Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dennis Gonzalez, the Complete Improvisational Artist

Dennis Gonzalez doesn't just play the trumpet, or the cornet. And he doesn't just play well. He imbues every session and date as a leader with a certain wholeness of concept. It is a matter of grasping the possibilities inherent in a particular musical aggregation at a particular point and helping things run their course.

You can hear that clearly in The Great Bydgoszcz Concert (Ayler), a very productive live date he recorded with a quartet in Poland last year. There is a nice fit between the pieces chosen (originals by the band plus an Ornette Coleman piece and one by the late Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda) and the personality of the band. The result is a long program of no-B.S. modern jazz in a post-Ornette framework ("post-" here designating "following in the wake of," not "negating or going elsewhere after a style has exhausted itself").

The band has real strengths. It's the union of his long-running Yells at Eels Trio with Rodrigo Amado. Dennis is the sort of trumpeter that never seems to run out of ideas or resort to personal pet phrases. Like a good conversationalist, he finds something interesting to say on the theme at hand. He also shows his affinity with Don Cherry and Bill Dixon here, in the sense that he too can construct lucid lines with a folksy trumpet sound that is all his. Rodrigo Amado shows on this date that we may have been missing something, that he is a tenor man who has built an edifice from a musical language he himself has forged out of the modern zeitgeist of what has been laid down in the music since 1960. Such music making is most welcome in an age where imitation may be flattery but does little to move the music forward.

Dennis has found a powerful rhythm team in his two sons, Aaron and Stefan on acoustic bass and drums, respectively. They have no small amount of responsibility for the success of this session. In part one can hear the Haden-Blackwell nexus at work, but only referentially. It's what they do with those initial models that counts.

I tend to think that everything Dennis Gonzalez does is worthwhile. But even if you are not a Gonzalez completist, The Great Bydgoszcz Concert is one of his very best to date, and so perhaps you will want to hear it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fred Simon and the Difference Between New Age and Lyrical Jazz

We've all no doubt sampled the many new age offerings that have been available to us in the last two decades. Some of you may be confirmed enthusiasts for one or more artists, and of course that's just fine. There's also the highly lyrical side of the jazz opus, which predated new age and was in many ways the model for some of what new age music does. Lyrical jazz such as you might find with the group Oregon or Keith Jarrett in a certain mode, notably the Jarrett of "My Song" (part of an older ECM release), combines substantial melodic and harmonic invention with appropriate improvisations in that style. New age may dispense with improvisations and at least some of the music I've heard in that bag can also dispense with the song form altogether to offer pleasant atmospheric doodles and lyric fragments that serve as what my father's generation called "mood music."

Enter pianist-song crafter Fred Simon. His new album Since Forever (Naim Jazz) auspiciously includes a lineup of players who have contributed greatly to the lyrical jazz out there. Most notably Paul McCandless has had a very important part to play in this music. As soprano sax, oboe and multireed personality with Oregon he has managed for many years to combine extreme lyricism with soul and an ability to play inside or outside according to the needs of the moment. Joining the band also is Mark Walter, the current drummer with Oregon, the latest in a line of exceptional artists to occupy that position and not undeserving of praise in his own right. Finally, there is Steve Rodby, bassist with Pat Metheny.

So there are the right sort of sidemen on this session. Other than a lovely retake of Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," the program consists of Fred Simon originals. They are squarely situated in the lyrical jazz camp, as are his rather rhapsodic piano stylings. You get more than an hour of strongly lyrical music, with Simon and McCandless providing the spark of inspiration that keeps the program from falling into new age genericism.

Anyone who is a fan of Oregon and/or the lyrical side of Keith Jarrett will find this music most appealing, I think. It is not limpid to the point of enervation and it has the improvisational element through strong soloing from the principals. It is the sort of disk that stands up well to close listening, but also provides the backdrop for cool beans cocktail parties, not that I especially like such musical applications, but people are going to do this and Fred Simon may pick up some converts in spite of the chatter that will threaten to drown him out. (This is nothing new. Do you suppose many people actually listened closely to Handel's Water Music when it was originally performed? It was party time! Later for the masterwork status and the hushed adulation of every strain in the concert hall.) Ultimately, Fred Simon will be heard and he should be at that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dan Aran, Lynch Pin of Israeli-American Jazz

OK, so there IS an Israeli-American jazz scene. What better day than Yom Kippur to bring it up? Drummer Dan Aran is an important part of it. His new album Breathing (Smalls) makes that clear. He can play some solid drums, lead a middle-sized ensemble from the drum stool, and makes use of the talent around him as well as his own in choosing a program of originals, standards and roots music finely arranged and performed.

The ensemble on this disk is in continual flux, but generally there is a front line of several horns (Avishai Cohen on trumpet being one of the most accomplished), plus some special sound color instruments here and there, like accordion and bassoon.

The music is contemporary with some bop underpinning now and then and some roots, like on the final cut, "Yemeni Prie," a very nice 7/8 timed piece based on Yemeni traditional music.

Those are the basics. For the specifics, you just need to listen to it a few times and you should find yourself falling in with its varied program and its delightfully solid musical qualities. If you want modern contemporary in the new mainstream and you have had enough of the cliches that can be repackaged and regurgitated from the Jamey Aebersold practice books and music-minus-one CDs, here are a group of folks who know that it's not enough to get the changes right and learn to string the "correct" cliches together flowingly. Not to take anything away from the Aebersold books. They are great. But they are like Wittgenstein's idea of philosophy. It is a ladder to get you somewhere. Once you've climbed up there, you don't need the ladder anymore. And that's when the real work begins. Dan Aran and his colleagues are way past the ladder and working on what comes after, what you put into the music after you get the basics down, with very successful and listenable results.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Large Ensemble Music of Joe Giardullo

Reedman-composer Joe Giardullo may not be a household name. You may not have heard of him. Yet he's making some very interesting music that rests in the interstices of jazz improv and contemporary concert. The example I have spinning on my computer's CD drive is Red Morocco (RogueArt). It features an ensemble of Giardullo and 13 other instrumentalists performing a number of the leader's pieces.

It is the sort of music that seamlessly integrates the written and the improvised. In fact it is hard to tell which is which. According to the liner notes there were a number of visual and notational cues given to each musician and the working out of the finished performance was an exercise in sensitive group interaction and improvisation based on those initial guidelines.

That covers the nuts and bolts of how the music comes to your ears. And of course it doesn't do justice to the final results you hear. This is a fairly large group but, like in many contemporary chamber orchestra compositions, the full ensemble is not continually sounding. There is a virtual kaleidoscope of musicians grouping and regrouping in ever shifting combinations. Sound colors and tones present themselves in various permutations, in an endless set of variations without a set theme.

The effect for the attentive listener is most positive. There is much to hear and appreciate. It shows that Joe Giardullo is a musician who is well-positioned to become a critical mover in the music of today, and of tomorrow. Give this disk a hearing if you can.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Roswell Rudd, Trombone Pioneer

In the mid-sixties through to, say, 1970, there were only two really important American trombone players in the free-new thing echelons of improvisational music. There was Grachan Moncur and there was Roswell Rudd. That they both played for a time with Archie Shepp is not insignificant. (For Rudd's playing with Archie there's the monumental Live in San Francisco on Impulse if you can find it). I could say plenty of good things about Mr. Moncur, but we'll leave that aside for another posting.

Roswell Rudd had memorable and well-received associations in the early days with the New York Art Quartet and with the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd cooperative ensemble (the latter group playing Monk for the most part). Rudd also participated in what I gather were informal get togethers with the legendary Herbie Nichols, the tragically unsung composer-pianist who passed in the sixties with little notice but has been the subject of posthumous appreciation as his few recording have been reissued and his music revived by people like Misha Mengelberg. And Roswell Rudd.

A very good example of the latter is a Roswell Rudd Trio recording on CIMP, The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Volume 1. It was recorded in 1996 and features Roswell in great form along with Greg Millar on guitar and John Bacon, Jr at the drums.

The recording gives you unvarnished Rudd in a small-group context and several unaccompanied trombone cuts. There are previously unrecorded Herbie Nichols pieces as the launching point and those pieces are surely worth hearing. But it's Rosewell's playing that forms the main event of this contentful disk.

With absolutely no disrespect intended, one might say that Rudd is the master of the "new tailgate" trombone. Though the tailgate style of trombone so prevalent in NOLA's early jazz ensembles was latter dismissed by some as technically limited and overly boisterous, those criticisms were misguided and the product of a general prejudice that the "Moderns" had against "Moldy Fig" music in the '40s and '50s. From the very beginning Roswell Rudd (who did some time playing dixieland as did Nichols, interestingly) brought back some of the bluster and fire of those old tailgate style players. Whatever you can say about his playing, technically limited is certainly not one of them. And he combined that bluster with an avant style that joined extended sound color capabilities with melody lines that stretched the boundaries of what note combinations and phrases could "lawfully" be played with what.

After the advent of Rudd on the scene, you can trace the rise of other free bonists that also brought back the dramatic bluster to the music. I wont go into names (that would involve us in a discussion that is beyond the scope of this posting). The point is that he influenced many that followed in his wake. And he's still doing it today.

So the CIMP disk gives you a very nice slice of Roswell the trombonist. There's bluster, but there's also fabulous phrasing and note choice. And there's a hell of a lot of heart in his playing.
This CIMP disk may not have sold a million copies as yet, but it is essential listening. For Rudd's trombone and for Herbie Nichols' jazz compositions.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ted Sirota with A New Rebel Souls Album

A couple weeks ago we discussed a fine Ted Sirota recording of several years back. Today we look at a brand new one, Seize the Time (Naim). What was true of the earlier disk is true of this one too. A diverse series of styles are corralled into Sirota's musical ranch, each taking on the brand of the ensemble sound the band so successfully projects. There are funky moments, free moments, transformations of reggae and other Caribbean strains, Afropop, vintage Mingus and more else besides. It all gets processed to become Rebel Souls music.

This is a different lineup than the one on the previously reviewed recording. It is distinctive in its own way. Geof Bradfield and Greg Ward play reeds, Dave Miller is the guitarist, Jake Vinsel, bass and of course Mr. Sirota is a guiding presence on the drums. They come through with that rare inside-outside ability to shift their playing according to the piece at hand without sacrificing their own stylistic integrity.

What particularly distinguishes this Rebel Souls disk is the long and variously contrasting program of interesting originals. But like the best of classic Chicago music, the story is all in the telling. The excitement and raw power generated by the players fit seamlessly into the clearly articulated arrangements and routines of the ensemble.

Another smashingly good one from Ted Sirota. Seize the time. And get the CD.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Five "Nuts" Have A New CD If You Are Willing to Shell Out

Bassist Benjamin Duboc put together the group called "Nuts" with the unusual instrumentation of two trumpets (Rasul Siddik, Itaru Oki), two drummers (Didier Lassarre, Makoto Sato) and of course bass. Based on their inaugural recording Symphony for Old and New Dimensions (Ayler), the group is inclined toward the long, sprawling improvisational form. There are two lengthy segments totalling nearly 70 minutes of music on this live session. If you realize from the start that these musical nuts are going to be in no hurry to come to some final musical fruition, you will relax and begin to appreciate the long flowing meander that makes "Nuts" a satisfying, leisurely journey through a landscape of freely articulated sound.

The liner notes on the CD point out the similarity of approach between this group and some of the classic AACM musicians, particularly the Art Ensemble. I do not disagree. Like the AEC when in a certain group mind-meld, Nuts conjure a meditative mood that does not look to an eventful series of conclusions, but rather an open-ended dialogue that leaves room for all but expects each participant to contribute to the collective affect. Nobody is exactly soloing, nor are they accompanying.

All the above distinguishes this set from the more typical improvs that can be heard. It takes a few listens to appreciate, at least it did for me. Once you get there, though, you know you've been some places that are at least a shade rarefied. And, if you are like me, you appreciate it the more for all that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jeff Albert's Trombone and the 2004 CD "One"

Quietly, in his own way, NOLA's Jeff Albert has been establishing himself as a front-runner among the trombone players to emerge in the last decade. Not that we're talking about a horse race. It's a matter of who is doing interesting and important work and Jeff is at the top. His two releases with co-leader and fellow trombonist Jeb Bishop in the Lucky 7s (see my reviews in Cadence), his excellent last album "Similar in the Opposite Way" (which I reviewed sometime ago on my other blog at and his mp3 Creative Common downloads, showing his varied and challenging work in the Open Ears Music Series ( and other venues ( give witness to a musician with keen ears, great execution and a fine compositional sense that breathes life into the freewheeling possibilities he clearly hears.

For our purposes it all starts with his 2004 CD "One" (Lakefront Digital). The CD has been on my player for a while now and it's too good not to bring up, even though five years old at this juncture. It features Jeff on trombone and his front-line mate Ray Moore on alto and tenor saxes, ably abetted by the rhythm team of Edwin Livingston and Dave Cappello (bass and drums, respectively).

"One" shows Jeff with remarkable poise and a sure-footed sense of proportion, especially for a first effort. He gives out his improvisations with controlled yet raw power and a great ear for line construction. He and Ray work together in a NOLA counterpoint tempered and expanded by the sort of Ornette-and-after articulation of what can be happening on the bandstand. And the compositions are strong and varied, from the "Lonely Woman"-like dramatics of "Moonswell," the free funk of "Neon Monkey," to the swingingly controlled abandon of "Solar Regulation."

This is essential listening for those who want something new in their listening regimen. It shows that from the first recording on, Jeff Albert has been a triple threat: great trombonist, composer and bandleader. "One" should not be overlooked.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jason Stein in a New Trio Recording

Two days ago we looked at Jason Stein's forthcoming solo bass clarinet CD. Today his trio hits the spotlight, with Three Less Than Between (Clean Feed), which is also scheduled for release early next month.

Jason has dubbed his trio Locksmith Isidore. This, their second CD, finds Stein teamed with drummer Mike Pride as before, but with the replacement of the cellist on the previous date with bassist Jason Roebke.

Three Less Than Between contains some very fine free improvisation/new thing music. All three musicians are in synch, but it's Jason Stein's bass clarinet that dominates the proceedings. And that in the best sort of way. He sometimes reminds me of Marzette Watts (who had an excellent album on ESP back in the mid-sixties that needs to be re-released) because he incorporates speech-like phrasings without continually invoking the anguished cries of Dolphy in his more intense moments. Since only a few will remember Watts I suppose that makes little difference. It no doubt is the convergence of their musical proclivities that makes their playing somewhat similar in sound some of the time. And of course they are both on disc to be enjoyed. One does not cancel out the other. Plus Stein calls upon a greater variety of sound qualities in the end. And so.

The pieces range from free bopping swing episodes to pointillist band phrasings to sound color collages. There is no flagging or loss of forward movement in the set. The band starts at a high point and pretty much stays there.

With this and the solo release, it is clear that Jason Stein has burst upon the scene as a player to be heard. This Clean Feed offering will probably be more accessible listening to the typical set of ears than the unaccompanied solo disc. All that being said Three Less Than Between is highly recommended as a starting point.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

James Moody Still Has It After 60 Years

James Moody. Here's an artist that established himself as a prime exponent of the Bop tenor (with Dizzy Gillespie's band) and has been going strong ever since. More than 60 years on the stand, in the studios. . . .That's amazing enough.

But listen to his latest album, 4A (IPO). He sounds beautiful. Those sixty years of blowing bop have acted like a giant musical sieve. All superfluous notes have been sifted out and what's left is pure Moodybop.

He's joined on this recording with some stellar players that dig in to give him the support and collaboration due a master. Kenny Barron's piano is another one of those near iconic presences on the jazz scene. He went through the Dizzy school of bop too, a little later in the game, and plays today as well as ever. It is a treat to hear the two of these players interact. Doubtless things might not have turned out so swingingly if it weren't for the presence of bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Lewis Nash. All the better to set up Moody's mood for blowing.

The group runs through a program of American songbook and jazz standards, like "'Round Midnight," "East of the Sun," and "Stablemates." There's also a nice Kenny Barron composition.

Hearing James Moody playing so well is an experience akin to having Abraham Lincoln still around to re-deliver the Gettysburg Address with undiminished oratory power. (Well, maybe not exactly, but you get the idea.) It's living history, but it's not history so much as it is living. It's history to come. Later for the history.

Catch Mr. Moody now if you can. And listen to this CD. You'll be the better for it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jason Stein, Unaccompanied Bass Clarinet

From the moment I heard Eric Dolphy take up the bass clarinet, I in turn was taken up with its dark sound, its nearly infinite possibilities for tone color. I just listened. Chicago-based Jason Stein did something about it when faced with similar circumstances. He took it up himself and made it his instrument of choice.

After playing with the likes of Michael Moore, Peter Brotzman, Jeb Bishop, Jeff Parker, Ken Vandermark and Frank Gratkowski, and after some time past as a leader of his own groups, Stein felt he was ready for an unaccompanied solo venture. In Exchange for a Process (Leo), available early next month, is the completion of that project, and in some ways the fulfillment of Stein's first phase as an artist.

Now perhaps not everybody will welcome this unaccompanied venture into the sonic complexities of the lower registered member of the clarinet family. The cognoscenti of such sorts of music should and surely will. Because Mr. Stein shows himself to be on an intrepid adventure of discovery. He uncovers the wide ranging tone possibilities of his chosen instrument, and he does so with imagination and disciplined control over the production of those tones.

You get the feeling sometimes when listening to similar sorts of creative projects (in lesser hands) that the artist is taking advantage of accidents of sound brought about by half-fingerings, embouchure pressure variations and other factors. With Jason Stein, your ears tell you that there's little truly accidental about what he plays, that he has conducted his technical experiments off mike and proceeds in the recording to weave tapestries of richly colored sound that are intentional, leaving little to chance. The journey of discovery for Stein is the formation of lucid musical speech out of the personal vocabulary of note and tone he has forged through long interaction with his instrument.

It is surely one of the best solo bass clarinet performances I've heard. It deserves to be a part of the small but seminal body of important works in this vein, beginning with recordings Eric Dolphy produced unaccompanied and with bassist Richard Davis towards the end of his life.

Jason has a new trio recording coming out as well. Stay tuned on Friday for a look at that one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ken Vandermark Jousts with Two Drummers, 1999

Once again I squeeze in a CD that I've been listening to for its own sake. In 1999 tenor sax/reed wizard Ken Vandermark, one of Chicago's very brightest lights in the last decade or so, went into the studio with two pretty brilliant drummers (Robert Barry and Tim Mulvenna) and let it rip. Design in Time (Delmark) was the end result.

The material covered has a mix of free jazz classics and Vandermark originals, a formula that has given Ken and his various lineups plenty of opportunities to express their art. This time out there are pieces by Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Thelonious Monk.

The tenor-two drums configuration provides an abundance of possibilities, many of which they take advantage of. They can groove along in various ways, they can fashion out-of-time thrashes of drum-reed tumult, they can get into building sculptures of musical sounds. They do all of that and they do it with a kind of definitive authority.

Vandermark is the kind of player who incorporates into the modern free improvisation scene what is worthy about the history of the music while moving it forward in his own way. A kind of modern classic. This is a terrific example of Vandermark at his best.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Matt Wilson and his Hip Quartet

Drummer Matt Wilson brings it on with his new 7th (I think) album That's Gonna Leave A Mark (Palmetto). He has played with all kinds of folks: John Medeski, Either/Or, Zeitlin, Dewey Redman, and so forth, but he especially shines in drumming and bandleading as a package. With the freebop exuberance of what's following in the footsteps of Ornette, Matt and his band give an excellent recital here of originals and a few classics and they do it with great stylistic grace.

The originals have a certain humor, a collective personality that brings off a bit of a coup through the sound and originality of reedmen Andrew D'Angelo (a personal favorite of mine, now successfully recovered from a serious illness) and Jeff Lederer. They can blow out the stops and they do it their own way. Bassist Chris Lightcap is rock solid and creative, with a very nice tone. Matt drums with drive, dexterity and good taste.

This is one of those recordings that can bring you the joy of improvisation. It does for me. Listen and you'll probably become a Matt Wilson fan.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dan Weiss, Ace Drummer and Indo-American Conceptualist

Dan Weiss came up the other day as the drummer on Rez Abbasi's new CD (see my other blog, September 8th entry). We go back a couple of years today to the Dan Weiss Trio CD Now Yes When (Toneofapitch). The band assembled for this recording consists of Mr. Weiss on drums, Jacob Sacks, piano, and Thomas Morgan, bass. There are also a couple of hip trombonists added on one cut.

Now first of all I must say that this set of music exhibits a certain rigor. It's a rather breathtaking jaunt into territory occupied by the subtle influence of Indian classical music on a very modern acoustic amalgam of advanced post-bop jazz and fusion. Every cut follows its own internal logic with determination, so much so that my first listen gave me pause. I didn't quite know what to make of it. Several listens later, though, I began to get it. It's that kind of music.

There is plenty of evidence of Mr. Weiss the master drummer and interesting composer. He has great control of his drum sound and executes all kinds of rhythmic complexities with a sureness that is impressive. His bandmates devote much of their effort in realizing Dan's musical vision, but they also show great feel, improvisational chops of a singular order and solid musicianship. Like that old Blue Note album, Tony Williams' first Lifetime record, it shows that some of the best drummers bring to the table a wide view of what their music is about, and it is about much more than playing great "time" or inventive soloing.

This CD breaks some new ground. I would recommend it to anyone who responds to music that is rhythmically profound, melodically-harmonically complex, and thoroughly absorbing in a somewhat cerebral way.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Patrick Moraz and Bill Bruford Live

Multi-keyboardist Patrick Moraz and rock-jazz drum legend Bill Bruford recorded several duet studio albums in the mid-'80s that were well received. It turns out that there was a very high quality live recording made during that period which is only now seeing the light of day. In Tokyo (Winterfold) gives you a good hour of the duo at their best.

It's a wide-ranging performance that shows Moraz to be a melodist of inventive fullness with an orchestral approach to the aggregate of instruments that contrasts and sets off Bruford's propulsive yet subtle drumming.

The music has prog-fuse ambiance. There's plenty of variety in the feels explored, from Jarrett and Corea influenced lyricism and drive to dense and dynamic post-prototypical jazz-rock.

It's a duo who could run the gauntlet of possibilities and they do so impressively in this live concert. It's another goodly tribute to Bill Bruford's keen ears and musical execution and shows Moraz to be a totally worthy partner in the endeavor.

Drummers and their friends will love this music. But just plain old listeners will have much to like as well.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Geoff Leigh and Yumi Hara Team Up to Good Result

Yumi Hara's previous CD with the late, legendary bassist Hugh Hopper was reviewed favorably on my site. She returns here with Geoff Leigh on winds and electronics. Mr. Leigh has an impressive background; he's been with Henry Cow, Hatfield and the North (which I must listen to more closely, having missed them in my earlier years), Mike Oldfield, Faust, and significant others. Yumi has an equally impressive resume, but since I've gone over that in my review of her last album, I'll leave you to refer to that (see link above).

For their new CD collaboration Upstream (MoonJune) the two present a program of adventure into the lesser explored musical thickets. Yumi's keyboard work and vocals are of her own creative volition. Her vocals are avant without getting under your skin, which can be the case sometimes, and she mans her arsenal of keys with a real sense of drama. Geoff sounds almost shakuhachi-like on the flute, with a beautiful use of space and sense of form. His soprano is game. His electronics atmospheric.

Upstream is outside music, in the good sense of that term. It has a kind of narrative flow that these kinds of duets can sometimes lack. I must say that listening to it has brought me a good deal of pleasure.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bill Bruford and Piano Circus Play Colin Riley's Music

The further we travel into the 21st Century the more it becomes clear that the formerly hard and fast segregations of musical genres are dissolving, little by little. This is of course a process that began to become a huge factor in '60s musical circles. After some fluctuations in the community about whether purity of style was to dictate continuing directions or not, we now have those who integrate whatever elements necessarily to their personal musical expression versus those who work more or less exclusively within a set of particular genre norms.

Today's CD decidedly follows the way of integration. It spans a number of genres, and does so engagingly. Skin and Wire (Summerfold) devotes its aural space to the music of Colin Riley. Progrock, fusion and minimalist/modern concert styles fall together into a synthesis that takes on individuality thanks to the predilections of the composer, and the virtuosity and musical depth of drummer-percussionist Bill Bruford and the Piano Circus collective.

Acoustic instruments are sometimes altered electronically by the composer. For example Piano Circus plays the conventional acoustic pianos for which they originally became known, but with the digital transformations that occur in varying degrees throughout, they do not always strictly sound like a piano ensemble. Bill Bruford's percussive array is also subjected to various transformations at times. All this leads to an ambient sound that can and does groove like hell at various points in the program, yet still has a three-dimensional depth and staging that expands subtly and transforms the conventional ensemble recording into something more spacious.

It's Bill Bruford in all this who most fully amazes with his incredibly musical approach. At times it sounds like a concerto for Bruford and ensemble. At times the ensemble predominates. At all times Skin and Wire operates on a high level of musical interest. It's certainly to me one of the year's most important fusion hybrid offerings.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Baertsch's Ritual Groove Music No. Six his Masterpiece?

Pianist-composer-bandleader Nik Baertsch, with his musical amalgamation of enlightened repetition and rhythmic intensity, has been the subject of a fair number of blog entries this year. We now come to his sixth ritual groove installment, REA (2004) (Ronin Rhythm), which may be his best ever. The reason for that involves pacing, development and density. This disk/download has the most diverse offering of musical vignettes of all six releases. There are almost Gamelan-like cross-musical dialogues of instruments in long interlocking sections, there are more leisurely, introspective interludes, and there are hard-charging, wildly funky polygrooves.

In all this the musical motives are never banal, always interesting and individual and the ensemble colors shine in a sunny luminescence. The ensemble is a fairly large one. Winds, mallet percussion, drums and Baertsch's prepared and conventional piano give texture and solid-line clarity to the musical picture. If you were looking for one album to introduce you to Nik's ritual groove music, I would unhesitatingly recommend this one. It's an important contribution to the Miminalist oeuvre, if you are keeping score. Otherwise it's just plainly good music and a joy to hear.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Beppe Crovella's Piano Minatures

Italian keyboard maestro Crovella pushes aside his many digital devices and sits down at the acoustic piano for Pianovagando (Electromantic), a new Italian release. He is usually found in the Prog-Fuse outfit Arti & Mestieri, where he is a key player in their sound.

What's rather remarkable about Pianovagando is Beppe's richly inventive approach. On the disk is found no less than 57 miniatures, all rather brief. The pieces have a variety of moods and drives, though the emphasis is on the lyrical side of Beppe's playing. This is not a technical, blow-it-out-your-socks display of virtuosity. It's a straightforward exposition of some interesting musical ideas. As far as genres go, it's probably a mistake to lump this set in with typical solo piano jazz, since improvisation is not a major component. Nor is it really comfortably placed in the classical or concert camp. These are for the most part pieces that show Beppe's roots in Prog-Fuse. Most of these themes could be reset for an electric band and you would feel that the music was not unusual stylistically for a Yes, an Arti & Mestieri, ELP, or whoever in a more "progressive" portion of their set.

Once you get rid of your preconceptions of what a solo piano record is supposed to be like, you can sit back and begin to appreciate Beppe's achievement. It's a madcap dash through Beppe's musical mind. What's inside there is a lot of music, a lot of heart, a lot of lyric themes. It is all brought off with a panache and dash not usually found in this sort of performance. Kudos to Beppe for that!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Carnatic Alto Sax from Radhakrishnan

South Indian Carnatic classical music is one of the oldest living traditions available to the world's music lovers today. I believe only Japanese Gagaku goes back further. In the world of Carnatic practice, "living" is the key. It does not stand still, as witnessed by such things as the cross-fertilization realized in combined Carnatic-Hindustani compositions and improvisations, various interactions with other musics, and the incorporation of non-traditional instruments into performance practice.

For example, there's the alto saxophone, as played by Prasant Radhakrishnan. A recital spotlighting his prowess can be had on East Facing (Lotus Music), featuring Radhakrishnan and a full Carnatic ensemble. Now I am not by any means an expert on the highly complicated, incredibly rich Indian classical world, other than a little study of it and a lifetime of rewarding listening. But I must say I am impressed with his facility and inventive ornamentation. He gets a tone like no western jazz saxophonist I've heard. It's no doubt in part a product of phrasing in the Carnatic idiom; it also comes out of Radhakrishnan's formidable musical artistry and a very personal use of breath control, which is most evident on this recording. The supporting musicians are all quite good and Prasant wisely provides a program of short compositions and ragams for this initial outing.

Anyone interested in South Indian classical and/or alto sax virtuosity is encouraged to listen to this one. You can get it directly from

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ted Sirota and the Chicago Sound

One thing about Chicago's improvising artists: they could play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and it would sound different. It would sound like the special cats who are playing it. Whether you are talking about Von Freeman, the Art Ensemble, Ken Vandermark, or, going way back, the original "Chicago School," the best of Chicago musicians have carefully gone their way, crafting their own personal musical identities over time. So that if they play a reggae sort of tune, say, or afropop, funk, the Flintstones theme song, whatever it is, you say as you hear it, "that's __ playing." The stylistic veneer, the reference is there, but it's primarily a vehicle for what THEY sound like.

All this is true of drummer Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls ensemble. Their Breeding Resistance (Delmark) CD exemplifies what makes Chicago important as a musical center. This is no "second city" music. It's "first city" music. The lineup of Jeb Bishop on trombone, Geof Bradfield on tenor and soprano, Jeff Parker, guitar, and Clark Sommers on bass creates a fiercely individual sound, which owes as much to the loose arrangements and quirky compositions as the strongly individual solo power involved.

There's fine music here throughout. And who can fault the leader for dedicating the music to the fight against oppression, wherever it may be found?

You will find a little of everything in this program, and again, it's done so well, so much in the spirit of the players' identities, that it emerges from the speakers as ONE sound, albeit bifurcated into various grooves and moods. Don't miss this one.

There's a new Sirota disk just coming out which I will cover soon.