by Hemingway’s clattering drums and bright cymbals. Soon a turbo-charged four-way colloquy is under way. Parados begins with a carefully modulated opening section that features an inquisitive bass line from Sisera with Martini’s alto sax responding and fairly quiet comments from Hemingway wielding brushes. Eventually the drumming becomes more assertive, and Martini yields to the bright tone of Bettini, who takes an eminently thoughtful solo (on trumpet?). A brief collective improvisation ensues, only to slowly dissolve and return to silence. The first of 3 Epeisodias is the longest piece in the set, and unfortunately, it’s also the kind of piece that’s more interesting to play than to listen to. The band is mired in playing long tones without any tempo for the first half of the piece and the music never develops into much of interest. Stasimon A is better, though still working in a minimalist style. At least there’s more interaction among the players, and an attractively conversational aspect to the music. With Epeisodia 2, things are back on track as each musician is playing more forcefully. Their boldness and occasionally aggressive attitude results in some of the most absorbing music of the date. Stasimon B is a gas, with brassy buzzes, some sauntering alto saxophone, swooping bass, and vigorous drumming. Even with some tedious passages, Heuristics is full of particularly bright moments. These include Martini’s stuttering alto solo on Prologos, a provocative trumpet solo by Bettini in the final section of Stasimon A, Sisera’s tender bass solo at the start of Epeisodia 3, the light-hearted bass and clarinet duet later in the same piece, Bettini’s buzzing solo (cornet?) on the closer, and Hemingway just about everywhere. Definitely worth a listen.
Leo CD LR 832; Guy Bettini (cnt, tpt, flgh) Fabio Martini (clarinets, as) Luca Sisera (b) Gerry Hemingway (d, vcl); Basel, Switzerland, April 6-7, 2017; Prologos/ Parados/ Epeisodia 1/ Stasimon A/ Epeisodia 2/ Stasimon B/ Epeisodia 3/ Exodus; 59:01.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Christy Doran: 144 Strings For A Broken Chord

Christy Doran enlisted 19 fellow electric guitarists, 4 electric bassists, one lonely drummer, and a conductor for a 7-part composition he calls 144 Strings For A Broken Chord. Even before I started to listen to this rather beautiful music, I was captivated by a photograph of the entire band on stage with an impressive array of guitars, amps and pedals. Expecting a total onslaught of sound, I was pleasantly surprised when the opener, Cannon Street Canon, proved to be a nuanced exploration of the classical structure. The contrapuntal format is perfectly suited to this agglomeration of guitars. Doran built the band around his current trio with bassist Franco Fontanarrosa and drummer Lukas Mantel. He gives Fontanarrosa the only solo on Cannon Street Canon. Curiously, Doran doesn’t solo himself on any of the tunes. While most of the pieces make some room for solos, they tend to be quite short, and the full ensemble is really the focus. Andromeda begins with a four note melody. With licks passed around the ensemble over a perky beat from Mantel, the band proceeds to develop and elaborate on the simple theme for over 11 minutes. Bassist Wolfgang Zwiauer and guitarist Walter Beltrami are the featured soloists over richly textured guitar lines. The jittery Gunslingers is next, the occasion for a series of brief solos by guitarists Christopher Guilfoyle, Yves Reichmuth, and Philippe Emanuel Schåppi popping out of the ensemble, followed by an electric bass duet by Fontanarrosa and Andi Schnellmann. A broken chord is one in which the notes are played successively, and with so many strings available, there are plenty of possibilities for precisely how this can work. Broken Chords is a wild tune with tempo shifts and dynamic extremes amid the entrancing weave of electric guitars. Laurent Méteau’s screaming guitar solo is one of the disc’s many highlights. I am particularly taken with the funky and audacious Bad News Babe, a multi-part piece loaded with dissonant power chords and piercing licks. There’s a heavy metal feel to a number of sections, which hint both at parody and homage without ever really deciding which. Like all of Doran’s pieces in this setting, it’s got delicate sections right up against more robust passages. This is the longest track on the session, at just over 13 minutes, but the fullness of the sound and the intriguing paths that the music carves out justify the length. What follows is the shortest track, Goin’ In On the Way Out, with a lovely section of guitarists playing part of a scale, then passing the baton, as it were, to another player. The finale, Bows and Wahs, is deeply mysterious, with a dark subterranean feeling for most of its 10-minute length. Lukas Mantel’s steady and minimalist drumming holds down the center, with guitars and basses flowing around him, quietly at first but building slowly into an intense scrum of sound. Franz Hellmüller takes an energetically spunky solo to conclude the tune, and the disc. Via the thoroughly committed playing by all hands of Doran’s well-crafted compositions and the conducting of John Voirol, what could have been an undifferentiated mess is an eminently viable format and a triumph for all concerned. Definitely recommended, and the transparent sound quality and careful mix make 144 Strings a superb listen on headphones.
Between The Lines BTLCHR71245; Walter Beltrami, Manuel Büchel, Glauco Cataldo, Christy Doran, Lucia D’Errico, Dave Gisler, Christopher Guilfoyle, Franz Hellmüller, Laurent Méteau, Urs Müller, Yves Reichmuth, Florian Respondek, Simon Rupp, Philippe Emanuel Schåppi, Philipp Schaufelberger, Nicolas Stettler, Urs Vögeli, Christian Winiker, Christian Zemp, Gael Zwahlen (g) Martina Berther, Franco Fontanarrosa, Andi Schnellmann, Wolfgang Zwiauer (el b) Lukas Mantel (d) John Voirol (cond); Stalden, Switzerland, September 13-15, 2016; Cannon Street Canon/ Andromeda/ Gunslingers/ Broken Chords/ Bad News Babe/ Goin’ In On the Way Out/ Bows and Wahs; 59:47.

Friday, August 2, 2019

George Cables: I’m All Smiles

George Cables, a master of modern jazz piano, has had more than his share of health problems over the last few years and was unable to play for a while. But he’s back on the scene, and his latest trio venture, I’m All Smiles, functions as the best “thank you” to his many well-wishers that they could have hoped for. Many of the selections impart definite messages, like the opening Young at Heart, the popular Love is a Many- Splendored Thing from 1955, and the title track, first heard on Broadway in The Yearling (1965). The nicely balanced program also includes Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, Consuelo Velázquez’s immortal Bésame Mucho, Freddie Hubbard’s durable Thermo, Jaco Pastorius’ Three Views of a Secret, one Cables original (the brightly optimistic Celebration) and a pair of tunes by Thelonious Monk. A curiously upbeat and choppy version of Ugly Beauty is performed by the trio, while a spirited solo piano rendition of Monk’s Mood ends the disc with a flourish. Suffice it to say that Cables sounds strong and is swinging as hard as ever. Essiet Essiet on bass and the veteran Victor Lewis provide impeccable support throughout. This disc was recorded in a single day in the studio, and I can’t help but get the feeling that Cables was champing at the bit to get back to music-making. Welcome back, George Cables! I’m All Smiles is a real winner, and happily recommended.
HighNote HCD 7322; George Cables (p) Essiet Essiet (b, exc. on *) Victor Lewis (d, exc. on *); NYC, October 26, 2018; Young at Heart/ I’m All Smiles/ Speak No Evil/ Besame Mucho/ Ugly Beauty/ Love is a Many-Splendored Thing/ Celebration/ Three Views of a Secret/ Thermo/ Monk’s Mood*; 58:24.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Lafayette Gilchrist: Dark Matter

Listen to enough music of all kinds, and after a while you can tell pretty quickly if there’s anything really happening on a particular disc. It took me just a few seconds of listening to pianist Lafayette Gilchrist’s solo album Dark Matter, to realize that I was in for a real treat. Gilchrist’s musical associates have included Oliver Lake, Hamid Drake, Carl Grubbs, and, crucially, David Murray as a member of his Black Saint Quartet. This is his second solo effort, after 2012's The View From Here. He’s heard here in concert at the University of Baltimore, his home town. Gilchrist starts the set with For the Go-Go, a blues in tribute to the Washington, DC/Baltimore go-go music scene he grew up with. The pianist is smoking and stomping from the start, and all I can say is that virtually any jazz fan will be happy to just sit back and let Gilchrist take you into his confidence as his original compositions roll over you. The finely detailed recording by Gilchrist’s co-producer Wendell Patrick captures his rich piano sound and his close attention to the dynamics of a tune. There are hints of both Monk and Bud Powell in his piano style, along with occasional forays into free territory. Gilchrist is continually harking back to earlier pianists like Earl Hines, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Duke Ellington, with his left hand particularly active for a modern player. Gilchrist really has it all: a highly individual touch, a powerful rhythmic drive, a deep affinity for the blues, appealing compositions, and the ability to play the hell out of them. There are a number of jarring edits between songs that mar the flow of the music, but aside from that, Dark Matter is a genuine triumph, and one of the albums of the year so far. Don’t miss it.
Lafayette Gilchrist Music CDcds 005; Lafayette Gilchrist (p); Baltimore, MD, September 18, 2016; For the Go-Go/ Child’s Play/ Dark Matter/ The Love Bind/ Spontaneous Combustion/ And You Know/ Blues for Our Marches to End/ Old Whale Bones/ Happy Birthday Sucker/ Black Flight/ Greetings; 67:59.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

David Kikoski: Phoenix Rising

Pianist David Kikoski leads a quartet with Eric Alexander on tenor, Peter Washington on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums on Phoenix Rising, his debut release for HighNote Records. No surprise given these personalities, but the band is swinging like mad on the opening title track, co-composed by Kikoski and Alexander. It’s also no surprise that they keep it up throughout this winning session. Kikoski, who has been heard on many recordings since his debut with drummer Fabio Jegher in 1982, is probably best known for his extended relationship with the great drummer Roy Haynes from the mid-Eighties through the early part of this century. To my mind, no one needs a stronger recommendation than the imprimatur of Mr. Haynes to seriously spend some time with Kikoski and friends. Except for the opening track, and Alexander’s Kik It, a jumping blues that follows it, the repertoire is a considered selection of standards plus John Coltrane’s Lazy Bird. Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, made famous by Glen Campbell in 1968, may raise a few eyebrows, but a quick glance at a discography tells me that it’s been recorded over 50 times by jazz musicians, including J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, and Sonny Stitt. From Kikoski’s lush introduction, it’s easy to hear why it’s so appealing: a fascinating chord progression, a memorable melody and a sense of drama, even without the lyrics. The quartet does it justice, at just about the original tempo, with Kikoski and Alexander soloing in a relaxed manner. Save for the two originals, the balance of the program is older than Webb’s classic, and from the straightforwardly swinging way that everyone’s playing, you could be forgiven for listening to this disc blindly and thinking that the music is thirty or forty years old. Respecting the tradition, of course, is far from a bad thing, especially when the match of players and program is as well-designed as it is here. Standout tracks include a romp through If I Were a Bell, in the Miles Davis arrangement but with the twist of an extra tag, a rollicking version of Love For Sale, and a supersonically charged look at Lazy Bird, with Alexander and Kikoski deftly navigating this classic theme. But truth to tell, you really can’t grow wrong dipping into this CD anywhere. Alexander and Kikoski have been pals for years, but this is the first time that the two have recorded together. Here’s looking forward to more collaborations from this well-matched pair. Easily recommended.
HighNote HCD 7328; Eric Alexander (ts) David Kikoski (p) Peter Washington (b) Joe Farnsworth (d); Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 20, 2018; Phoenix Rising/ Kik It/ Wichita Lineman/ If I Were a Bell/ Emily/ Love for Sale/ My One and Only Love/ Lazy Bird/ Willow Weep for Me; 59:16.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Luca Sisera ROOFER: Starlex Complex

Bassist Luca Sisera writes boldly complicated music for Luca Sisera ROOFER, his quintet with a front line of Marcus Twerenbold on trombone and Michael Jaeger on tenor sax, and a rhythm section of Sisera, pianist Yves Theiler, and drummer Michi Stulz. I’ve wondered about the band’s name, and the press release for Starlex Complex, the group’s third release, finally answers that question. Pirmin Bossart writes that “so-called ‘roofers’ are climbers who clamber up high structures without safety equipment ...” which makes perfect metaphorical sense for this wild and woolly compositions of Sisera and the utterly fearless performances of his band. When I reviewed the band’s first CD (Prospect, Leo Records, 2014), I wrote the listener can “never be exactly sure where the tunes are headed, but [one] can trust this unit to make the process a hell of a lot of fun.” A few years later, and with more playing time as a group, that statement seems more true than ever. The individual parts may not be too daunting, but the ways that Sisera puts them together are usually surprising and unexpected. It’s harder than usual to describe Sisera’s music in words, but let me try. The staccato theme of Starlex Complex quickly leads into a long boppish theme voiced by Twerenbold and Jaeger over the high-stepping rhythm section before the trombonist breaks the spell for a dark-toned solo. He’s joined by Jaeger for a duel of solos while piano, bass, and drums grow agitated and aggressive. As the rhythms calm down, Twerenbold takes over again and the piece abruptly comes to a halt. That description just begins to scratch the surface of what’s going on. This is music that demands and rewards repeated close listenings to appreciate the details of what Sisera and his bandmates are up to. The second track is the carefully paced Internal Body Messenger. That yields to the exuberant Struggle Bubble, with a theme that reminds me of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, of all things, before moving on to an almost giddy group improvisation with a busily propulsive bass solo. The already blurred line between composition and improvisation is essentially erased for the spacy Nairs, seven minutes of whooshes, blurs, and cymbal hits. Until the last minute, there are occasional stately piano chords that are thrown in, seemingly at random, could come from a different piece altogether. But all of a sudden, Theiler’s piano grows more assertive and moves to the forefront in what amounts to a musical coup. Mama Helix is a favorite of mine. This starkly dramatic and swirling piece has parts that fit together in the strangest ways. There’s a section that features a trombone and saxophone chase, a lush solo piano interlude, and inspired drumming by Stulz. Missing Chan(n)els Part 1 offers a sweetly conversational bass solo before heading directly into Part 2, a upbeat bebop theme with a tenor solo that’s languid at first, slowly building up to some more intense playing. A similarly constructed piano solo follows, energetically supported by Sisera and Stulz. Making her only appearance on the date, Isa Weiss swoops in with some wordless vocalizing for Missing Chan(n)els Part 3, soaring above and harmonizing with trombonist Twerenbold and saxophonist Jaeger over a busy vamp by the rhythm section. Starlex Extro, a brief collective improvisation, concludes the disc with a sense of unresolved mystery. In sum, another exciting and absorbing collection from this endlessly provocative Swiss ensemble. Definitely recommended.
nWog 023; Marcus Twerenbold (tbn) Michael Jaeger (ts) Yves Theiler (p) Luca Sisera (b) Michi Stulz (d) Isa Wiss (vcl on *); Winterthur, Switzerland, October 29-31, 2018; Starlex Complex/ Internal Body Messenger/ Struggle Bubble/ Nairs/ Mama Helix/ Missing Chan(n)els Part 1/ Missing Chan(n)els Part 2/ Missing Chan(n)els Part 3*/ Starlex Extro; 47:25.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Rich Halley: Terra Incognita

Pianist Matthew Shipp’s working trio with  Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums is capable of generating plenty of sparks when they convene. Add the tenor saxophonist Rich Halley, and the proceedings grow downright combustible on Terra Incognita. Halley is based in Portland, Oregon, but he travels annually to northern California in May for a small jazz festival that he curates. When Shipp, Bisio, and Baker came to the 2018 festival for a trio set, Halley played in a trio on the following day with Bisio and Baker. This studio recording came together that August, with the saxophonist making his way to Brooklyn for the date. Working in this quartet format is something of a departure for Halley, who hasn’t recorded with any pianist since 1988. His tenor commands your attention for his rugged and muscular sound, dense with passion and displaying an almost endless imagination. Each of the six spontaneous compositions are credited to all four musicians, with Baker’s crisp and direct drumming often used as the starting point. From the sauntering Forager and the graceful The Elms to the tempestuous title track, the players find plenty of common ground to explore. Especially worthy of note are Shipp’s relaxed solo on Forager, Halley’s passionate and barely under control solo on Centripetal, Bisio’s inquistive solo that closes Terra Incognita, and throughout, Baker’s disciplined dynamics. It’s a true meeting of the minds, and a journey into Terra Incognita that all fans of improvised music will find worth taking. Recommended.
Pine Eagle 012; Rich Halley (ts) Matthew Shipp (p) Michael Bisio (b) Newman Taylor Baker (d); Brooklyn, NY, August 21, 2018; Opening/ Forager/ Centripetal/ The Elms/ Terra Incognita/ The Journey; 59:07.

Giant Step Arts: The First Three Releases

Jimmy Katz has been photographing jazz artists for more than thirty years, and his work has graced hundreds of magazine and CD covers, as well as been collected in four books. He’s also a recording engineer, and he brings all his skills to his latest project, the non-profit Giant Step Arts. Katz writes that he was “interested in supporting the highest level of creativity in ... jazz. Giant Step Arts will give musicians the opportunity to fulfill their dreams with no strings attached.” Katz also emphasizes “that the musicians have total control of their artistic projects.” The label is dedicated to premiere live performances, with their first three releases out now.

       First up is Rhyme And Reason by trumpeter Jason Palmer, with Palmer joined by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Recorded live at the Jazz Gallery in New York, Rhyme And Reason finds the band stretching out at length on eight of Palmer’s intricately attractive original compositions. There’s plenty of shared history among the musicians, which leads to a healthy environment for powerful improvising. And that’s what we get, with a bounty of inspired soloing by some of the most creative players around. Palmer and Turner make a exceptional team, with the trumpeter’s fire and personal logic matched by Turner’s usually cooler presence and slippery solo style. At first listen, it felt like nearly every tune seemed to go on to too long, with only Blue Grotto clocking in at under ten minutes. After spending more time with the discs, I’m more attuned to the way the quartet operates on stage. Obviously, a live concert and a studio recording make different demands on players and listeners, and it takes the right attitude and attentiveness to immerse yourself in a club date like this one. Among the many high points over an hour and three quarters of dynamic interplay are Palmer’s dark and adventurous solo on the opening Herbs in a Glass, the trumpeter’s brash unaccompanied introduction to the title song, the entwined melodic lines of bass, trumpet, and tenor on Blue Grotto, the bright funk of The Hampton Inn, Turner’s playful solo on Waltz for Diana, and the rousing solos by Turner and Palmer in the hard-charging Kalispel Bay that closes the show. The peppy and buoyant rhythm team of Brewer and Scott never falters in keeping the music moving along smartly. Katz’s detailed and transparent recording enhances the music, and like the best in-concert documents, puts the listener right in the middle of things. As the cliché goes, it’s the next best thing to being there.

Drummer Johnathan Blake, perhaps best known for his ongoing association with Tom Harrell’s band, has appeared on dozens of albums since his recording debut with Bob Berg in 2001. His third release as a leader is Trion, where he leads a trio at the Jazz Gallery with Chris Potter, sticking to tenor saxophone, and Linda May Han Oh on bass. Blake starts off the first disc with a two-minute drum solo before the trio gleefully dissects Sting’s Synchronicity 1 with a gruffly authoritative Potter leading the charge. Bassist Oh takes a powerful and moving solo as well, leading into Potter and Blake trading phrases with utter abandon. It’s a deeply involving performance, and that’s from someone who never could stand listening to The Police. The supremely melodic Oh takes center stage with an extended introduction to her own Trope. The song has a tricky theme, arranged as a delicate dance of bass and saxophone with Blake’s understated drums in support. Potter’s part is a tour de force of modern tenor playing, and Oh responds with another vigorous display of her prowess and formidable technique. The late bassist Charles Fambrough wrote One for Honor, and it first appeared on McCoy Tyner’s Horizon (1979). Here the appealing theme receives a high-spirited treatment, featuring more electrifying tenor work by Potter over furious swing from Blake’s drums and Oh’s testifying bass line. A pair of Blake originals concludes the first disc. High School Daze is a mid-tempo blues with a backbeat. Potter, who manages to sound at home in just about any musical environment, is really in his element with this pace and feeling. Oh is no slouch either, with a busy and spicy solo after Potter’s opening spot. She has the relatively rare bassist’s knack of constructing extended solos that maintain interest and never lose the pulse. No Bebop Daddy also features a potent bass solo, with Blake keeping up the pulse. A loose and bluesy Potter even sneaks a little bebop in at the end of his sax solo. Like the first disc, part two starts out with a few minutes of solo drums to set the stage. Two originals by Potter come next. Good Hope is the occasion for some deft triangulation with Oh’s throbbing bass, Blake’s assertive drums, and Potter’s angular saxophone lines in a friendly competition for the spotlight. My attention settled on the lightning fast interactions of the trio as they build this dynamic performance over 11 minutes. The first half of Eagle features a long melodic statement by Potter, shadowed by Oh’s complimentary bass line. Oh takes over for a characteristically involving solo before Potter returns with rough and tumble closing statement. Relaxin’ at Camarillo is a Charlie Parker tune, first recorded for Dial in 1947, which makes it by far the oldest tune in the set. The trio takes it out for a spin, and uncovers plenty of life left in this venerable blues. The calm Blue Heart was composed by Blake’s father, violinist John Blake, who passed away in 2014. This previously unrecorded tune gets a suitably respectful and emotional treatment from the trio. Johnathan Blake’s West Berkley St. ends the second disc with a bit of funky fun.
Trion presents a well-selected and sequenced program, highly effective soloing and the instantaneous interplay of a truly unified trio. Unreservedly recommended.

Over the course of more than forty albums as leader, saxophonist Eric Alexander has played with many piano masters, including frequent dates with such luminaries as Harold Mabern, John Hicks, David Hazeltine, and Mike LeDonne. But I could only find one instance, the 2016 Venus release Just One Of Those Things, in a trio format with just bass and drums. Leap Of Faith, drawn from two nights at the Jazz Gallery, reprises the piano-less trio with Doug Weiss on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. The immensely fluent and imaginative Alexander seems set on exploring the freer aspects of the hard bop sound that he’s known for. Dispensing with a chordal instrument is a way for him to open up the music. Penning a new batch of tunes and working with two musicians that he has little history with contribute mightily to his new direction. Alexander says that he has “always incorporated bits and pieces of what people might consider the avant-garde into what I do, so this was just a matter of letting that take over.” Brawny and totally self-assured, Alexander takes off into the stratosphere on a quick-tempoed swinger like Mars, egged on by Weiss’ busy bass lines and Blake’s steady rolling drums and splashy cymbals. The two fairly short pieces, Corazon Perdido with a little taste of Alexander on piano, and Magyar, a trifle adapted from music by Bartók, don’t do much for me, but that leaves plenty of fine music. Standouts include the aptly named Hard Blues, with some ferocious tenor work, the smoothly evocative ballad Big Richard, the electrifying Frenzy, previously recorded by One For All and on Alexander’s Second Impression CD, and that album’s title track, a jumping blues which closes the disc with some intense Coltrane-inspired blowing. You think you know Eric Alexander’s playing? Take a Leap Of Faith and discover fresh aspects of his musicianship. Recommended.
Palmer: Giant Step Arts GSA001; Jason Palmer (tpt) Mark Turner (ts) Matt Brewer (b) Kendrick Scott (d); NYC, June 7-8, 2018; Disc 1 (47:34): Herbs in a Glass/ Rhyme and Reason/ Blue Grotto/ Sadhana. Disc 2 (58:39): The Hampton Inn (for Alan)/ Mark’s Place/ Waltz for Diana/ Kalispel Bay.
Blake: Giant Step Arts GSA002; Chris Potter (ts) Linda May Han Oh (b) Johnathan Blake (d); NYC, January 21-22, 2018; Disc 1 (61:47): Calodendrum/ Synchronicity 1/ Trope (Linda intro)/ Trope/ One for Honor/ High School Daze/ No Bebop Daddy. Disc 2 (51:21): Bedrum/ Good Hope/ Eagle/ Relaxin’ at Camarillo/ Blue Heart/ West Berkley St.
Alexander: Giant Step Arts GSA003; Eric Alexander (ts; p on *) Doug Weiss (b) Johnathan Blake (d); NYC, May 8 & August 7, 2018; Luquitas/ Mars/ Corazon Perdido*/ Hard Blues/ Frenzy/ Big Richard/ Magyar/ Second Impression; 57:15.