Friday, November 21, 2014

Variable Density Sound Orchestra, Evolving Strategies

Guitarist-composer Garrison Fewell's Variable Density Sound Orchestra has made some excellent music in the past. The smaller ensemble heard in the album Evolving Strategies (Not Two MW911-2) has a particular resonance, in part because of the beauty of the compositions and their improvisational fulfillment, and in part because they are some of the last recordings made by the avant titans John Tchicai and Roy Campbell, Jr., both of whom were tragically taken from us not so very long after.

The band as a whole is every bit as good as the illustrious nature of the names. OK, perhaps bassist Dmitry Ishenku is not very well known, still he is very good. But then there is trombone master Steve Swell, who graces the session with his rangy expressions and a composition that stays long in the mind, "Mystical Realities," with a very groovy ostinato and a head melody that matches it. John Tchicai is on tenor and gives us two of his compositions and some beautiful improvisations. Roy Campbell reminds us why he is so missed on trumpet, flugel and flute. Reggie Nicholson turns in as always the right performance, with an impeccable feel and touch on drums. And then there is the leader, Garrison Fewell, with his very smart guitar freedom and exemplary compositions.

These are players at the peak of modern avant jazz and they perform accordingly. Whether collectively or singly they come through with sterling utterances that could serve as models for what the state-of-the-free-art is all about today. The compositional frameworks are both sophisticated and down-home at the same time, reminding at times of what was so exciting about the work of AACM artists in the first years of their blossoming (and after, surely).

It's an album you grow into each time you hear it, so that by now it is a recent favorite for me. It is that good and so much worth hearing and having. Get it!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fred Hersch, My Coma Dreams, Jazz Theatre, DVD

The true artist is one who can take all the experiences life has to offer, the peaks and the lowest traumatic events, and transform them into pure poetry. Jazz pianist-composer Fred Hersch shows us how artistic expression can turn darkness into light, adversity into transcendence. His jazz theater work My Coma Dreams gives us in no uncertain terms the triumph of the human spirit over life-threatening illness.

The entire multi-media jazz theater work is now available on DVD (Palmetto 2175) and it is a profoundly moving experience to see and hear it. The story centers around Fred's bout with HIV /AIDS and a life-threatening septic infection he contracted in the course of his struggles. The condition necessitated a medically induced coma which he endured in a near-death state for a long period of time while hospitalized. That he survived to regain his full self-hood personally and musically is nothing short of a miracle and the story brings it all to you in no uncertain terms.

The jazz theater work involves of course music--Fred at the piano with a largish chamber ensemble of jazz players and a string quartet, with vocals and a master narrative by Michael Winther. There are visuals key to the drama projected onto a backdrop behind the musicians and narrator. The theater work comes together as a total media experience.

Essentially the work combines the narrative of the events leading up to hospitalization, the coma trauma as experienced by Fred's partner, by Fred himself in his moments as a conscious being and then the series of dreams he had while unconscious. The dreams are singular and strange, involving imagery and events of a surreal nature. Except for the opening dream of the weavers, they are played out instrumentally with text and imagery on the projected backdrop filling in the context. The weavers dream sequence involves a beautiful song sung by Winther, accompanied by the ensemble.

Winther excels in his role as dramatic enactor of Fred and his partner's heartfelt, loving anxiousness during the external and internal sequences of events. The music is quite beautiful and just to have Fred up on stage playing wonderfully gives the entire drama a consoling aspect. Yes, he survives and listen, he is playing very beautifully, as well as he ever has.

In the end the totality of the drama leaves you with hope, though through it all are the moments of despair that you experience yourself with harrowing realism. Yet the dreams and the music counter the trauma with genuine poetic beauty.

It is a landmark work, a Fred Hersch masterpiece that conjoins with Herschel Garfein's excellent "libretto" and staging to create gripping drama and a feeling for the mysteries of life and death.

To say it is a tour de force is to understate. The DVD is out this November 25th. You must experience this! Sales of this DVD will in part go to benefit the work of Treatment Action Group, an independent organization concerned with the treatment and cure of the AIDS affliction. You can order it directly from (copy and paste this URL into your browser).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Miles Davis Quintet Featuring John Coltrane, All of You: The Last Tour, 1960, 4-CD Set

There are magic moments in jazz that are so good they can give you the chills. You can certainly say that of the classic Miles Davis small groups in the mid-to-late '50s with John Coltrane. There was a progression to the group of course, from superlative bop and onto the modality of the last phase and Kind of Blue. Appearing live however, Miles band in the later phase mixed the two styles as a matter of course.

By 1960 Trane had left the band briefly to play with Monk, was securely back in the fold but he had by then made up his mind to leave Davis and form his own group. The spring tour of Europe was made reluctantly by Trane. He already had recorded and released quite a few albums under his own name, but the Atlantic association and the release of Giant Steps put his solo career on firm footing. He was eager to continue to grow as a bandleader. Nonetheless he agreed to the tour. It was a lengthy and somewhat grueling series of gigs all across Europe. The regular band was put through a hectic pace of concerts, most of which fortunately were recorded and broadcast over local radio, a few were recorded privately. Nonetheless a substantial documentation of the tour remains.

Some of the concerts have been issued over the years. Now we have nearly all of it together in a nice four-CD set All of You: The Last Tour 1960 (MCPS). It's Miles, of course, Trane, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums. The recorded quality is generally excellent, though one date under-miked Kelly and a private recording also has less sterling qualities. But what counts is the music.

The band plays consistently cuts from Kind of Blue ("So What," "All Blues," etc.) along with "Walkin'" but they also at times turn to other chestnuts from earlier days, "Round Midnight," "If I Were A Bell," and "All of You."

The audiences generally did not know the Kind of Blue music and Trane's new explorations so sometimes they did not get it. But the music is excellent in the most consistent way in spite of that and a certain tension within the band because it was clear that this was Trane's last go round with the band.

Miles turns in some breathtaking solos, the band is in excellent form for the most part, but it is John Coltrane on these sets that most consistently astounds. He takes long solos often, experimenting with the ultra-sheets of sound that he takes to the limits here, Then too he repeats motives at times, works on harmonics and generally uses his solo time to work out ideas that ultimately blossomed forth in his later style(s). There are some incredible moments, some torrents of notes now and then that have overwhelming power. But at all times what he is doing is foundational. A transition period for him? In a way, yes (after all, "So What" turns to "Impressions" in his own band). In other ways this is Trane that you don't hear in quite the same way before or after. He is inspired.

Needless to say, this is an essential set. You may already have some of it. But to hear the concerts collected and sequenced chronologically is a revelation.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

François Carrier, The Russian Concerts Volume 2, with Michel Lambert and Alexey Lapin

François Carrier has been pretty extraordinarily productive in the number and quality of his releases of late. I've covered many here over the last several years (type his name in the search box above for those posts). Now there is another very good one. It's Volume 2 of The Russian Concerts (FMR CD381), continuing the live recordings made on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2013.

As before Carrier is on alto, joined by long-time drummer associate Michel Lambert and Russian pianist Alexey Lapin for a full set of open-form free jazz, avant jazz, free improvisation with the emphasis on complete spontaneity. François Carrier has become one of the guiding lights on the international saxophonic scene and he comes through once again here with some vibrantly stirring improvisations.

And as with the first volume, the threesome make inspired sounds together. Alexey is spikey and all-over present on piano; Michel punctuates and cracks the percussive sky with responsive free-time sensibility.

As is the case with the last volume, the trio have their quieter moments but much is about an on-the-edge expressivity, as much concerned with the notes as horizontally panned and fanned out as about the vertical concern with aural texture.

If you liked the first, this one continues the immediacy. If you know neither or for some reason have missed Carrier and his music, you probably should start with the first volume. Either way this is excellent free expression, confirming the threesome and their significant encounters in those days in Russia.

Very recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jorrit Dijkstra, New Crosscurrents

We are back today on a rather gloomy November Monday morning with a recording to cheer you up. I speak of a download-only album by saxophonist-composer Jorrit Dijkstra and a fine Dutch sextet from 2003, New Crosscurrents (Driff). The band is Jorrit Dijkstra, alto saxophone, David Kweksilber, tenor and alto saxophone, Wiek Hijmans, guitar, Guus Janssen, piano, Raoul van der Weide, bass, and Wim Janssen, drums. It was a expansion and extension of the quartet "Sound-Lee!" whose purpose was to celebrate the music of Lee Konitz, the Tristano school's most illustrious and celebrated graduate.

The band plays music from Tristano's famed 1949 recording Intuition, George Russell's "Ezz-thetic," plus cool-school influenced works by Guus.

It's a live date with decent sound. The band takes the compositions and opens them up to lively improvised-laden interpretations that make full use of the band's blowing prowess. Much of the improvisations are collective and contrapuntal, which makes perfect sense given the compositional slant of the music.

This one may well be a sleeper but it deserves your attention, especially if you dig the school of music that the band extends. Guus is a new jazz composer for me but he fits in well with Tristano and Russell as a part of what was happening then. The freedom inherent in the music as performed is in keeping with the avant nature of the originals but also updates it into our era. That's an excellent idea and it works very well indeed.

Good one! You can purchase this download by going to Bandcamp.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Roadsides

Some albums are so unique one has to think for a minute before one tries to describe what you will hear. That is very true of Israeli singer-songwriter Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and her recent Roadsides (Arogole Music 021). Ayelet composed a series of 12 songs based on the work of Palestinian and Israeli poets, a gesture of solidarity with the people of the entire region one has to appreciate.

She does the singing and it has nuance and an expressive beauty. The songs are what one might call Mid-Eastern jazz with an emphasis on song form, some songs being squarely in a very modern-ish ECM-like or otherwise jazz zone, with the Mid-Eastern tonal minor element coming to the fore or receding a bit depending on the song. The ensemble that accompanies her reinforces that two-world (or is it three?) sound via an eclectic mix of oud and violin, guitar, piano, acoustic bass and drums, with the addition of traditional percussionists, etc., from time to time. Some songs have a jazz-rock underpinning, some not, but all are quite interesting in their arrangements, in their song-ful-ness and in their vocal presence.

The result is a modern pan-Israeli-Palestinian music that has much charm and substance if one opens up to it. Fascinating and rewarding listening!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Fat Babies, 18th & Racine

Classical jazz repertoire projects, as most of us well know, are a growing segment of the current-day jazz field. I have a mixed view of it all but when it comes to early jazz projects I am inclined to be more receptive than not, if they are done well. Why? Because for one thing the recording technology of those early days gives us less of a feel for how ensembles actually sounded in real-time. And if the band gives us a good performance of the material we find ourselves transported back in time to what a live experience of the music was really like.

The Chicago outfit known as the Fat Babies do that for us, very nicely in fact. 18th & Racine (Delmark 255) I believe is their second album. (See the March 19, 2013 posting on their first, Chicago Hot.) It is a seven-piece band who have done their homework, more than that even, in that they have internalized the early jazz style so that both in the ensemble and in the solos an authentic and fully alive feeling surrounds you as you listen. These cats can play and they do. They do it right.

The repertoire is what you might have heard if you caught some of the Chicago School musicians on a live date, for the most part. They uncover some gems only a specialist in the period may know well--"Liza," "King Kong Stomp," "Blueberry Rhyme," as well as the familiar "Stardust" done Chicago style. They also throw in an original, the title cut. The seven piece band of leader Beau Sample on bass, Andy Schumm, cornet and arrangements, plus some hot cats on trombone, clarinet and sax, piano, guitar or banjo, and drums make it all work.

This is early jazz with all the fervor and heat of the era presented to us in sterling modern digital fidelity. The Fat Babies are onto something. Highly recommended!