Thursday, December 31, 2009

Folkways' Anthology of Traditional Indonesian Music I

The traditional music of Indonesia is multifaceted. There are the Gamelan Orchestras of Java and Bali, sure, but then there are widely diverse local musics from all the various regions, all worthwhile. Folkways Records began producing recordings covering virtually every region early on.

Released in 1961, Music of Indonesia, Volume 1 provides an interesting assortment of Gamelan from Bali and Java, a Balinese Ketchak excerpt, plus some more obscure music from Celebes and Ambon.

It's available at the Smithsonian Folkways website (Google it) as a download or CD-Rom. I'll be covering Volume 2 in the near future, and will go into more detail at that point. In the meantime, Happy New Year and much thanks to all my readers. You are why I am doing this!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marion Brown's "Why Not?" Reissued

Marion Brown has not exactly been forgotten in the last 10 years or so, but neither has he been given a great deal of attention as one of the more important alto sax stylists in the "new thing" era of improvisatory music. So when his ESP album Why Not? is again available in a careful reissue with a restoration of the original pristine sound, it is a good opportunity for more listeners to get to know him.

Why Not? belongs in the handful of his very best recordings. It was his second for the label and, along with Three for Shepp (Impulse), reflects a heightened burst of creativity following upon his appearance on John Coltrane's seminal Ascension.

In fact Why Not? reflects the later Coltrane influence in a number of ways. First off in Marion's choice of sidemen: the explosively free drummer Rashied Ali, a member of Trane's last group, pianist Stanley Cowell, who sounds like nobody else but functions in the free-flowing manner of McCoy Tyner's last work with Trane as well as Alice Coltrane's style in those days--rubato, loosely building cascades of notes and chords. Sirone on bass doesn't sound like Jimmy Garrison, but he functions as a punctuator here much as Jimmy did in the later Trane configuration.

The tunes are effective vehicles for the band and often reflect a modal, pedal-based Trane-derived style.

Marion's playing is lyrically rhapsodic as Coltrane's playing certainly was in later years. But all similarity ends there. This is creative, original, vital free music and Marion shows he was no imitator. Stanley Cowell sounds as inspired as he ever did. And the rhythm section jabs, punches, feints and dances with perfectly calculated abandon.

If you want to know why you need to appreciate the contributions of Mr. Brown and his music, this is essential listening.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens and "Two Cities"

There is a very healthy trend in much of the new jazz coming out of Chicago, as I see it. There is a loose confederation of musicians who place equal emphasis on both the warp and woof of jazz, and they do it quite well. Fast Citizens is one such unit. Josh Berman's group in Old Idea (see earlier review on this blog) is another. Lucky 7s still another. I'm sure I'm leaving out others but the point is that Keefe Jackson's tenor and Josh Berman's trumpet are a part of all three ensembles, and that all three groups have a more or less similar approach, and most importantly, they are doing some considerably absorbing music.

The Fast Citizens Unit has a rotating leadership position. For this second album it is alto man Aram Shelton, who writes much of the material on Two Cities (Delmark), though Keefe Jackson, cellist Fred Longberg-Holm and bassist Anton Hatwich also contribute one or two numbers each. Like Eric Dolphy's most engaging later groups and any of the ensembles of Henry Threadgill, this music has a very listenable balance between freedom and discipline, solo and ensemble, composition and improvisation. The group has strong soloists in Aram Shelton on alto and clarinet as well as Jackson and Berman. The two-man string sub-group of Lonberg-Holm and Hatwich provide contrasting solo and ensemble resources that give the band additional resonance and punch. Drummer Frank Rosaly has a sensitive touch but can drive when the music calls for it.

Two Cities rolls through nine diversely substantial pieces and provides one of the most interesting and ingenious offerings I've heard in this rapidly waning year. Fast Citizens makes vital music.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Perry Robinson and Burton Greene Explore Jewish Roots

Clarinetist Perry Robinson and pianist Burton Greene came up as some of the most important "new thing" jazzmen of the sixties. They played together on a number of projects, but never as a duet. Until now, and their very lucid Two Voices in the Desert (Tzadik). This is an installment in Tzadik's provocative series of recordings that re-establishes Jewish music as a living, breathing contemporary art that, like Klezmer before it, opens a window onto a horizon of musical innovation, that brings old, even ancient tonalities into the vocabulary and syntax of today's sounds--modern jazz, rock, avant garde and you-name-it styles of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Like Steve Lacy did for the soprano sax at the time, Perry Robinson took the clarinet, an instrument that had become somewhat moribund and passe in the most modern of jazz endeavors, and remade the instrument into a thing rife with a personal sound and note choice. Perry's, that is. It established him at the forefront of the new free scene and made the clarinet an instrument to be taken seriously once again. Similarly the functioning of Ornette Coleman's classic two horn, bass and drums lineup and other developments made the pianoforte less desirable in the most advanced circles of improvisatory music. Its function to lay down the harmonic foundations of changes-based improvising, as a kind of musical traffic cop, was a hindrance to players who sought to follow the freed up melodic-harmonic contours of their muse. Burton Greene along with of course Cecil Taylor and a handful of other pianists redefined the pianists' role in terms of an exploration of percussive, coloristic and post-changes capabilities, to rejoin the front line as a soloist that did not need to hammer down the structure of the music as it was defined.

Years later, Perry and Burton have not so much mellowed as they have embraced and incorporated into their music what was part of their early informal ear training, something we all get without necessarily consciously seeking it out, the sound and content of the music around them that was imbibed like the air they breathed, from the cradle on. That doesn't mean that they are about to break into 28 choruses of "I'll Remember April," but it does mean that they can now come to grips with that which helped define them musically. In the case of this CD, the Jewish heritage that was so much a part of the New York aural world.

So we have a CD filled with music composed by Burton Greene, John Zorn and others, that takes a musical imprint of how those roots work for today. So Perry's clarinet shows some Klezmer-like inflections here, not surprisingly, but this series of duets subtly transforms and reworks the tradition to something that bears the personal stamp of these highly individual stylists.

The artistic fruition is most fortuitous--not in some accidental sense, but in the sense of fortunate, auspiciously impacted artistry. This is from first to last captivating music. Masterful music. And a true pleasure to hear. Anyone who thinks they know what these two artists are likely to sound like in some predictable sense would do best to hear Two Voices in the Desert. It will probably defy your expectations as well as redefine your sense of the reach and grasp of what Perry and Burton can and have accomplished. For this is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Papajo Trio Offers European Improvisational Abstractions

The European improvisational scene has been flourishing for many years. Avant Europe improv differs from its American counterpart in that it tends to be more abstract, less blues-based and rhythmically more consistently anarchic. This is of course a gross generalization. It does hold true for the CD at hand today.

Papajo is a trio of Paul Hubweber on trombone, Paul Lovens, drums, and John Edwards on bass. Their new release Simple Game (Cadence Jazz) freewheels through five improvisational pieces in ways that should intrigue the serious listener.

Hubweber has been based around Moers and has been a part of the Euro improv scene for many years. His musical mind seems to have a direct relationship to his technical abilities on the trombone; he seems to deftly and swiftly execute what he imagines and hears. Now I can't know that but it comes out in the ease of his articulations and confidence in his phrasing. Paul Lovens is well known as a rambunctious but abstracted drummer. He is so here. John Edwards is new to me but plays plenty of bass and fits into the open-ended dialog well. The late Peter Kowald had the bass chair in this group before his death so Edwards has some serious shoes to fill. He does fine.

Simple Game covers a lot of ground. Moods range from quietly somber to boisterously elated. Hubweber gets much out of his trombone and might be considered the logical successor to the late Paul Rutherford for Euro-Bonemaster, if such a position exists.

It's all good music and a definite addition of worth for those who wish to keep up with what's going on in Europe.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What About Haitian Piano from 1952?

Fabre Duroseau will not be a name you know. He recorded an EP of Haitian piano music that ended up on a 10-inch Folkways LP in 1952. It also came out on one or two 78s, because I found one of then at my local junk shop in 1967. I was a kid trying to open my musical horizons as widely as I could. This one took a while to appreciate fully. Not because it isn't good, it just was so different to what I had heard.

That music can still be found at the Smithsonian Institute's Folkways site, either as a download or a cd-rom. In fact the entire Folkways catalog is available.

Fabre Duroseau's solo-trio piano record is perhaps like nothing else you have been hearing. It's basically meringues as were done in Haiti at the time, only transposed to a very animated and hot piano style. Half the songs are done solo, the other half with two equally lively violinists. Stride and boogie-woogie have some influence. It's like what Meade Lux Lewis or Jelly Roll Morton might have played had they been born and raised in Haiti. It's delightful! If you seek something different, this is most definitely that.

Google Smithsonian Folkways to find their site.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Salim Washington Live at St. Nicks

For the CIMP label's new live series CIMPoL, tenor sax contemporary Salim Washington gets his group rolling at New York City's St. Nick's Pub. The resultant recording Live at St. Nick's (CIMPoL) comprises the best of several sets of music and it comes across with all the verve that good jazz should have on a good live date.

Salim plays a hard driving tenor in the post-Trane, post-bop, freebop mode, but also a very limber flute and decent oboe. His band features a front line of strong players. In addition to Washington himself, there is the relatively unknown violist Melani Dyer, who gives the ensemble a unique sound and puts in solid solo time. Trombonist and fluegelhorn journeyman Frank Lacy adds a distinctively fluid presence on both his instruments and pianist Donald Smith shows his well-known abilities in deftly juggling both in and outside style elements in any given moment. And in many ways that is what this band does very well. For example, the Joe Henderson-penned opener "Shades of Jade," starts in a hard bop mode and branches out from there.

The rhythm section of Aaron James on bass and Mark Johnson, drums, does much to make this live date exciting. They push the band from underneath in ways best suited to drive the soloist to a heated statement. And that's what happens consistently.

This recording has that special band-audience rapport that a small club can give rise to on the right night. This is exciting, hard driving music, well captured. It has that special fire that modern jazz recordings too often seem to lack these days. Bask in it and let yourself experience the in-the-moment joy of improvisation!

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Music from Ensemble Contemporaine de Montreal

It is quite obvious that the "new" new music isn't exactly like the "old" new music in the field of contemporary classical. It isn't afraid to incorporate influences from rock and jazz; it can be more tonal that its 20th century predecessors, or alternatively, not. The rhythmic qualities of any given piece are not predictable. Again, all sorts of influences from world and popular sources can be involved. It also does not draw a distinct line between electronic and acoustical music.

This can all be experienced first hand in the new release by the Ensemble Contemporaine de Montreal, Nouveaux Territoires 03 (ATMA Classique). The CD makes available four new pieces by composers with whom most will not be familiar: Andre Ristic, Michel Gonneville, Michael Desterle and Nicole Lizee.

Four new works, four composers of today. Ristic gives us a sonically advanced world for violin and chamber orchestra. Michel Bonnevile creates very compelling music for mezzo-soprano Michele Motard and ensemble. Ms. Motard does not sing entirely in an operatic mode which is refreshing, and her voice is subject to an electronic alteration that extends and reinforces the musical impact of the work. Michael Desterle provides our ears with a sonic landscape that combines spacial sprawl with unusual pairings of instrumental colors. Finally Nicole Lizee dazzles ones senses with very vibrant chamber orchestrating.

These are works that show the influences of the musical and cultural worlds we all experience right now. All four composers transform those experiences into music that is very contemporary, yet also very listenable, compelling, even quite pleasurable. If you want another take on the chamber orchestra today, this is an excellent place to look!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day: Preparation and Spontaneity

With a couple of years of rehearsals and gigs under their belt, drummer Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day shows in their new recording that persistence pays off if talent is not lacking. The sort of modern jazz produced on the Clean Feed release has a group cohesion that comes after hard work and time have ripened and matured the initial group idea and concept.

It is no accident or whim that Canada reminds me a little of Albert and Bishop's group Lucky 7s. Both have horns, vibes and rhythm as the starting components, both have strong compositions and arrangements and equally strong soloists, and both have a free-wheeling loosely propulsive vibes-and-rhythm team. This to me is an indication of a healthy trend in the modern jazz produced today.

The similarities between the two groups are not superficial; however the personalities of the players and the nature of the compositions and arrangements distinguish the two groups as unique entities, not surprisingly.

Canada Day showcases the strong writing of its leader, Harris Eisenstadt. There are composed sections intertwined with the work of players with well developed identities. Nate Wooley has trumpet polish and finesse yet can articulate both as emphatically and as colorfully as the need or the inner urge dictates. This album shows why he has rapidly become a characteristic presence on the New York scene. His tenor mate Matt Bauder may be lesser known, but he turns in some fine performances here, solidly compact, lucid improvisational statements. Then of course the vibes-bass-drums team of Chris Dingman, Eivind Opsvik (who impresses me), and Mr. Eisenstadt, repectively, have much to do with the identity of the group sound. They drive and harmonically construct the foundation for what transpires. And they do it in ways that are creative and loosely flowing. Harris has a terrific sense of what to play and what not to play. He can be busy without in any way disrupting to totality of what's going on at any moment.

This is a CD that keeps getting better with every listen. There is enough there that you hear some of the more subtle aspects only after long exposure. Now that's a trait only the very best music has, to my mind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Satoko Fujii, Japanese Free Piano Powerhouse

Music aficionados in the United States don't always pay enough attention to what's happening in the rest of the world. Take Japan as an example. There is much going on over there, yet many of us don't really know much about it. Tzadik Records' New Japan series begins to rectify that lack, and we've covered a few of those releases in the various blogs in the last year or so.

Today we look at another one: Satoko Fujii's piano trio-duo-solo record Kitsume-bi. Fujii has magnificent ideas, a huge ear for the possibilities in free piano improvisation, and a style that does not have a derivative foundation. She goes her own way.

For the date she is joined by the always interesting Mark Dresser on bass and the explosive Jim Black on drums. For several cuts Sachi Hayasaka appears on soprano sax, and it's clear from those numbers that Sachi needs to be heard more over here.

But this is Satoko's show. There are some really compelling group presentations to be heard. Like the straight-eight motor-manic section of "Past Life," where a Pandora's Box of eighth notes spin wildly from Fujii's piano while bass and drums provide counter ballasts of sound parcels that contrast as well as complement.

Ms. Fujii has a sureness of execution and a confidence in her own stylistic parameters that translate into controlled yet at times wildly exuberant music, other times (especially in tandem with Ms. Hayasaka) ponderously reflective.

One ignores Satko Fujii at one's own peril. If you miss this CD, you miss a music making document that can be your personal blueprint for what's good about the improvised world today.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Operas by Michael Nyman

British composer Michael Nyman got my attention several years ago with his music.

So when I had the chance to review two later Nyman operas, I was filled with anticipation. I refer to the new 4-CD set just released on Michael Nyman Recordings, providing full versions of Man and Boy: Dada and Love Counts.

Man and Boy centers around the moving story of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who in real life was persecuted by the Nazis for his "anti-Aryan" Merzbow art and escaped Germany in the early '40s. The story of Man and Boy picks up when he has entered England as a refugee. He strikes up a friendship with a young boy he meets at a bus stop. The boy collects discarded bus tickets, a rather pointless hobby. Schwitters too is interested in gathering these particular castoffs of everyday life for a new Merzbow collage. Schwitter's eventually courts the boy's mother, a widow as a result of the Nazi V-Rocket "Sputterbug" bombings. That's the basic premise of the plot. An underlying theme is the contrast between the monstrous cultural unreason of the Nazis versus the benign unreason of Schwitter's art. The fragility and tenuous nature of existence in the face of Nazi savagery and the need to try to continue on with life in spite of its utter disintegration also provide important thematic elements.

The music and libretto conjoin quite nicely. The cast and orchestra are totally convincing in their realization of the work. The music combines a kind of '40s dance hall quality with restless passage work and melodic cells that repeat and develop in time. It all works very well and reaffirms that Nyman has gone his own way to produce a music that is accessible yet movingly "post-modern," a term I use with reluctance but in the sense of a combination of disparate elements to achieve a new synthesis. There is the music-dance hall element, some of the minimalist tendencies, conventional tonality, orchestration that touches on a sort of neo-classicism, and some old-time jazz and pop references. The end result is most assuredly Nyman Music, just as Charles Ives' various juxtapositions produced music that bore the inimitable stamp of his musical personality.

The second opera, Love Counts, has similar qualities. It too has the various combinations of "high" and "low" musics Nyman-style. It may not be quite as compelling as Man and Boy: Dada, but it certainly has plenty of redeeming qualities and a quirky plot typical, it would seem, of Nyman's preferred subject matter. Space does not really permit a long discussion of the virtues of this work. It doesn't quite strike me as reaching the level of Man and Boy, but it is nonetheless nice that it is included as a companion piece in this set.

These are superlative performances that will undoubtedly not be rivalled for a long time to come. Nyman should not be ignored. He is an important composer and these two works are quite excellent examples of why that is so.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patty Waters on Tour, 1966

The radically free vocal stylings of Patty Waters wasn't (and isn't) an acquired taste. You either came to grips with her low hums, breathy legato chanteusery and highly emotional peaks of primal intensity or you left it alone. When her second album appeared on ESP in 1966, plenty of people did the latter. As time went on, however, there were those who heard something there. She was a pioneer for the free jazz vocalisms that others that came after didn't precisely imitate, but did tacitly acknowledge. Abbey Lincoln occasionally precursed her but little else was on hand when she burst upon the scene.

The On Tour album was made at various points in the ESP NY State College concert series of 1966. (I suspect some minds were blown during those gigs.)

There are three performing units, Patty with the pianist Ran Blake, with the Burton Greene trio, and with a Giuseppe Logan group that included pianist Dave Burrell. Three important pianists in the new thing, then, are an integral part of the performances and their presence is felt in varying degrees. In the course of the album she takes on some standards as launching points; otherwise there is her own material involved. A high point is the Waters-Blake version of "It Never Entered My Mind." Moody, dissonant, sultry. . . it brings out the pain of the lyrics in a direct way and may convince you that her artistry is quite real.

What can one say about Patty Waters? The first album is essential for those who want to grasp the history and aesthetics of the free vocalists and where it all started. The second album is a continuation of what she was doing on the first and has its own trajectory.

This music still has the capacity to excite the listener, or alternately, divert him or her to other recordings. In short some may hate this. Other's will like it intensely. Either way Ms. Waters was a vocal artist of unique sensibility.

A limited edition audiophile vinyl pressing of this record is now available through ESP. Check their site for details.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trombonist David Taylor in A Most Unusual Recording

David Taylor has played his bass trombone with all kinds of people, from Sinatra to Boulez. He has his own virtuoso approach to the instrument and has made a number of interesting albums under his own name and in the company of fellow trombonist Steve Swell. His Tzadik album Red Sea breaks with a conventional jazz improvisational approach to enter uncharted territory. It's an exploration of Jewish roots, most particularly the cantorial vocal style of Pierre Pinchik. What he does with that is not what one might expect.

The CD is filled with all kinds of unusual musical colors, instrument combinations and moods. There are soundscapes, klezmer-like interjections and so much in between that description almost cannot do the music justice. It is most unusual, most interesting and highly absorbing music with Taylor's trombone expressions the center of it all, but with the surrounding drapery of musical discourse taking the entire project into a rather new realm. It's orchestrally rich without there being an orchestra involved. It's thematically Semitic without having much in the way of the traditional trappings or the instrumentation one might expect. It doesn't groove so much as sprawl. It's almost indescribable. But it's good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Britten and The Beggars Opera, A New Recording

I've admired the operas of Benjamin Britten on a number of levels for many years. I particularly like how the music translates dramatic moments of the plot in ingenious ways. An example, The Turn of the Screw has a scene where the young lad who is being haunted and endangered by a malevolent ghost is practicing scales upon the piano. Britten uses this opportunity to create a mini-concerto for piano and orchestra, with the scalular passages and orchestral accompaniment going increasingly off the tonality. It underscores the unsettled, latently venomous atmosphere present and the increasingly evident psychological instability of the boy. But it does so in a way that puts the compellingly personal stamp of Britten's musical mind upon it.

Of all the Britten works, however, his adaptation of Gay's The Beggars Opera may be the least characteristic. The original version of the work was a great success in London from the moment of its debut in 1728. It enjoyed a long run, with numerous performances both in England and America throughout the century. Gay wrote the libretto and cobbled the music from popular song and a number of borrowed melodies by composers of the time. The subject matter dealt in a sometimes bawdy manner with what used to be termed the lumpen proletariat, pickpockets, thieves, corrupt lawyers and "loose wenches," as the phrase went then. Britten's revival took the music more or less as it was presented in the original but recomposed, reorchestrated, and rescored the instrumental parts.

We have a new recording of the Britten adaptation, with soloists and Christian Curnyn conducting the City of London Sinfonia (Chandos). The two CDs comprise the complete opera, including the somewhat lengthy spoken dialog.

The cast captures well the roguish tenor of the characters and the common folkway roots of much of the music. The real hero of this opera to me is Britten himself. His orchestrations and rearrangements are spiced by modernistic dissonances and chamber orchestral touches worthy of repeated listening. Maestro Curnyn does a fine job bringing out the various nuances of the score.

If you love Britten this will give you more of it to enjoy. On another level the opera itself has much historical interest. Those not familiar with Britten might best look elsewhere for an introduction, such as his best known work Peter Grimes. Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy in this new version and the adaptation itself.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Volume Two of Sun Ra's Heliocentric Worlds

The second volume of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (ESP) takes off where volume one ended. This is more of the essential exploratory Ra with its percussive sound universes, improvisational collages of horns, individual solos against an orchestral backdrop, and various freely articulated pairings, such as electronic keyboard and bowed bass or a horn or two and percussion.

The key members John Gilmore, Marshall Allen (who currently directs the revived Arkestra), Pat Patrick and Ronnie Boykins all make their presence felt. What strikes me of these mid-'60s sides is that there were really at least two Sun Ra Arkestra identities in those early days. One was especially geared toward the live shows, the sort of campy cosmic astro-men from another planet bag and the visual carnival that went along with that. Chants, songs, and rocket thrust Ra keyboard antics were a large part of the public face of the band. And they did that quite well, of course. Then there was the second side of the Arkestra, something they did for themselves and, while inviting audiences to appreciate it, did not build their live identity around it. It was frankly experimental free jazz from the big band. And it was in the studio that Sun Ra could concentrate more of his efforts on these kinds of pieces, without the need to draw a particular audience into the picture.

Heliocentric Worlds concentrates on that latter side of the band. As mentioned in my review of volume one (see below) the band under Ra's direction was quite in advance of what any larger bands even approached in those days. Volume two is simply another installment of that music. While volume one may be the stronger of the two, both volumes should be heard together to give you a full picture of the intended effect.

Like the first volume, this one is now available in a limited collectors' audiophile vinyl edition. See the ESP website for details.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A New Version of Riley's "In C," with Remixes

When Terry Riley's concert piece In C was first rather quietly unveiled in the later '60s (as a Columbia recording under the direction of the composer), it did not seem a likely candidate for 40 years of continued recognition. Yet that is the case as we look back today. It was rather experimental in nature and revolutionary in structure. Riley wrote a series of melodic cells, deceptively simple figures in the key of C, modulating into another key, then back again to the original C tonality. The piece was to be performed by any combination of instrumentalists and vocalists, a practice that hearkened back to the earlier music performance ways of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There was a continual pulse played in octaves of C on the piano, and the instrumentalists were to repeat each music cell in sequence, going from one to the next as they saw fit, so that at any given point in the performance there were overlaps between the cells. The piece ended when all musicians had progressed to the last cell and played it a number of times.

Each performance could differ somewhat dramatically in its length, instrumental color and combinations of cells. A good performance involved keen listening from all participants, so that the patterns of overlapping cells remained interesting and varied.

In C proved to be enormously influential in the development of what later was dubbed minimalism. Its organically evolving patterns of repetition and the sound produced became blueprint guidelines for later composers in the idiom. The trance producing effect looked back to Africa and Indonesia while pointing forward to what became electronica. Progressive rockers and avant jazzmen were significantly influenced as well.

There have been around ten different recordings over the years, all different. Plus In C has been performed countless times all over the world. Its rather frequent presence on concert programs and audio disks gives credence to its continued relevancy for the modern listener.

And now we have the latest version, a 2-CD set (Innova) that includes a complete performance of the piece by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble under the direction of Bill Ryan, plus 16 remixes by, among others, Phil Kline, Todd Reynolds, David Lang and DJ Spooky.

First, a look at the Grand Valley performance of the piece. It is a pretty middle-of-the-road version, which is only to say that it captures the essence of the piece well. There is good spirit and a lively interplay between the musicians. The ensemble is a little light in the area of mallet instruments, which perhaps I have come to expect from listening repeatedly to the original version and those minimalist works (especially those of Steve Reich) that came after. Really though, this is only to say that the Grand Valley version is different, which is the point and part of the beauty of the composition.

The remixes cover much ground. Each one of them takes a number of aspects of the performance piece and filters, alters, and adds instrumental or electronically modified parts not originally elements of the piece. We end up with a set of variations on the themes (the cells) to be found in the score/performance. We come full circle in some ways on those remixes that do sound quite like electronica, but there are as many different sound worlds evoked as there are remixers.

This is a fascinating set of sound events. You get a respectable version of Riley's piece itself and some quite interesting remixes in one package. I think all interested should also hear Riley's original performance (if you can find it). That and this set give you a pretty keen insight into the work and it's open-ended possibilities. By all means listen if you have any interest in where music has been going, and where it might be in 100 years!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pianist David Arner's Trio and Their Rechanneling of Porgy and Bess

David Arner has a pianistic fulminosity (it's a kind of abundance) that comes across with the substantial release Porgy/Bess Act 1 (CIMP). He is joined by the first-rank bass virtuoso Michael Bisio and the lightly subtle yet freely engaging drummer Jay Rosen.

In what will be a two-volume release, Mr. Arner takes inspiration from the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess as well as the Miles Davis-Gil Evans rearrangement from the exceptional 1958 Columbia recording by that name. David Arner does not get involved with a literal rehashing of the score, nor does he take Gershwin themes as head-solo-head arrangements. Rather he and the trio react to the music as a springboard for four free improvisations. You will hear thematic interjections, sometimes in the whole cloth, sometimes as quilted fragments and chordal reminiscences, but all in the context of spontaneous recomposition.

Arner-Bisio-Rosen interact in quite subtle ways and the melodic-kinetic energies of Arner and Bisio are palpable. This is not as much an energy-surging exercise as a varied expressive dialogue. In David Arner we hear the techniques of modern improv piano as well as the harmonic-melodic tradition of the Gershwin and Davis-Evans eras but contextualized to his own ends. And he opens up a space that Michael Bisio and Jay Rosen enter into with open ears and inventive musical discourse.

This is music that takes attentive listening to assimilate. It is not entertaining; it is enlightening.

I would put this among the best piano trio recordings I've heard in this waning year. Arner is an artist of subtlety and depth. The trio is a multi-faceted musical force that gains newfound inspiration from classic sources without repeating the obvious. If only some of the repertoire-oriented aggregations were this creative!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is "Nixon in China" A Masterpiece?

When John Adams' Nixon in China premiered in 1987, it caused a sensation unusual in the annals of 20th century opera. And yet there were sceptics, myself included. Nixon? In China? It seemed a bit cheeky to center the subject matter on America's most discredited President.

The recording came out. I bought the excerpts edition and listened carefully. And still I could not make up my mind. What was the music all about? There were moments of questionable dramatico-musical taste, such as the aria that involved a rather banal repetition of the obvious. "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung," Madame Mao sang a few times. Well yes. That you are.

Adam's score was in the minimalist camp, but that minimalism was different than Reich, Glass, Riley. It was less trancy, less driving rhythmically and more of a series of shifting ostinatos and repetitions of motives that were not always very interesting in isolation but more in the way of development figures that never found their way back to some sort of recapitulation. Or so it seemed. Was the banality deliberate? I think it might have been.

And after all, Nixon in China was and is a grand opera for the modern era, complete with historical tableaux. Yes, OK, history. It dramatized a signal event in the life of American-Chinese diplomacy and was one of the most important signs of thaw in the long, weary Cold War that enveloped the globe in 1972.

Twenty-two years later we have a new recording of the complete opera, conducted by Marin Alsop in a live setting with soloists, chorus and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Naxos).

It is a fine interpretation, filled with energy. Robert Orth's Nixon role is well sung, though perhaps not as dramatically Nixon-like as the original performance from James Maddalena. But the singing is all quite good and the orchestra under Alsop brings a spirited enthusiasm to the table that the original version may have had in less abundance.

But what about the opera itself? I find myself gravitating toward the first and third acts, both musically and dramatically. In both instances, but especially in Act Three, there is the theme of reflection in the midst of what all participants know is a media event, but ultimately capital H history. The reminiscing of Nixon and Mao on their pasts, Mao in a revolution that had not always gone as he would have wished, Nixon lost in the memories of his war years, facing death on one hand and flipping burgers for the servicemen on the other, have a poignancy. The actors on the historical stage have a frailty that is belied by all the pomp and puffery that surrounds them. The earlier, simpler days were better. This feels empty to them.

Adam's score manages to convey both the pomp and the individual reflection in interestingly contrasting orchestral textures. In the end history dissolves into the dreams of the principal participants. This may be the climax of their political fortunes. They seem to know it and have a certain feeling that their lives have taken on the very dream quality that their early dreams and aspirations only prefigured.

Ultimately whether Nixon in China is a masterpiece with a capital em will be the verdict of those 100 years from now. We don't entirely matter. For me, twenty-two years from the first performances, I feel that the opera is much better than we had any right to expect of it then. It has its flaws, true. But it has musico-dramatic moments of great power. History is not for the participants what it is for the spectators. The big circus, when all is said and done, has as its pivotal events the actions of a few key figures who aren't quite sure what they have been brought to do or why. Nixon never shows his hand, but he is not really sure what the cards are for in the first place.

Alsop's interpretation captures that mood very well. I'm not sure the original de Waart recording was quite as successful in that regard.

Masterpiece? Who knows. Does it matter just yet? Enjoy the opera now and leave posterity for the future.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Eddie Allen's Jazzy Brass for the Christmas Holidays

A brass choir of two trumpets, French horn and trombone team up with a good rhythm section to play trumpeter Eddie Allen's jazzed-up arrangements of Christmas music on Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (DBC). These are good players (Cecil Bridgewater is one of the trumpet men) sounding together and hitting out with decent solos. It's classic fare like "We Three Kings," "The Little Drummer Boy," and "Jingle Bells."

It will give you a jazzed break from choral ensembles, crooners, rockers or whatever else usually gets on your CD player during the holidays. Sounds like a good one for the Christmas party.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Marty Ehrlich's Dark Winds Ensemble

Marty Ehrlich should never be taken for granted. With a track record that includes associations and recordings with some of the finest musicians out there, and a series of excellent recordings under his own name, he has been somewhat quietly making music of the first rank. That does not mean he is now settling comfortably into a style niche and repeating past successes. Not at all.

The 1999 recording Sojourn (Tzadik) with his Dark Woods Ensemble can serve as an example. It cannot be easily classified. It has Marty on clarinet and soprano, Erik Friedlander, cello, Mark Helias, bass, and Marc Ribot on guitar. You would think such a lineup would produce a chamber jazz date, and it is in many ways that. But it is much more. It is first and foremost MUSIC, call it what you will. There are jazz elements, folk-Jewish, middle-eastern elements, rather classical sounding aspects, and just simply Marty-music in the end.

The music is deeply evocative, deeply moving and, ten years down the road, music that still needs to be heard. "Is is said that the only home we have is in a song," Ehrlich remarks in the liner notes. If that is the case, the music of Sojourn opens up a home we can all live in with great pleasure and comfort.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Extraordinary Vocal Music of Baird Hersey II: Prana with Krishna Das

The cultural heritage of chant and devotion song in South Asia is rich and has a long history. Vedic chant goes back many centuries. The qawwali of the Pakistan region and bhajan of India are art musics with exceptional melodic and vocal interest. All this has something to do with the CD on the changer his morning, Baird Hersey and Parana with Krishna Das performing Gathering in the Light (Satsang).

First of all, the principal melody lines, sung with feeling and style by Krishna Das, are straightforward devotional chant sorts of things, something like what the Krishna devotees here in the US used to sing in airports, malls and just about anywhere a few years ago, only these are musically more varied and substantial. They are set off and vitalized by the wordless vocal accompaniment of Prana and various percussionists working mostly with South Indian instruments, such as the tabla.

What Baird Hersey and Prana do is meld with Krishna Das's vocals and extend the music through drones, primal intervalic harmonies and the incorporation of overtone singing to the choral sound tapestry.

The music is beautiful--elemental, yet deeply expressive. It is the sort of thing that will uplift your mood, I would think, regardless of what it might be on any particular day or hour. Baird's vocal overtone instrument has a fullness and resonance that brings much to the overall sound.

It is music that is of the world. It has ambiance, contemporary classical color, South Asian depth, and manages to take steps beyond any or all of these stylistic categories. Give this one a serious listen and I believe you will find you will want to hear it again. And perhaps again. And perhaps. . .

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, David Mott: Live, 1999

Although today's recording was captured ten years ago at Canada's notable Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario, it has the in-the-moment relevance of any inspired improvisational gathering. Part of that has to do with the excellence of the musicians. Bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway have been involved in many of the most creative improv outings for many years, with colleagues too numerous to list. David Mott's baritone has been the subject of a number of posts on this blog page, and though his location in the Canadian firmament may sometimes cause a certain amount of neglect from the other media centers, he is no less vital for all that.

Reunion Live . . . at the Guelph Jazz Festival (Intrepid Ear) contains the 48 minute set in its entirety. This is free improv that has a fully three-way presence. Mott, Dresser and Hemingway dig in and explore the vertical heights of sound color and the horizontal terrain of musical event creation with controlled abandon. Those not familiar with David Mott's playing will find much to appreciate; those who are will have another reason to value his logical yet impassioned approach. And Dresser and Hemingway are in very good form. Recommended!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Albert Ayler's Clangorous "Bells," 1965

Albert Ayler's mature phase freaked more than a few listeners when heard in 1964-65. His folksy march tunes and quasi-spiritual heads were played with a kind of over-the-top vibrato and exaggerated zeal that were rather unprecedented in the music. His solos of course reveled in a kind of "speaking in tongues" frenzy, where the sound of his tenor may have seemed to some like the ravings of a madman but in fact were quite deliberate and controlled. He expanded the boundaries of the modern jazz saxophone vocabulary in revolutionary ways. Cries, shouts, multi-phonic blasts and rapidly undulating passages of "freak" notes were his normal playing mode. In some ways he took the expressive, soulful climax tones of Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet and the bar walkers and extended their range and frequency as a consistent part of his solo lexicon. That flipped more than a few people out but also gained him a solid underground following.

It was ESP Disk who recorded and released the lion's share of his classic work in those few short years during the mid-sixties. That included the one-sided LP Bells, apparently the best half of a 1965 NYC Town Hall appearance. By this time he was working with an expanded ensemble, the quintet with brother Donald on trumpet, a young Charles Tyler on alto, and Louis Worrell and Sonny Murray on bass and drums, respectively.

Bells may not be his absolute best recording but it captures well the extended pandemonium of the new group in ways that the contemporaneous Impulse live set did not. New York Eye and Ear Control and Spiritual Unity (both on ESP and available again) might be better choices for your desert island Ayler take-alongs. Bells remains a thorough blast, however. Literally. And figuratively. (I said the same thing about another recording the other day. That was a blast too. I must be having a blast, no?)

There's a new limited collector's vinyl edition available on 180 gram virgin transparent vinyl with the Bells art silk screened onto the reverse side of the record. Go to to find out about it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A New Recording of Messiaen's "Poems pour Mi"

Olivier Messiaen was an extraordinary composer by any standard. His was an exceptional talent; his music combined an extra-sensory sensitivity to the orchestrated potential of the music in his head with a harmonically and rhythmically unique stance that make his music immediately identifiable as coming from his pen and no other.

His music evolved over the many years of his career. There are the first works, which established his reputation and found him developing his musical vocabulary in a number of different directions simultaneously, from the highly contrasting modern mystical rhapsody meets music hall meets world music a la Messiaen of his Turangalila Symphony to the probing mysticism of Poems pour Mi. The second period corresponds to his intense interest in bird song and its transformation into brilliantly orchestrated, sublime stutters of sound. Then there is the final period, where he simply reaches an almost other worldly mastery of mystical utterance and achieves a gloriously terminal synthesis of stylistic traits with a complete command over the forces at hand. His orchestrations were always superb. In the end they have an almost uncanny presence.

Each period is totally worthwhile in its own right. With that in mind we turn to the latest Naxos release in their Messiaen series, Jun Markl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon in a recording of the aforementioned Poems pour mi as well as Messiaen's first published orchestral work Les offrandes oubliees and a lesser known, rather brief later work, Un sourire.

Poemes pour mi has been recorded numerous times and there are many versions still in print. I am not familiar with some, but the Boulez/Cleveland version and the Messaien-conducted version are both definitive. On the other hand Markl's version is quite worthy. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms has an almost operatic intensity to her interpretation that puts this recording towards the top of the pile for me. The orchestral balance is very good and Markl brings out the mystical transparency of the score quite well. His Les offrandes oubliees revels empathetically in the alternatingly quiet rapture and turbulent outbursts of the score. Un sourire has meditative moments and some of that extraordinary blinding light of punctuated percussiveness typical of the late period.

In short these may not be the most definitive recordings out there, but they are close and offer prime Messiaen masterworks of the earlier period. The addition of Un Sourire and the Naxos price tag makes this volume especially attractive.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pianist Julio Resende Puts A New Shine on Mainstream Jazz

In recent months thanks to Cleanfeed, Ayler Records and the kindness of Rodrigo Amado, I've gained a new appreciation of the Portuguese jazz scene today. It's vital. Julio Resende's new CD Assim Falava Jazzatustra (Cleanfeed) brings that home once again in a direct and exciting way.

Julio leads a fine quintet on this recording and they do a series of originals and a cover that provide much interest and variety. The music is in a freebop-and-beyond vein with the riffing rockish drive of "Don't" to the mesmeric "Ir e Voltar " (with superior guest vocalizing from Manuela Azevedo) and much in between to spark the senses and stimulate the ears. A big surprise is a bluesy balladic solo piano cover of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" that works perfectly.

Resende reflects the influence of early- to mid-Jarrett but uses that as a springboard to what is hard driving and contemporary all the way. As a soloist he is a clone of nobody and shows pianistic subtlety as well as formidable linear thrust. Alto saxophonist Perico Sambeat and tenorman Desiderio Lazaro are also strong soloists and with Resende's imaginative improvising form a consistently revelatory triumvirate. Doublebassist Ole Morten Vagan has moments to shine as well and acquits himself with some very lively discourse.

When a session like this (recorded live incidentally) works well it does so for the pieces, the soloing and the push of the rhythm section. Assam Falava Jazzatustra comes through with all of those elements in place. Is Resende the Zarathustra of jazz? I don't know and it is only an encapsulating idea to get you pondering at any rate.

This is a blast to hear! I recommend that you do so!

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Music from Mario Diaz de Leon

Composer Mario Diaz de Leon ignores the boundaries between modern concert-classical, electronics, free improvisation, metal and noise. His recent Enter Houses Of (Tzadik) shows this clearly, albeit with the emphasis on the first two categories. It is a music that has a narrative flow. What he ends up with is all his own.

For this recording a nine piece chamber-oriented group, the International Contemporary Ensemble, matches sonorities with de Leon's electronic manipulations of timbre. The pieces juxtapose related musical events in ways that keep the ear refreshed.

Winds, strings, and percussion-piano, respectively, tend to occupy the forground at various points, with the electronics often entering the blend to create sprawling amalgams. De Leon seems to conceive of the music as moving event-blocks. The focus is on the achievement of distinctive sonorities that have an improvisational looseness but a keenly contrasting brilliance of sound design. They mark the time passing like various cloud formations drifting across the horizon on a briskly windy day.

This is not music that overwhelms. It invites you into its world and then does not hurry to express everything it has to say. That takes time. In the end the visit is worth the trouble.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Is John Zorn's New Music "Easy Listening?"

John Zorn is a musical rebel. Throughout his career he has had a certain restless view of genre, never content to get pigeonholed as a writer-performer in "X" category. So he has created music in the concert modernity, the avant garde, bop, improv, free, modern Jewish music, death metal, and others besides.

One of his new recordings, Alhambra Love Songs (Tzadik) for piano trio (Rob Burger, Greg Cohen and Ben Perowsky) seemingly has yet another immersion in unfamiliar (for Zorn) genres. The notes on the cover of the CD announce that the music contained within is "in an easy listening mode," then go on to mention Vince Guaraldi, Henry Mancini and Ramsey Lewis.

So what of the music? Does it makes sense or does it even matter that this could be called easy listening music? OK, it is not difficult listening. It certainly has something about it that reminds of the Guaraldi trio and others like him: very melodic, lyrical, yet rhythmically engaging.

What matters is that the music is in fact a delight to hear. There are odd time signatures, catchy melodies, rock and jazz combinations a la Medeski, Benevento, the Bad Plus and others lately prominent. And there is no small amount of improvisation involved--in the Guaraldi-early Jarrett mode for the most part.

The trio does a capital job creating a trio presentation out of Zorn's pieces, and in the end it's the capacity to delight that puts this disk over the top. Enjoy, and call it anything you like.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rodrigo Amado's Tenor Sax in Free Flight

Rodrigo Amado came to my attention via a recent Dennis Gonzalez recording I reviewed on these pages (see September 30th posting). I'm sure I should have come across him sooner, but what I heard on that recording impressed me mightily for his sound, his inventive spontaneous lexicon, and his fabulous feel.

Mr. Amado read the review and very kindly forwarded me a few of his recent CDs, which I'll be reviewing on these pages.

First up is his latest, Motion Trio (European Echoes), which features Miguel Mira on cello and Gabriel Ferrandini on the drums. What I liked about his playing on the Gonzalez record is present in abundance on this one. The tone and phrasing hit me right out of the box. They seem so naturally idiomatic, like he could play "The Farmer in the Dell" and it would be hip. It is a sound that is bright, with a hint of Rollins perhaps, and has real poise in the matter and manner of attack and release.

This is a free date with the emphasis on linear momentum. Mira and Ferrandini have a pungent, pointed collective role on these sides and they help things pop. Ferrandini's drum set has interesting sound qualities and he makes full use of them in interesting ways. Mira's cello crystallizes and projects where the standard upright might boom and this helps accentuate the percussive attack that Rodrigo capitalizes on with short, stabbing phrases and longer lines.

Motion Trio is a study in contrasts of soul and abstraction. It manages to make the rarefied sound comfortably communicative. That's quite an achievement. Most of all it shows that Rodrigo Amado has remarkable sensibility and musical throughput. I would have to say he charts in the top handful of new free tenors I have heard lately. Take a listen to Motion Trio and see if you don't agree.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

David Mott in A Solo Baritone Sax Outing

A review last August of Baritone Saxophonist David Mott's excellent The Standard Line (see below) prompted a reader and myself to wonder what he has been doing since that time. David kindly hipped me to a number of his recent CDs which we will be covering in the next few weeks.

First up is a rather stunning recital for solo baritone, A Sky Ringing in An Empty Bell (York Fine Arts). This is another excellent outing, one which combines freedom with conceptual thinking of a high order. Like some of Roscoe Mitchell's solo alto sax performances, especially those on Nonaah (Nessa), Mott uses circular breathing and a fine command over his instrument to create distinct exploratory pieces (nine of them), moments in an overall matrix, that concentrate on timbral and technically specific approaches to unify each event and give them thematic distinction.

For example the opening piece, "Paganini Flies with the Dragon," makes good use of a rapidly ascending and descending motif that continually adds and subtracts harmonics as it drives furiously forward. The contrasting "Regarding Starlight" quietly articulates harmonics and falsetto register long tones for an ethereal sound as impressive for its control of the baritone as it is for its rather cosmic impact.

The recording continues in this vein with singular vignettes that flow together nicely and show excellent command and imagination. Solo saxophone records sometimes can be self-indulgent and perfunctory, but not so here. Just the opposite in fact.

A Sky Ringing in an Empty Bell gives notice that David Mott is a baritonist and musical conceptualizer that needs to be widely heard.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Drummer Charles Rumback and his Freely Mellow Quartet

Charles Rumback has a new quartet recording out on CD called, interestingly enough, Two Kinds of Art Thieves (Clean Feed). He is joined for this session by Jason Ajemian on bass, Joshua Sclar on tenor sax and Greg Ward on the alto.

This is free improvisation of a decidedly vital yet introspective nature. The two sax interplay of Ward and Sclar is quite interesting and effective. They work together well; the two weave lines in tandem in ways that show they are keenly listening to one another and responding in kind.

This is not music that overwhelms with its intensity, nor is it meant to be. What it does do is create an atmosphere of somewhat somber, sensitive group music making. It will not overawe you. But if you approach it on its own terms it will offer a world of meditative improvisation that many will find quite attractive.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Commemorating Thanksgiving With Charles Ives

No one but Charles Ives could be Charles Ives. HE created incredibly idiosyncratic collages of marching bands, pop tunes of the day and hymns, rustic largos of great beauty, and tremendous cacophonies of orchestral sounds, all patched together in his barn as studies in striking contrast. His was a boldly advanced music that now is considered unmistakeably a high point of early 20th-century American culture.

I read an amusing sci-fi novel of time travel many years ago. I think it was called Hot House Flowers. I forget the name of the author. In it a visitor from the future travels to turn-of-the-(last)-century America and mentions the music of Charles Ives to those he meets, thinking that everyone would know the name of what had become in the future America's greatest composer. Of course no one has ever heard of him. One hundred years later we may not be doing much better in so far as the general public is concerned. Yet his music continues to speak to those who listen to it with open ears.

Right in time for the holidays Naxos has released a very appealing volume of his music, with James Sinclair conducting the Malmo Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus. It is a nicely paced program of vintage Ives, including some previously unrecorded orchestral arrangements of Ives' "The General Slocum" and "Overture in G Major" along with some other rather underplayed miniatures. But it is the last three movements of his "New England Holidays Symphony" that form the backbone of the program. Movement Four, "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" comes at a particularly opportune time, and could form a part of your holiday listening if you have a family that is open to substantial and advanced fare along with their cranberry sauce.

Sinclair's renditions are some of the best on record. He lets the idiomatic quotations shine forth with gusto and a certain Victorian naivety, his largo passages are both mystical and pastoral, and the cacophonous huzzahs of anarchic sound clashes are breathtakingly vital.

This is Ives interpretation at its best!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jazz Bassoon? Daniel Smith Plays the Blues!

When I think of the bassoon I alternately think of the lighthearted or macabre passages written for it in the orchestral repertory--Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, Dukas' Sorcerers Apprentice, the theme song from the Alfred Hitchcock show (now what classical piece was that? Something by Gounod, right?)

Jazz bassoonists are as rare as the fish attracted by my lures when I went fishing as a kid. I just can't think of any at the moment. Except Daniel Smith, who has a CD coming out this January. It's Daniel with a cooking quartet and sometimes quintet, playing the blues. Blue Bassoon (Summit) is the sort of oddity that also happens to be a substantial musical experience.

Mr. Smith really can play. He digs into some classic jazz-blues numbers with spirit and soul. Mingus, Cannonball, Horace Silver, Trane, BB King, Robert Johnson, Wayne Shorter are all represented by some classic numbers and Smith and company pull it off with style and sweat in equal proportion. Young pianist Martin Bejerano sounds very good and everybody swings.

A blues-bop bassoon in the hands of most would turn out to be a lumbering affair. Not so with Daniel Smith. The sound has weight, as you'd expect from the instrument, but it has a fleet gait too.

Blue Bassoon is a bit of a hoot and a half. It covers classic material with real charm. It's a treat!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jelly Roll Morton Lives Again Through Anthony Coleman!

Jelly Roll Morton was one of the 2oth Century's greatest composers. Jazz composers. It took Charlie Mingus's "My Jelly Roll Soul" to remind some of us, way back in the late '50s, that though he died a has-been, Mr. Jelly left us a body of work, compositions, recordings, that places him in the invisible pantheon of killer music makers.

If you have any doubts, or if scratchy old 78s keep you from appreciating what he contributed, there's a new CD that will convince you. It's a solo piano album by Anthony Coleman, called Freakish (Tzadik). What do you get? Anthony Coleman's lovingly ungarnished versions of Jelly Roll's compositions as he played them on the piano, in clear, bright, beautiful modern sound. But no, these are not transcriptions. Anthony Coleman has much to add in terms of nuance. After all, Mr. Coleman himself is an adventuresome pianist in his own right and you would not expect him just to act as a medium for Mr. Jelly's re-emergence among the living. He does not do that.

The title tune "Freakish" was one of Morton's more daring pieces, harmonically and rhythmically, and it forms a centerpiece to the whole program. Anthony gives you a "straight" rendition at the start of the CD, then returns to it towards the end to freely interpolate the piece and its implications. That's a very nice touch, since it relates the music to the present day piano improvisational scene.

In between you get some fabulous music, the ragtime, the Spanish tinge, the unexpected twists and turns in Morton's musical thinking.

This is a beauty. Whether you know Morton's music or you don't, there is much to be gained by studying Coleman's renditions. Morton is brought back to life. And it turns out that he sounds refreshingly wonderful today.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eric Alexander and Some Hard Blowing Tenor, 1997

In the spring of 1997 Eric Alexander was around 27 years old when he went into Riverside Studios in Chicago to record Mode for Mabes (Delmark). An excellent group was assembled for the date, especially with the presence of piano master Harold Mabern, one of Eric's mentors and of course a giant of the hard swinging approach to modern jazz. It was a sextet with Jim Rotondi's trumpet and Steve Davis' trombone to flesh out the front line with that classic full sound that Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, for example, brought to the music.

Allusions to Blakey's ensembles seem appropriate, since Mode for Mabes hits the ground hard with a set of kicking tunes that are in the lineage of the best of the tradition Art was most associated with. And so also Mr. Mabern, of course.

The title cut (co-written by Eric and Jim Rotondi) gives notice that this is most certainly NOT going to be a set to send you off to dreamland. They are here to play, and that they do. From the appealing originals to the standards and a version of Trane's "Naima," the music locks in and stays there.

It is amazing how accomplished Eric Alexander was by the time these sides were cut. To mix metaphors, he had ground down the rough edges of his technique and harnessed a fertile inventive imagination to create a tenor style with its feet planted firmly in modern tradition, but with the indelible stamp of Alexandrian panache. He's in good company with the terrifically limber solos of Mabern, Rotondi and Davis.

More than ten years later we can listen to Mode for Mabes and recognize the classic nature of the music. It sounds wonderful today and surely has to be counted as one of the milestones of Eric Alexander's recorded output. Get it and groove!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chad Taylor and his Cohorts Turn in Vibrant Piano Trio Jazz in a New Release

Chad Taylor, who if you recall made an important contribution on Fred Anderson's 80th birthday album (see below), shows his versatility as a player, bandleader and writer of music on his new album Circle Down (482 Music).

This is a piano trio date, with Angelica Sanchez on the keys and Chris Lightcap on the upright bass. The objective is to create a group music that is contemporary and ventures into free territory in a loose way. They succeed. The song form foundation of the music always keep things moving in a forward direction. Each group member contributes a number of originals and they are varied and not uninteresting.

Chad's drumming throughout exemplifies the sensitive combination of pulse with free implosions that inspire Lightcap and Sanchez to be inventive and engage in discursive crossplay. I like Angelica's subtle, anti-showboating pianism. It bears close listening and I hope I get a chance to hear more of her in the near future. Chris Lightcap does everything he should in this kind of an intimate setting. He isn't out to overpower you with technique. Again, it's the group effort that he aims for.

Circle Down has that sleeper quality. It perhaps could be easily passed by. That is until you listen closely. Then you find the refined, thoroughly modern qualities which must be attended to for a true appreciation. I hope Mr. Taylor's trio records again soon. This is a group that I suspect can only get better in time. It's already quite good and they give you a very interesting and enjoyable program of music on the current disk. To the future!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Drummer Mike Reed Helps Define Modern Chicago Jazz

Today, more interesting new Chicago jazz, this time headed by drummer Mike Reed and his People, Places & Things ensemble. About Us (482 Music) brings to light the second in a projected three disk trilogy covering a kind of homage to Chicagoland's rich jazz history.

Reed is joined by Greg Ward on alto, Tim Haldeman on tenor and Jason Roebke on bass, capable players all. This is music with a pulse, freebop excursions made to jell by Mike Reed's compositional vehicles. Three cuts feature some prominent guests: "Big and Fine" highlights the playing and writing prowess of tenorist David Boykins; "Big Stubby" brings in trombonist Jeb Bishop to the same end; and "Days Fly By" spotlights the guitar and pen of Jeff Parker (who we have recently encountered in Fred Anderson's 80th birthday recording--see below).

With or without the guests, Reed's gathering delivers potent, excitingly spontaneous improvisations with an incandescent rhythm section foundation. If someone were to ask me, "What is going on in Chicago jazz today?" I would unhesitatingly refer them to this recording, among others. It is a joy to hear.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Appealing Raw Avant Freebop from The Other Tet

The Other Tet? Yes. It's Bill Lowe (perhaps aptly) on the bass trombone and tuba, diving into the murky depths of those instruments with a burry sound that provides atmosphere as well as soul. On the tuba, a modern-day Ray Draper comes to mind; on the bass trombone he plays with raw poise. Taylor Ho Bynum works the trumpet and flugelhorn. He has the flurry of a modern day Don Cherry and has established himself as one of the first-call out trumpeters these days. Joe Morris walks and prevaricates on the upright bass in just the right combintion. Drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng has a marvelous sounding set and evokes swing and exuberantly out percussiveness in alternation.

All this can be heard to good advantage on their recent self-titled CD on Engine. It has the direct appeal of some of the early "new thing" recordings made around New York in the mid-sixties. There's nothing slick here. It assumes the swingingly hard bopping quartet, then dismantles each playing role in such a congregation by creative deconstruction.

All the tunes have some good gritty torque, with the exception of "Cold Day Cup," which overworks the two-line motif but goes along nicely between those head segments.

All in all this is fine freebop. It churns, blusters, gives out with a belly laugh, then sets the studio on fire, only to go on to dampen the flames for a thoroughly musical clean up. I hope they record and gig together often. They have a nice sound.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ben Perowski and the Moodswing Orchestra

Drummer Ben Perowski has been around. He's worked with Steve Bernstein's irreverent Sex Mob, Elysian Fields, Uri Caine and "a host of others," as the saying goes. Just now he's gotten the chance to express his wider vision of what music sounds in his inner ear. That has resulted in the Moodswing Orchestra (El Destructo) CD. It is highly interesting, rather unclassifiable, and sonically epic in its proportions.

There are all kinds of people coming in and out of the aural landscape, Bernstein, for example, some compelling vocalists, and electronics-turntablist Markus Miller. It has a rock-funk beat underpinning most of the time. But what's on top is continually shifting in an ingenious collage-tapestry of ambiance and sound palletry.

So what is it? Post-jazz, post-rock, post-post? There is a downtown flavor, certainly, and that in its best sense of "anything is possible so anything goes." Perowsky comes through with fascinating arrangements and combinations of elements. Here I am on my fifth listen as I write these lines, and I still can't get my cognitive ears wrapped around the whole of it. Now that is a good thing, I think.

You want to embark on a new trip? Sick of formula? Here you go. The Moodswing Orchestra will give you a new turf to ply.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fat Cat Big Band's Third

Guitarist, jazz composer and arranger Jade Synstelien has a big band named Fat Cat. They've now released the third of their trilogy of CDs, Face (Smalls), and it is a good one. For reviews of the other two in the series check out the postings on my other site at

This is not a hearkening back to the old days of the big bands, nor is it particularly avant garde. Rather it has a twisty-turning nubop-nobop take on things. That is to say, it has been informed by developments in jazz from bop and after onwards, yet there is no copycat simulacra presence on their agenda.

They swing and execute like the Dickens, they have some very good soloists (like Sharel Cassity on alto) but it's Synstelien's charts that really make the band something hip.

He has a most eccentric vocal style which he unleashes on several numbers. It is an acquired taste. I've acquired it.

The rest are hard charging instrumentals and a balladic interlude or two. This is one of the most interesting big bands to emerge in recent years. I am rather taken with Mr. Synstelien's music. You might be as well. The only way to know for sure is to listen!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Percy Howard's Meridiem in a Third Outing

Percy Howard and his Project Band Meridiem has two CDs out there, one from 1998, one from 2000. I have not yet heard them. However his third, A Pleasant Fiction, Meridiem Volume Three (Voiceprint/Pangea) has been grabbing my ears for a week. It is time to report in on it.

Percy gathers together a fairly large group of musicians for this current volume, most notably Vernon Reid, Bill Laswell and Buckethead. Percy Howard does most of the vocals and he has soul. I believe it is Jill Tracy that is also a vocalist here and she contrasts Percy well. There may be others vocalists appearing too, but I don't know and it doesn't matter, really.

What we have is a musical trip that circumnavigates all kinds of progressive, alt and metallic-fusion realms. There is a story line that threads its way throughout and it has a romantic flavor. It is the well-crafted and excellently performed songs that musically stand out. The ensemble is top notch, guitar work notable and everything gels in a way conducive to the ears of 2009. I am sometimes reminded of Kip Hanrahan's imagery of love on the hot griddle. This is in Percy's own bag, though.

The songs are sophisticated and complicated enough that a single hearing does not do them justice. (And I sometimes wonder what reviewers think they are doing when they react to a recording based on a single listen, if there are any out there who still do that. OK if you know the music more or less beforehand. Not OK for a virgin slab of music.) Repeated listening reveals the content and puts the songs firmly in the memory. They are the sort of things Carla Bley, Mike Mantler and others pioneered in the '70s, art-rock songs, if you will.

Anybody who wants something with a lot of thought and care put into it, who likes rock but doesn't like the more banal versions, who looks for the edgier forms, would do well to hear this CD at least two or three times, or ten. . . .

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fred Anderson Celebrates 80th with CD and DVD

Free Jazz Tenorman Fred Anderson has been a mainstay of the Chicago music world since the '60s. A founding member of the AACM, he has been on numerous recordings and has held sway at the head of a variety of bands at his own Velvet Lounge (and all over the world too).

This year he turned 80. That in itself is not particularly remarkable. Of course other people do this all the time. What is important is his playing. It is the fiery blast of tenorism that it was when he first came up, only it's tempered by years of interacting on the bandstand. It's better than ever in many ways.

In March of this year, Delmark set up their recording equipment at the Velvet Lounge to record the birthday celebration. A CD and DVD came out of this, 21st Century Chase, and it is a fine example of what a well attuned ensemble can achieve when left to their own resources.

First, the band. Of course there is Fred on the tenor, joined by co-vet tenorist Kidd Jordan. Anderson and Kidd are in great form and the two together provide powerfully moving interactions that rival some of the classic tandems of recent jazz history. Harrison Bankhead provides an infinity varied and powerful bass ground for it all. He shows how important imagination and technique can be in the free blowing situation. Jeff Parker, increasingly well known as a guitarist of choice in the Chicago avant world, provides contrast and intelligence in his understated comps and delightfully enigmatic soloing. And Chad Taylor swings and pummels like a human drumming dynamo.

The sound is pristine and well balanced, and the DVD gives you the option of a surround sound version. Three long improvisations comprise the set (with a bonus track on the DVD that brings in the comeback bassist Henry Grimes while Bankhead switches to cello). It is music that goes around more than one block. They get into a number of compelling free grooves. The DVD is visually interesting and reproduces the club atmosphere and the excitement of in-the-moment spontaneity.

Either way, CD or DVD, there is much excellence. It is a fitting tribute to a tenor titan that has not always received the recognition he deserves. Happy 80th Fred Anderson!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Weightless, A Free Quartet in a New Recording

Of all the instruments to play, the piano is one that poses particular challenges. You sit down to it and all the notes are available to you simultaneously. You only have ten fingers, plus your arms for clusters if you play like Don Pullen (or Henry Cowell), so choice becomes critical. The moment you push down the keys the piano immediately gives out with a sound, one group of sounds really, that has to do with that particular piano and its characteristics. To get "your" sound takes many years, if you ever get there.

A child when first fooling around with the instrument can immediately and un-selfconsciously pull off a bad Cecil Taylor imitation. Tinkle-slam-chop-blur. Again to get any good at going at it in this way takes considerable time and practice. To go beyond that second level, to be a truly individual stylist in this mode is even more difficult.

This brings me to the CD at hand today. It's by a group called Weightless and the CD is entitled A Brush with Dignity (Clean Feed). Weightless consists of Alberto Braida on piano, John Butcher on tenor and soprano, John Edwards on double bass and Fabrizio Spera on drums.

Weightless engages in carefully executed sorts of free improvisations that owe something to new concert music though there is a strong foundation in the "jazz" orientation, whatever that means anymore.

Braida's playing reminds us of what it takes to get a personal sound and a kind of free playing that goes leagues beyond the "kid-slamming-at-the-piano" fundamentals. He picks his way painstakingly through the possibilities. . . a cluster here, a phrase there, an overall attempt not to be automatic or banal and an avoidance of any overt key center. He has tangible success in the "what" category; the "how" category (the personal sound) is not fully present, at least on this recording according to my own take on it. That is not a problem to the music in any sense. Because also to consider is that Braida succeeds in interjecting himself into a set of collective ensemble improvisations, and in that context he is not supposed to stand out but to meld together with the others.

The four players as an organic whole succeed in creating group structures that are not uninteresting. Butcher's tenor steps out alone on occasion, not to blaze with incandescent speakings of the tongues, but with more considered note making. That is true of the group at large as well.

I would not go so far as to say that Weightless has achieved total individuality as yet. That may come. What they have done here is created an hour of interesting free music. This is not a high-energy, high density slam-dunk sort of freakout. It's a bit more thoughtful. Those who like the quieter areas of free music and sensitive group interplay will find it pleasing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Tenor Sax, Bass Clarinet and Flute of Nobuyasu Furuya

You can depend upon Clean Feed Records consistently to come up with interesting releases in the advanced free improv jazz genre. That doesn't mean you've heard of everybody on the label. That's a good thing because it means they are offering up some fresh faces to the international scene and that's how growth happens in music. One of the ways, at least.

Nobuyasu Furuya. There's a new name to me. He is a Japanese expat residing in Portugal. He's studied Ottoman classical music. He plays vibrantly. There's his new album Bendowa (Clean Feed). It's a trio affair with Hernani Faustino on bass and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums. They do a fine job.

Nobuyasu has a good sense of linear drama and absolute control over his sound. Some people say he sounds like Archie Shepp on tenor. Well, there IS that sort of near-speech inflection he sometimes evokes. But there's a little Ayler there too. Maybe some Dolphy as well. On flute he has a shakuhachi like purity. His bass clarinet is snaky. To me though, it's his dramatic sense of space, of sound and silence, of color and darkness that stands out. The phrasing lengths, the pauses and the trajectory of his drive show a great sensibility.

There is plenty of good music on Bendowa. It tends more towards the exploratory than the frantic. But there is plenty of energy to be had as well. Here is a player to watch. Or rather to listen to. This CD will give improv enthusiasts a good adventure. I would say to you "go get it" if you are looking for a different sort of free player.

By the way, for those internet folks who mention me (and that's nice, thanks) my name is GREGO, it is not GRECO. And my last name is EDWARDS, middle name APPLEGATE. I personally am not called GAPPLEGATE. And I am not el Greco; I am el Grego. I may paint, but el Greco I ain't! Whatever. . . just want to get the record straight. (Is that a pun?)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Baird Hersey's Extraordinary Music for Voice I

A little while ago on this blog a question was raised about Baird Hersey. "Whatever happened to him?" someone asked in the comments section of a review of a David Mott CD. For those that might have missed it, in the mid-seventies Baird recorded a very interesting set of duets for electric guitar (Baird) and percussion/drums (David Moss), Coessential, which was very well received. He formed a progressive-avant big band Year of the Ear that had critical and artistic success and several seminal records at that time as well. His considerable compositional and arranging talents made this an important group, as did the aggregation of some terrific soloists. The band deserves to be remembered and I hope the recordings will be re-released sometime soon.

After those high points, I lost track of what Baird was doing. It turns out his practice of yoga and perfection of a throat singing vocal technique (akin to the vocal practices of Tibetan monks and Siberian Tuvan folk artists) converged in an all-vocal style of music that brought Baird into entirely new musical realms. The vocal technique involves the manipulation of the mouth cavity and throat to produce fundamental vocal sounds along with pronounced overtones, so that the solo voice becomes a multi-toned instrument.

What Baird makes of this we can hear in one of his initial forays into the new style, his recording Waking the Cobra (Hersey), recorded in 1997-98. This is the first of a series of Baird's recent CD's that we'll cover in this blog in the coming weeks. And it's a very good place to start.

Essentially, this entire recording consists of Baird's expansive vocal pieces. I believe all of the parts were sung by Baird via overdubbing. It is a meditative, cosmically reflective music, with much in the way of drones and vast landscapes of vocal sound color, with the overtone singing providing one of the primary timbres in the ensemble. It is a brilliant music, hard to classify, and quite rewarding to experience. There is a primal quality akin to various Tibetan, Japanese and Indian religious-ritual vocal styles, but it also has a foot in the contemporary world of modern concert music in its conceptual thrust.

It is a music that verbal description cannot really approximate. One must hear it to appreciate it. Sublimity comes in many forms. This is one of them.

If you have a cosmic bent and/or if you want to explore something very new yet very primal in the world of new music, you should seek this one out. Google Baird Hersey to find out more. And stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lin Halliday, A Tragically Underappreciated Tenorman

Lin Halliday played the hell out of the tenor sax. He passed away in 2000, after a career that, because of health problems and an erratic lifestyle, had many downs and a few ups. His first recording under his own name took place when he was 55 years old! He had some important associations before that (with Maynard Ferguson, for example) but never managed to keep his business together long enough to gain the exposure he deserved. Until he moved to Chicago in 1980 and began working regularly there.

By the time of his (I believe) fourth recording, Where Or When (Delmark), issued in 1993, things really seemed to be coming together for him, at least judging by the evidence of this recording. But bad health in the end prevailed.

The album at hand is a goodie. It brings Lin together with bop stalwart Ira Sullivan on trumpet and tenor, the great Jodie Christian on piano, and a good rhythm team of Larry Gray and Robert Barry, bass and drums, respectively.

Halliday was a tenor in the robust tradition of Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, and he is in great form on Where Or When. This is a freewheeling session of jazz and American songbook standards, done with elan. It makes you wonder how far he could have gone had circumstances permitted. He certainly had all the talent and tools to make a big name for himself. But it wasn't to be. Check out this album and you'll hear why we should not forget him.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Music of Michael Daugherty II

Michael Daugherty's music seems to be widely performed on the concert circuit these days. Perhaps that's so for two reasons: a.) His music is accessible in a kind of Populist way. And his eclecticism helps his music sound a bit as if you've heard it before, somewhere. b.) His music often uses as launching points literal themes that are not stuffy or academic. (Mind you, I have nothing against stuffy and academic, either.)

One can certainly see both of these factors at work in a second Naxos release devoted to his orchestral music. On it we find Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Nashville Symphony in spirited performances of two works that span a period beginning in 1988 and ending in 2007.

The first piece, Metropolis Symphony (1988-93), celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first Superman comics with a substantial orchestral work. Daugherty states in the liner notes that the symphony is a "musical response to the myth of Superman." Like very well received works in the standard repertoire, The Planets and Symphony Fantastique come to mind (and like the latter, interestingly there are quotations from Dies Irae), the listener is given a concrete handle on the music via accessible subject matter.

This alone would not not be sufficient to make the Metropolis Symphony worth your listening time. Daugherty's masterful orchestrational talents shine throughout the work. It's bright, colorful, even exciting music that comes to vivid life on the aural soundstage of this CD.

The same can be said of the more recent (2007) work Deus Ex Machina for Piano and Orchestra. This time the jumping off point is the world of trains. In keeping with the inspiration for this work, the music here has a bit more power and sensory-motor bite than the Metropolis Symphony. Terrence Wilson performs the part of the Machina piano protagonist with drive and masterful execution. This is music of great motion and the piano seems like the locomotive that drags the orchestra along, sometimes at a furious clip.

Anyone looking for orchestral showcase works that convert the vast sonoric resources of the modern symphony orchestra into bright digital sound will welcome this recording. There is exhilaration and much pleasure to be had!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Orchestral Music of Michael Daugherty

We live in a pluralistic world. In the visual arts today, for example, no one style holds absolute sway. Traverse the galleries this autumn and you'll find any number of post-, neo-, quasi-, appropriated or just plain straightforward work in the style of "x." So conceptualism, performance art, expressionism, abstract expressionism, neo-geo, representational, hyper-realism and any number of other styles rub shoulders indiscriminately. I suppose this is a healthy trend. I really am rather neutral about it, though.

In contemporary classical concert music the same thing might be said. There are the minimalists, post-minimalists, neo-romantics, post-serialists, noise artists, and any number of other avenues of musical composition. The days of "this style and no other" have seemingly passed. That brings us to American composer Michael Daugherty. He is not easily categorized. He writes music that shows imagination, exceptional orchestrational craftsmanship and a thoroughgoing eclecticism.

A recent Naxos release is a case in point. It contains three interesting works, performed with excellence by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi. The principal work on the disk, Fire and Blood for Violin and Orchestra, features Ida Kavafian as soloist playing a part that has distinct roots in the romantic era violin showpiece. Yet the piece itself combines a rhapsodic orientation with modern orchestral tone painting of a high order. The piece musically depicts artist Diego Rivera and his 1932 mural commissions honoring the auto industry. Subsequently the music in this piece incorporates Mexican musical folk elements, and not just in terms of the marimba part. It's a masterful work, and both Ms. Kavafian and the Detroit Symphony give a stirring performance.

Daugherty's Motor City Triptych, a work from 2000, gives the listener another half-hour of attractive tone painting. The third movement with its Villa Lobos-like writing for three trombones particularly stands out.

The CD concludes with Raise the Roof, an exciting piece for solo timpani and orchestra. It is one of the single most convincing vehicles for the solo timpani that I have yet to hear, a tour de force of kinetic energy with some wonderful playing by soloist Brian Jones.

Michael Daugherty writes a directly communicating music that has the straightforward qualities of some of Aaron Copland's best scores. The Naxos CD has brilliant sound and Neeme Jarvi gives us a precision rendering that does not eschew the passion Daugherty's scores contain. A most satisfying release is this, and highly recommended for anyone interested in what orchestral music is about today.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Encyclopedia of Concentration Camp Composers

KZ Musik is in the process of issuing a comprehensive CD series covering music written from 1933 to 1945, the Encyclopedia of Music Composed in Concentration Camps. I have been listening to their sixth volume and it is a very moving experience. It the midst of one of the most evil series of actions in the history of the world, the human spirit asserts itself here with eleven composers who refused to be spiritually defeated.

The courage of these musicians should serve as a model for all of us today. Whether the compositions are absolute classics or not is moot. The fact of their existence demands that they be heard, not forgotten, and that they be an active part of the cultural heritage of the 20th century.

The music is noble and filled with a strength that goes beyond styles and fashions. The compositions in Volume 6 include the solo vocal cantation-style works of Josef Pinkhof, William Hilsley's haunting "Fantasia on Provencal Christmas Carol," songs for voice and piano, solo piano pieces, chamber works.

Each volume contains an informative booklet.

It is music that on one level is hard to listen to. What monstrosity let this happen? But ultimately these composers were writing the music in the hopes that we and their God might hear. These are like musical messages in a bottle, for us and the generations to follow. Do not forget our sufferings, they seem to be saying. If we can write beautiful music under such traumatically harrowing conditions, then you have no excuse. Music must flourish, musicians must be heard. If not civilization does not stand a chance on this earth.

Getting at least one of these CDs and listening is a symbolic act of solidarity with those victims of a world gone criminally insane. And the music is worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Josh Berman and Chicago Jazz

Chicago Jazz flourishes. This should be no surprise. It also has a bi-regional and international presence. Ken Vandermark is touring Europe with an excellent band right now. That's just an example. NOLA trombonist Jeff Albert has teamed up with Chicago's luminous counterpart, Jeb Bishop, for the deservedly acclaimed Lucky 7s ensemble, who have an excellent new album out. And cornetist Josh Berman forms an important part of that group, along with tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and vibist Jason Adasiewicz. They are some superb musicians, so that comes as no surprise, either.

What has surprised me is that Josh Berman just put out his first CD as a leader, Old Idea (Delmark). It surprised me when it arrived in the mail because I did not know it was in the works. It's Josh along with Keefe and Jason in a quintet that features the fine playing, writing and arranging abilities of the leader. Josh has been around for about ten years, with fruitful associations that include Ken Vandermark, Rob Mazurek and as co-leader of the Chicago Luzern Exchange. His time is due.

Old Idea reminds me of what I like so much about the Lucky 7s. This is no straight-ahead blowing date. It's a beautifully paced program where individual players get plenty of opportunities to shine in the context of ever-shifting instrumental configurations and very attractive compositional vehicles. Josh is tart and assured; Keefe is impeccable in the ensemble and freely original in solo passages; Jason is a fabulous addition to the group with a post-Hutcherson attention to color, nuance, and spatial solos of daring and intelligence. The rhythm section of Anton Hatwich and Nori Tanaka on bass and drums, respectively, provide sensitive support and wide-open ears to what they can contribute. They do.

Old Idea is an excellent recording. Do not fail to grab it if you like the modern side of improvisational music.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Louie Belogenis, Tenor Sax Modernist on the Way Up

Louie Belogenis is one of those tenor saxophonists that seems to be appearing more and more frequently on important improvisational sessions. He was/is a key member of Steve Swell's Magic Listening Hour (see review in an earlier posting), he's had an important association with the late Rashied Ali, collaborated with bassist Michael Bisio, Karl Berger et al on Old Dog (see review on my other site and I could certainly go on.

I've yet to review his 2004 recording The Flow (Ayler Download Series), where he leads a dynamic trio, only because I cannot be everywhere at once (unless some kind of Twilight Zone device were to come on the market).

The Belogenis Trio on that day was comprised of Louie's tenor plus the bass of Joe Morris and Charles Downs on drums. They played a full set at the CBGB Gallery in New York and Ayler Records was there to capture the musical event.

This is free improvisation in the tradition of Albert Ayler and his followers. That means that rhythmically there may or may not be a set pulse, but always (and appropriately, given the title) a flow of musical utterances. The group gradually builds momentum, with Belogenis sustaining a long and interesting improvisation utilizing his ability to coax an interconnected palette of instrumental colors from his horn and to weave long, interesting horizontal segments of spontaneous line creation.

We are talking about OUT Jazz, of course. It is a very good showcase for what Belogenis can do with a sympathetic group of players and a conducive live venue. It's a little gem in Ayler Records' rather substantial collection of download only releases.

If you seek an introduction to the Belogenis tenor and where it's been, this is a good start.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jazz Icon Series DVDs: Garner, Hawkins, Farmer

Naxos has been releasing a series of rare jazz performances on a series of DVDs called "Jazz Icons." Each grouping of releases is available singly or as a box set. The fourth installment will be out on October 27th and I have been sampling three volumes in the batch: to wit, DVDs of Erroll Garner, Art Farmer and Coleman Hawkins.

First of all, the prices. These are quite a bargain.

The good price does not come through a sacrifice in quality. Nicely packaged with an illuminating 20-page booklet, each volume has been carefully transferred from the original source videos/films and come across with good audio and sharp visuals.

The three I've been enjoying each have their own merits. Coleman Hawkins' disk gives you a solid 140 minutes of the Bean in two settings. The first from a 1962 appearance in Belgium finds Coleman's tenor in very good form, perhaps inspired by the company of sympathetic sideman--the nearly forgotten pianist Georges Avanitas, veteran drummer Kansas Fields, the solid bassist Jimmy Woode. They do a fairly long set that swings well and has plenty of great tenor characteristic of Hawkin's later period. The second segment hails from a 1964 BBC show and teams Coleman with the great "Sweets" Edison on trumpet, the laconically profound Sir Charles Thompson on piano, Jimmy Woode again and the pioneering Jo Jones on drums. As the booklet admits, Hawkins takes a few numbers to find his groove on this second appearance but he is never uninteresting. The addition of Edison and Thompson gives the group two more very game soloists. And to hear and watch Jo Jones in action is a real treat. By 1964 he was an elder statesman of the music but he sounds as youthful as his early days with the Count. And there's a solo spot for him on "Caravan" that has as much visual as aural interest. There aren't that many people left who were lucky enough to have caught Coleman Hawkins in person. As the father of the modern tenor his authority is undisputed today. Watch this video and you'll understand why.

The Erroll Garner disk brings his trio out front with two appearances dating from 1963 and 1964, respectively. Erroll was such a magnificently full pianist that his accompanying trio were mostly foreshadowed by his musical enormity. But here as ever they give a good accounting of the art of accompanying. It's the inimitable pianistic attack of Garner that is the main attraction. He is in fine form for both dates. Seeing him visually in the throes of a solo can help you understand his rhythmic thrust. He often nods his head in a two against three pattern to the four square swing flow and it underscores through gesture the polyrhythmic swinging he mastered so fully. This is joyous pianism. Fine sound and clear visuals bring the Garner live experience home in bold relief.

Art Farmer's disk features his subtly burning, undersung quartet. There's Farmer's cooly passionate fluegelhorn, Jim Hall's suave and creative guitar, the innovative Steve Swallow on bass, and the hot yet very intelligent drumming of Pete LaRoca. If you need reminding, this 1966 date from England tells the story of Art in all his greatness, as musician and bandleader. He had affinities with Miles Davis of course, but he built up his own citadel of musical illumination and the concert represented here shows you how solid that was. He and the band are absolutely phenomenal on this day.

So that's my take on these three volumes. This is part of the fourth set and they all look interesting.

To find out about the content of all four Jazz Icon installements, and to enter a sweepstakes and get a chance to win the complete four-box set, go to The contest ends October 22nd.