Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Frank Lowe In Fine Fettle, 1995

We return today to our short survey of notable still-in-print CIMP releases from the first few years of its existence. We cue up tenorist Frank Lowe in a recording with trio from 1995 entitled Bodies and Soul. It's a rather diverse set of numbers that encompasses the loose to the structured, the jazz standard or newly standard, and the newly new.

Charles Moffett, a regular visitor of CIMP studios in those early days, turns in some strong section and solo work on this record. Bassist Tim Flood is solid. And Frank lets lose with some gems.

At that point in Mr. Lowe's career, like Don Cherry on some of the last sessions he did, there is a reconciliation of the free and/or the avant fringes of the music at that point with the jazz tradition as it had been handed down. That process is made explicit in Lowe's performance of Cherry's "Art Deco" from this very period. And so also there's an unaccompanied tenor soliloquy on the classic "Body and Soul," done somewhat literally yet with a direct intensity. You get Trane's "Impressions" in a version that has fire and, in contrast to Lowe's "Body and Soul," has a rather non-literal rendering where Frank sometimes intentionally strays from the alternating pitch-centered modality, instead going where he will before returning back again to the to Trane's own technical mapping of the solo scheme, then off again onto a personal tangent and on from there.

There is an attention to Ornette-like melodic directness in some of Lowe's compositions here as well.

This is a more accessible but no less interesting side of Lowe. Compared to the ecstatic frenzy of his first album, Black Beings, we have a more domesticated Frank Lowe, if you will. There are moments of fire, yes, but a shift in focus. Of course that's one of the interesting things to follow if you hear Lowe's recordings in chronological order. He was not afraid to change, evolve, backtrack and re-synthesize.

Bodies and Soul provides a faithful and convincing portrait of Lowe at this point in his career. It is thoroughly enjoyable to hear and recommended listening. One can only feel the sorrow of incompleteness when contemplating this session. Frank had less than ten years to live (he passed away in 2003). The music was silenced forever. We lost a genuine original and the music he might have produced today. But we can only feel encouraged that there are worthy recordings like this one to appreciate even now. That helps ameliorate our loss.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sei Miguel, His Trumpet, His Group Concept

We live in exciting times. Don't let anybody tell you differently. For example in the world of new music, improvised or written. Virtually limitless combinations of instruments and forms are being created regularly. The former constrictions of "it's time to sound like this" or "it's time to sound like that" have been jettisoned in favor of a "do what you feel" aesthetic. In a world where anything goes, there is no guarantee that everything is equally good, of course, but that's been true of music from its very beginnings in some dark cave or wherever it was.

Sei Miguel, Portuguese trumpet wielder and conceptualist, shows the positive side of contemporary developments. His new Esfingico: Suite for a Jazz Combo (Clean Feed) goes its own way but with a rather sharply defined set of roles and sounds for the group Sei has put together. There are the two front-line instruments, Miguel on pocket trumpet and Fala Mariam on alto trombone. They tend to play the most prominent lines, apparently partly improvised, party pre-conceived in a compositional sense. Throughout the six movements of the suite they hold forth in a series of controlled yet expressive emanations that set the style parameters. They do not engage in blowing session hi-jinks (which of course are valid too) but instead unveil melodic textural lines in a non-urgent yet well-honed fashion. Miguel has an approach that Mariam stylistically complements, and the results make for good listening.

Rafael Toral's use of a modulated resonance feedback circuit provides sound color, either of a sustained or intermittent sort. Electric bassist Pedro Lourenco and small percussion instrument player Cesar Burago punctuate the proceedings with sometimes short, sometimes more lengthy stabs of pointilistic sounds.

If my description of the various instrumental roles seems reductionist and simplistic, consider it only a convenient shorthand for what happens musically in this suite. It is a rich yet subtly unassuming, stylistically singular and integrated piece of music. It may not alter the way the world turns on its axis, but Mr. Miguel doesn't appear to have that as his objective. The music wends its way and provides a rather unique, undeviating path to a place that is not so much challenging as it is reaffirming--of the power of musicians to speak to the world on their own terms, without compromise but also without aggressive intent.

I found this music a treat for the senses. You must meet it halfway; then all will be well.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Rochberg's Profoundly Interesting "Circles of Fire" for Two Pianos

American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005) had his period of "high modernism," where stylistically unified works were carefully crafted using expanded tonality-atonality in the various ways that twelve-tone and serialist methods worked themselves out in the American new music scene of the '50s and '60s. He composed some very sonoristic, almost lyrical high-modern music and gained some amount of recognition in the first phase of his career. Then beginning I believe sometime in the late '60s he began circling back to earlier musical styles, the more tonal echelons of musical practice, from the Euro tradition of music through the late romantic period as well as American vernacular idioms. He combined any number of stylistic references in a work, including the "modern." Most importantly he did this with a kind of synthetic inventiveness where the wholeness of each piece was never in doubt.

This leads us to 1996-97, and his sprawling opus for two pianos, Circles of Fire. Naxos has embarked on an extensive release cycle of Rochberg's works for solo piano. The first CD is a recording of the above mentioned work, by the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo. The performance is ravishing.

The music? It models Rochberg's later musical aesthetic by means of an intricate musico-cosmic metaphor. Circles of Fire is a massive, spiralling set of 15 movements, which Rochberg likens to the circling cycles of fire that create the principal bodies of the universe, then subject those bodies to the physical-temporal loops, symmetries and recurrences that comprise the playing out of intergalaxial systems.

Rochberg here conceives of, and realizes music in this manner, as a circling back to earlier musical styles and a cycling through to the returning "modern" present.

And so Circles of Fire makes alive this idea through a long symmetrical loop of musical movements, beginning in a "modern" style, on to "pan-tonal," rhythmically archaic sounds, almost ragtime, then onwards through musical forms that suggest older classical styles, romantic tone poems, impressionist color sketches, and other reference points as well, eventually coming full circle to the beginning point of the cycle.

This would all be well and good and rather pointless if the music itself did not have some inner compulsion and inter-relatedness. This music does. It is music that revels in each moment with memorable movements that cycle from forte stridency to the most pianissimo tenderness, all the time showing Rochberg's uncanny knack for incorporation and transformation. Everything is up for utilization, but it is the manner of going about it that shows Rochberg's substantial compositional gifts.

I'm not sure if it would be fair to say that Rochberg has gotten his due, that his reputation is quite what it deserves to be. Anyone who listens closely to this beautiful performance of Circles of Fire will find an entire universe (literally and metaphorically) of enchanting music to be savored sensually and to be understood cognitively. His reputation can only be forwarded by this release. The fine art of modern pianism appears in all its manifold glory on this disk. Need I say more?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tide Tables Makes A Rare Kind of Sonance

A few days ago we took a look at percussionist Paul Kikuchi and composer-performer Jesse Olson in their rather striking Open Graves CD. Today we look at another project that has a different sound, but is no less intriguing. This time out we have the group known as Tide Tables and their EP Lost Birdsongs (Prefecture). We get ten tracks of interest by a group that includes Paul Kikuchi and Alexander Vittum, who in addition to playing percussion and electronics on this date also pen the compositions. Tide Tables are a seven-man unit that includes two more percussionists (Crane and Weng), reeds and trumpet from Daniel Carter, the trombone of Brian Drye and Matt Goeke on cello.

This is music that is somewhere between a sort of ethnic music for some un-named planet, contemporary classical and avant jazz. Those stylistic pieces fit so well together that one may be justified in thinking of this as part of some new amalgam, one good example of the sort of newly syncretized hybrids that we've looked at recently on these pages and those of my sister sites.

Percussive grooves that don't travel down the obvious paths, with freely articulated solo moments overtop, atmospheric spaces of calm and interesting sound color, these are what Tide Tables offer your ears; this the way they are in the moment of creation today.

They defy easy description but they do bestow on the listener a good deal of fascination and pleasure for the time spent listening. Twenty-plus minutes of something very different and very pleasing. It is time well spent.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Joe McPhee and His Quartet, 1996

New improvisational music, also known sometimes as free jazz, avant garde jazz, new thing, and perhaps a few more labels, has given us a body of recorded works that now spans a period of around 50 years. In the realm of public perception, even by those who follow the music, there can be recordings that don't get as much attention as they should. The CD by the Joe McPhee Quartet, Legend Street One (CIMP), certainly qualifies.

Joe McPhee today is a key member of Trio X, which you may have heard. He has been playing at a high level for many years, and this 1996 session is a very good example. It has an interesting lineup of Joe on alto, tenor, trumpet and fluegelhorn, the late Frank Lowe on tenor, David Prentice, violin, and the late Charles Moffett on drums. The session yielded two releases, of which this one is the first.

What strikes one for starters is the lack of a bass player. McPhee, Lowe and Prentice constitute three front-line solo voices and Moffett subsequently takes on the free rhythmic and coloristic role for which he was so well-suited. The lack of a bass is made up for by the additional front-line voice and the increased autonomy of the drums.

The session yields eight originals, all having a good deal of improvisational space for all concerned. The two-horn tandem of McPhee and Lowe are especially interesting on these sides, with the versatility of trumpet-tenor or double sax combinations. Both McPhee and Lowe turn in some stellar performances and David Prentice gives the team a needed contrast in his own creative solo work. Prentice's improvisation style owes something to both Ornette Coleman's and Leroy Jenkins' concepts of the instrument, which form a kind of foundation for the playing on this date. Of course Moffett could be expected to provide a classic time-in, time-out underpinning, and he does so here. Some of the most exhilarating moments occur when all four artists collectively solo. There is an exciting intensity and yet each player knows what he is about.

CIMP has amassed an impressive catalog of both well-known and lesser known improvising artists and their music over the years. Legend Street One was one of the first releases and it captures some of the very best free music of its time.

You can still get a copy of this one if you go to and look for the CIMP click-link.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pianist Steve Colson Returns with A Powerful New Recording

Pianist Steve Colson has been a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) since the early '70s, yet he is not a well known artist today. On the basis of his new piano-trio-plus-vocalist session The Untarnished Dream (Silver Sphinx), that relative neglect is undeserved.

This is not just any trio. When you have the burnished excellence of players like bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille, you have a most auspicious foundation. They deliver what you would expect. Adegoke Steve Colson writes music that has an abstract bop-and-beyond inclusiveness and a memorable quality. He reminds slightly of Andrew Hill, in the way he incorporates harmonic and rhythmic fundamentals of the music into a freely modern sensibility. That is not to say that he sounds like Hill, only that they both have a certain approach to modernity in common.

Colson's playing on these sides is a revelation. Whether relatively inside or more in the free realm, his pianism reflects the depth of someone who has drunk deeply at the well of inspiration and self-actualisation, and for a considerable time at that. He swings when he wants to and he spreads out the notes into a Byzantine fan of colors when he wants to. Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman follow and support with the master touch.

The pieces range from earlier compositions of the '70s to those written virtually yesterday. They give you a good idea of the scope of his writing talent.

The trio is joined by vocalist Iqua Colson for four of the numbers. She is a singer that has immersed herself in the music and shows a faithfulness to the nuances of Steve Colson's phrases to such an extent that it's hard to imagine a better vehicle for their performance. She is not a cabaret vocalist, thankfully; she is a musician's vocalist.

The Untarnished Dream provides a fascinating taste of an artist who clearly deserves wider recognition. Steve Colson goes his own way. We should follow along with our appreciative ears. This CD gives one a most compelling argument why that should be so. Colson is vital.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

William Schuman's Eighth in a Beautiful New Recording

William Schuman was one of those larger-than-life persons when I was first embarking on a musical career. As president of Julliard, then Lincoln Center, he had a public presence rare for a composer of modern music in the 20th Century. One just knew about him if one was in and around New York at the time, and so one naturally found oneself wanting to hear his music.

Schuman is a composer for whom a gestation period is necessary, I believe. This is perhaps especially true for his Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1962 by Leonard Bernstein for the opening days of Lincoln Center. The music is dense, somber, intensely brooding, rather complex, and (like many of Harris's works), constructed on the principal of an unending melodic sprawl, made intriguing in the way the orchestration colors the phrasing with interesting aural combinations. It is a remarkable work, a work of pure invention, and perhaps its complexity has made rough going for the average audience.

Schuman's Eighth is not a work to be absorbed fully in one sitting. The positive side of that factor is that increased exposure to the work leads to almost infinite pleasures. The more one listens, the more Schuman's musical world reveals itself to the ears and the musical mind's eye.

There have been a number of recordings of the work. Bernstein's NY Philharmonic version more or less set the standard. However, the new recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (Naxos) certainly comes close to rivaling that original reading. Schwarz's interpretation is a little more linear; he connects the musical-phrase-dots in a way that brings out the musical logic of the piece. The sonorous qualities of the large orchestra needed to properly perform this work is captured in a full sound stage and the balance seems quite right. Schwarz's reading is expressive; it heightens the seriously somber quality of the work. In short, it is a lovely reading.

As a bonus, the disk includes the 1947 ballet Night Journey in its 1981 revision; and the marvelous Schuman orchestration of Charles Ives's delightful Variations On "America".

This is an indispensable installment of Naxos's complete Schuman symphony cycle. It is great listening!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Plunge: Contemporary Chamber Jazz with Deep Roots

The world of contemporary improvisation in New Orleans has some bright lights. For example there is trombonist Jeff Albert and his group. I have covered some of his recent music in various reviews. There are others.

Another most promising gathering is the trio known as Plunge (Immersion) whose new album Dancing On Thin Ice currently spins on my player. This is a drummer-less trio. It's Mark McGrain on trombone, Tim Green on various saxophones, and James Singleton on the upright bass. Now when I think of such a grouping the early Jimmy Giuffre trios come to mind. Giuffre pioneered a form of chamber jazz in the '50s that gave arranged and improvisational weight to each instrument, could swing and be subtle at the same time.

In some ways Plunge is a direct descendant of that pioneering ensemble. But McGrain, Green and Singleton are fully contemporary at the same time. The emphasis is on varied and contrasting compositional frameworks, well arranged, for the players to hang improvisational structures onto. There are bluesy numbers, those that walk along, riff vehicles, ballads and some free-er moments. Each player makes a strong contribution. James Singleton is a very solid pivot point much of the time but he also shares in the melodic exchanges in nice ways. Mark McGrain and Tim Green are firmly rooted players, accomplished and vibrantly communicative.

Dancing On Thin Ice gives you a program of music with one foot in tradition and the other foot stepping outwards. It's enjoyable music, something quite accessible to anyone who appreciates well thought-out yet spontaneously direct chamber jazz. Recommended.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Charles Wuorinen On Alligators

When I was in the peak of my aspiring composer days, schlepping around Manhattan soaking up what I could of the contemporary music world there, I attended a new music concert of works by the new modernists. George Perle, Meyer Kupferman, I believe, and a number of other composers were represented, all quite interesting, but what got my attention was Charles Wuorinen's chamber work "On Alligators." This was around 1972. What impressed me was its dynamic forward movement. It was post-bleep-and-bloop Webernism (which I still love BTW whether it is fashionable to do so anymore or not). It almost had the drive of rock music, yet it had lots of chamber color and complexity.

Charles Wuorinen by reputation was probably at that point New York's most well regarded new composer. He taught at Columbia, he had just won a Pulitzer Prize, he was big. "On Alligators" confirmed for me that his reputation was deserved.

Years went by, I set aside my compositional ambitions for a time, but I still remembered that piece and was vexed why it did not seem to be recorded.

I just discovered a fine Tzadik release devoted to Wuorinen's works, called appropriately enough On Alligators. It's been out for a little while but I am just catching up with it. It is an excellent anthology of various Wuorinen compositions. "On Alligators" is every bit as dynamic as I remembered it and the performance is superior. Then there's a densely written Fourth String Quartet, which is well worth the hearing. The longish organ piece "Natural Fantasy" has a booming kind of avant charm. And the Third Piano Concerto, from 1983, is another of his masterpieces.

Alligators and the Piano Concerto make this volume indispensable for those interested in Wuorinen and post-serialist, post-post-serialist modernity. He still strikes me as one of the best of the second half of the twentieth century. What he is doing right now I don't know but I am sure it is worth hearing. Meanwhile there's this one. I am so glad I finally can savor an excellent recorded performance of "On Alligators." Thanks to Tzadik for putting it out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Forty Fort" by Mostly Other People Do the Killing!

A healthy spirit of irreverence permeates the recordings of the ensemble Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Like the Art Ensemble of Chicago in their prime, they address genres of music in a playful, fun-poking way. They are like a kid at the dining-room table who doesn't want to eat his dinner so he pushes the food around his plate. MOPDTK are playful like that.

Their new, fourth album, Forty Fort (Hot Cup) exemplifies this tendency perfectly. Maestros Elliott, Irabagon, Shea and Evans fool with classic Basie and the overblown drum solo, the excesses of fusion, the Tijuana Brass, and much else, always with a certain good-hearted affection. They kick like a furious mule when they feel it, and both ensemble and solo work are really first-class. That's because these players are gifted and on a mission.

When something just clicks, one is almost at a loss of words. Check out Peter Evans' trumpet work on this. Whew! But then everybody is on the mark and the arrangements just pop. Humor and excellence are a rare combination. That's what you can expect with these folks. Do not miss this one!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Magical Sounds From Open Graves

I rely upon the kindness of strangers. OK, so I watched that movie again last weekend (A Streetcar Named Desire) and it still kills me. But I do depend on people I have never met (for the most part) and the music info dissemination network. If it weren't for that I would never have known about the group Open Graves and their CD Hollow Lake (Prefecture).

The group is Paul Kikuchi on percussion (the drummer for the Empty Cage Quartet, whose CD I reviewed earlier on these pages, among other associations) and Jesse Olsen, Bay Area composer and performer. Those preliminaries tell you little, just as I had no idea what to expect when I first put this CD on my player.

It is first off important to note that the entire album was recorded inside an empty two-million gallon water cistern. That factor gives the music a hugely cavernous resonance that makes the sound distinctively ambient. Kikuchi and Olsen wisely make full use of that sound by populating the eminations with plenty of room, with space between sounds and notes so that the full impact of space and sound becomes primary.

The musical sounds are produced by percussion instruments and a long noted, eastern sounding string instrument (sounds like something out of Harry Partch, but in an infinitely lengthened temporal world) among other things. The music is partly improvised, partly composed, and sounds like it belongs with some kind of ritual for a world we do not yet know. Parts consist of very long event-centered series of resonant sounds, other parts have a quasi-gamelan like quality and feature more pulsating chimed phrases.

This is music for your deepest brown studies. It has a kind of rather profound stillness to it in parts; in other parts it moves one along on a well-conceived path. Either way this is highly original, very moving aural sculpture that should be required listening for anyone who likes music in the long form, the lingering phrases, the feeling of universal expansion. It's subtle. And it is an uplifting experience.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bengt Frippe Nordstrom, Swedish Improviser of Note

The world is filled with good improvisers, though your local late-night newscast probably does not find them newsworthy. That is their loss, but you probably could say that about just about everything worth covering. I speak of commercial American television.

One such example of a very good improviser that gets less attention, at least over here, is the late Swedish reedist Bengt Frippe Nordstrom, who passed from this earth a number of years ago, but lives on in his recordings. Today we look at one recording that is probably not at the top of his discography, but not uninteresting nonetheless.

Frippe's Protocol: The Environmental Control Office, Volume 2 (Ayler Download Series) pits Nordstrom with his long-standing trio of Bjorn Alke, acoustic bass, piano, and Peeter Uuskyla, drums. It was recorded at Norrkoping, Sweden's Museum of Modern Art in 1987. As the liner notes to the release admit, this is not a super high-quality recording. It was recorded to document the session and, while clear, is not ravishing.

By any standard this is not a major Nordstrom release--for that you might browse through the other Nordstrom offerings on Ayler Records. That does not mean it is an easily dismissed release. The group spontaneously. . .well not exactly combusts, but they do pack some gunpowder.

In the course of the more or less hour-long program, covering freely executed numbers that vary from a Swedish folk inflection to "Now's the Time," the trio shows their tight-knit unity in their loose-knit way of going at it. Nordstrom's team mates are double-jointed, they are quite limber and constitute ideal fellow-travelers into the world of the freely improvised collective. Nordstrom has real flair and that comes out on these tracks. On tenor sax, he shows a debt to Albert Ayler in his vibrato, his speech-like utterances and melodic blasts; on clarinet he doesn't especially sound like anybody.

This gives us one more Nordstrom, and for those who look for it, one cannot go wrong here. It is not indispensable. Look to earlier Ayler releases for a jumpstart on that. The music has charm, though. For the Nordstrom fan, certainly, this is a welcome addition. And it's at a good price. Go to for info.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Baritone Saxophonist Charles Evans in Duet with Pianist Neil Shah

I was so taken with baritone saxophonist Charles Evans' last album The King of Instruments that I named it one of my top-ten favorites last year in the Cadence Critics Poll. That album features Charles in a solo outing, with well conceived overdubs so that at times one was listening to an all-baritone choir, other times a naked single baritone unwinding with some brilliant compositional-improvisational gestures. I was impressed.

So when I received his latest album Live at Saint Stephens (Hot Cup) it was with some keen anticipation. This is an on-location recording of duets with pianist Neil Shah, and it does not disappoint.

As with the previous album, inventive compositional elements intermingle tightly with improvisational aspects and the sound color and range of Evans' horn forms an important part of the overall presentation. Pianist Shah contributes a great deal of subtle pianism on this one. He has a touch and attack that show some affinities with the classical piano tradition, but he also contributes improvisations that show a well-developed and distinctive spontaneity.

This is a program of pieces by Evans (all but one) and they have substance and weight. The improvisations are melded effectively so that one does not have that breaking off point where one thinks, OK, the improvisation begin here, the composition is over. Partly that is due to the improvisations coming so organically out of the composed material that they extend the music naturally. There is no Frankensteinian stitched head onto stitched body with stitched on arms that sometimes can be the case in these sorts of settings.

There is a improv-meets-concert-music feel to this program. And it proceeds in ways that make that intersection of styles seem completely right. That is in no small part due the conceptual rigor of Mr. Evans and the rather inspired nature of Evan's and Shah's playing on this occasion. The music is subtle, but the rewards to be gained by listening are not. Charles Evans is bearing the torch of continuity that has been passed on from those that went before, but he also adds new colors to the flame. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 12, 2010

More on The Two Sonny Simmons Musics: Sonny the Great

A few posts ago we criticized the idea that Sonny Simmons, saxophonist and free jazz master, is somehow diminished and unworthy in the second phase of his career. Yes, there is the wonderful music he made from around 1962 to 1970, then after a lesser presence, a second phase of his career that lasts up to today.

The Ayler Records release covered in that post was a free blowing trio date, and I argued that, once you understood the sort of session involved, that it was in no way a lesser Sonny sounding off there.

Today we look at another session, from 1996, and it is of the more ambitious, carefully conceived sort of dates with compositional elements of a high caliber and a free but structured group situation. It's a quartet of Simmons on tenor, Michael Marcus on C-melody sax and manzello, Steve Neil, bass, and ex-Ornettian Charles Moffett on drums.

The album is Judgement Day, and it's still in print, on CIMP Records.

The group is really up to the challenge of playing with Sonny at full steam. Moffett particularly makes this date a burner. He's all over the place and kicks everyone into overdrive.

But it's Sonny the writer-conceptualist and Sonny the sax master that really come across on this very fine sounding recording.

IS he a lesser artist on this date? NOOOOOOO. He kicks blank as much or even more than he did in his first career phase. If you love Sonny, this is indispensable. If you don't know Sonny, this is indispensable. If you don't want to hear this music because you have preconceptions about it, that's understandable. But you will be missing out. And that saddens me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gallio-Girod-Ulrich and Places, 2008

Ayler Records has the sort of A&R philosophy that makes for consistently high-interest releases that are of a piece stylistically. They cover the Euro-American free jazz-free improvisation world with offerings by both the known and the relatively unknown performers. And with their download-only series, they give you for a nice price the full album art and a good quality sound file. There are other labels doing important work in this genre and other left-of-mainstream or otherwise out-of-the-way idioms. Regular readers of my blogs will know which ones I have found indispensable today for an understanding of what is modern about modernity (or what is NOT so much modern, but rather traditional, for that matter).

Today we look at another interesting Ayler download release. Places regroups the trio of Christoph Gallio (alto and soprano), Dominique Girod (bass) and Dieter Ulrich (drums) for a Zurich reunion after a ten-year hiatus. These are three eloquent free players that most definitely still have much to say. Gallo channels a little bit of Braxton and Mitchell, but otherwise shows an abstractive knack that comes from his inner wellsprings. Girod has a woody tone and an extended line-weaving vocabulary that makes for good dialogues and cross-talk inside the group improvisations. And Ulrich is a melodic drummer. He phrases almost like a horn.

Places captures the trio in a mood to create elegantly sprawling improvisational castles of eloquence. It is readily enjoyable outing that will appeal to those who appreciate the world of open-ended improv. For a good price you get an interesting trio you might otherwise have missed, and on a good night at that.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Johnny Butler's Looped Based Solo Saxophone Music

Johnny Butler plays the alto sax. He heads up an interesting ensemble, Scurvy, which I cover in one of my other blogs (see He also has developed a composition-performance style using his sax and live loops. An EP of this music has just been released, Johnny Butler Solo (no label listed). He gives a nod to Robert Fripp's work with guitar and loops, and when you listen to the EP you can see he has taken the concept and come up with his own distinctive approach and sound.

There are four pieces on the disk, each different, each in its own way evocative, musically inspired and a pleasure to hear. He goes with the rhythmic possibilities of the loop format on one piece, the saxophone choir sound with (nice) soloing on top on another, and there are two that flesh out fully orchestral soundscape panoramas.

That all of the results develop out of Mr. Butler's saxophone in a live setting is impressive. The results are stunning musically, which of course is what counts in the end. Johnny Butler creates music that shows a keen ear for honing in on good musical ideas and then deftly handling the loop technology to get some highly interesting sounds. Mr. Butler is a gas!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

David Mott, Avant Miniaturist

If I've devoted some attention to baritone sax-composer David Mott on these pages, it is because I think he is quite interesting and under appreciated. Today we look at his 2003 CD Eleven (

The early years of sound recording through the mid-50s, more or less, involved technology (cylinders, 78s, 45s) that allowed only about three minutes of music per side. Improvised music adjusted itself to those limitations and many artist managed to say much in a short time (think of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul," the many Duke Ellington mastergems). With the advent of the LP, playing time stretched out to around 20 minutes per side, but you could still only fit around 40 minutes per record. The modern CD of course expanded available time to 80 continuous minutes. Improvising artists could now stretch out nearly indefinitely.

Naturally the luxurious time availability has occasionally led to a lack of focus, self-indulgences and other excesses, but generally it has been a boon to artists. On the other hand, saying something significant in three minutes is an art form that remains a challenge and when done properly leads to a very different listening experience.

Enter David Mott and his CD Eleven. On this outing he and his Canadian quintet (bari, tenor, trumpet, bass and drums) create eleven composition-improvisations inside the space of forty minutes. Most of the pieces clock in around three minutes. The return to miniaturism yields fascinating and quite productive results. David's compositions tersely state their ideas, improvisations appear and say their say, then exit the stage. It's a great idea and it works quite well. It's another example of Mott's thoughtful presence and I recommend it strongly.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Are There Two Sonny Simmons Musics? Why it Doesn't Matter.

I've read some journalism that says in essence, "the early Sonny Simmons music is great; the later incarnations aren't especially wonderful." Sonny made some excellent recordings for Contemporary, ESP, etc., from the early-to-late '60s in the "new thing" mode of modern jazz, then more or less dropped out of sight for a number of years. He returned and has made a good number of recordings from to '90s on. I haven't heard them all, but I certainly have sampled a good cross-section.

Today's recording perhaps is as good as any to look at Sonny Simmons in his second phase. It's a live trio session recorded at the Knitting Factory for the 2001 Visions Festival. Live at Knitting Factory is one of those well-conceived download only Ayler Records releases, and it's available at a budget price from their site. The sound is quite decent.

We have 40 minutes of live Sonny on alto with the good music lineup of Cameron Brown on bass and Ronny Barrage on drums. There are lively free barn-stormers and a tongue-in-cheek rap-funk number.

Is this music the same as what's on his first recordings? No, certainly not. It shows that Sonny has emerged into the current scene with the music world around him giving him some interlocking feedback. He reflects 2001 like any creative artist. This live session may be somewhat more offhand than some of his more ambitiously constructed sessions of earlier years. It's a free blowing trio date though, and so one must hear it in that light. The song forms are frameworks, not highly evolved compositional vehicles.

His playing is quite good. And the Barrage-Cameron rhythm section blazes and urges him on.

Is it the same Sonny as the 1960's Sonny? How could it be? It's Sonny in 2001. A different Sonny in some ways, but no less Sonny. It's important, if a little obvious, to realize that the old Sonny is still there to be appreciated, in the recordings. The new Sonny does not negate the old one. If one does not compare but enjoys his later work on its own terms, one cannot but appreciate it.

Is the Knitting Factory recording the best thing he's ever done? No. Most definitely not. It does give you another side of this important creative artist. Perhaps a little more casual, but nonetheless engaging. New Sonny to old Sonny is like New Hawk to old Hawk, new Lester Young to old Lester Young, new Rollins to old Rollins (admittedly, one might want to pick and chose carefully in the latter instance). Each period has something to offer. Forget expectations and just listen.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Orchestral Music of Roscoe Mitchell and Richard Abrams

I recently read that the New England Conservatory of Music had at some point changed the name of their "Third Stream" department to the "Department of Improvisation." I don't suppose that is surprising. The former term, coined by Gunther Schuller to mark out a musical form that combines "classical" and "jazz," has seemingly fallen out of favor, though important and interesting confluences of the two musics continue to be created today.

Before listening to the new release Spectrum (Mutablemusic), which includes two substantial orchestral works, one each by Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, you might think that you were going to be exposed to music of a "Third Stream" sort. Well, yes and no. One of the factors to keep in mind is that "jazz" as we know it has been changed radically since 1960 by such innovators as Mitchell and Abrams. They've constructed new forms, new sound universes, with new freedom and new discipline. At the same time the world of modern "classical" has become so stylistically diverse as to embrace an almost infinite number of approaches. Classical orchestral music, in the bottom line of today, is music played by an orchestra. "Jazz" is music played by musicians who improvise, in whatever way they see fit, and usually does not include an orchestra.

Whichever way you look at it though, the distinction between composition and improvisation is meaningless on one level. The complete musician composes improvisations and improvises compositions, on whatever level and style the music exists within. Abrams and Mitchell happen to be two musical masters who do both in ways that we all will be exploring and discussing for many years to come, I think.

Spectrum in the end is simply music that has been composed by maestros Abrams and Mitchell. "Romu" starts out the program, a seemingly freely improvised duet by Roscoe Mitchell on the alto sax and Richard Abrams on piano. It presents part of their musical vision, and perhaps helps the uninitiated listener get a grasp of where they are coming from, which boils down to their own musical conception of melody, color and harmony. Rhythm too of course, though this piece starts with a freely rubato meditativeness and evolves into a turbulent maelstrom of tones that is non-rhythmic in a conventional periodic sense.

From there, we hear two orchestral works, well performed by the Janacek Philharmonic under conductor Petr Kotik. The first is Mitchell's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City," with baritone Thomas Buckner taking a prominent vocal role. The text is a poem by Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble member Joseph Jarman. It was first heard in an early Jarman album on Delmark. The music from that recording is replaced by Roscoe Mitchell's score.

It starts with a pregnant quietude, which is almost immediately replaced by somber yet lyrical melodic invention. It's most certainly music that has the lyrical thrust of post-Ives, post-Ornettian music. It also most certainly bears the stamp of Mitchell's musical universe. The presentation of the poem, alternately spoken and sung by Buckner (and I might add he is quite convincing in his role here) is punctuated by richly layered orchestral writing, turbulent, declamatory and reflective in turn. The poem and the music express the difficulties of urban existence for those who cannot afford to live in the penthouse. There's an angst, a kind of refusal to accept the status quo, from a physical but also intellectual standpoint, and it all translates into very moving and very captivating music. Roscoe's handling of the orchestra, his orchestration, is complex, three-dimensional and quite masterful. It most certainly makes me want to hear more of his work in this configuration.

Muhal Richard Abrams' "Mergertone" concludes the program, and it too is captivating. The piece has a kind of concerted orchestra feel to it, without directly referencing traditional forms. The piece begins with some celestial synthesizer utterances, which quite rapidly are conjoined with suspended, mysterious and then somewhat agitated orchestral passages. Again, the orchestration is quite impressive and the thematic material is filled with invention and eloquent continuity. There is a syntax of endless variation that puts this music into the free expressiveness of Mr. Abrams' music as a whole. Not surprisingly, there is a prominent piano part in the composition, and it has an Abramian thoughtful density. Most of all though, this is excellently conceived music with sound-color mastery well in evidence. It flows, it builds and it moves the listener to a better place than ordinary life normally finds us.

Before I listened to this recording, I had great expectations, since to my mind maestros Mitchell and Abrams have created some of the most important American music of the past 50 years. I wondered if their many gifts would translate into an orchestral medium. They most certainly do. This is an important recording and it confirms my conviction as to the importance of these two composer-improvisers. It should expand the musical consciousness of all listeners, regardless of whether one comes out of the improviser camp, the orchestral camp, the all-music camp, or no camp at all.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Empirical Pays Tribute to Eric Dolphy

If recordings are any indication, the reputation of Eric Dolphy seems to be on the rise. There have been a number of CDs recently that either directly or more obliquely channel Dolphy's music. The Blue Note Out to Lunch album deservedly holds pride of place in such tributes. The excellence of that album was essentially a product of Dolphy's innovative and unforgettable compositions, the group interactions (vibes as shifting neo-harmonic anchor, intriguingly loose but swinging rhythm section, plenty of air for soloists play into) and of course Eric's stunning improvisations. Perhaps at last Dolphy has come out from the shadow of Trane and Ornette reputationally and has become a focus of appreciation on his own. That's as it should be.

Out of this current environment comes the group Empirical and their new album Out 'n' In (Naim Jazz). They too give the nod to Dolphy in his most creative phase. Two of Dolphy's best compositions ("Hat and Beard" and "Gazzeloni") are redone. The bands instrumentation (Nathanial Facey on the alto, Lewis Wright, vibes, Tom Falmer, bass, Shaney Forbes, drums, and guest artist Julian Siegel on bass clarinet and tenor) is more or less in line with Dolphy's Out to Lunch ensemble, and the band plays nine original compositions that show Dolphy's influence without sounding like knockoffs. Empirical also follow the loose-open quality of the group role throughout.

And all that makes perfect sense and is realized with finesse and artistry. What probably makes this CD a keeper is that this is not mere imitation and clonage. The originals have their own spin on the tradition, the soloists each bring to the session their own stylistic elements and they are all good. In short, this is not old music in a new wrapper, this is new music inspired by the spirit of Dolphy's art. And it is very good music. A tip of the hat (and beard) to Empirical for pulling this all off with panache. This is no mere tribute. It's speaking to today. Listen.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

George Dulin Disband: An Exciting New Piano Voice

The pianism of George Dulin has all the linear thrust and power of a Bud Powell, but different notes! He's rather young but his play does not sound like it. There is a fully formed vision of how to go about his art. He is joined by thoroughly hip trio-mates on the Cadence Jazz album Ride of Your Life. Danny Zanker plays a forceful and note-refined bass. He solos with aggressive flair, plays ensemble passages with drive and walks (and sometimes skips along) with some of the best. The late drummer Take Toriyama has creative energy and a real stylistic thrust that helps make this group excel. He is replaced on three numbers by Jordan Perlson, who does the right things as well, if perhaps not as startlingly so.

The program contains standards like "Round Midnight" and "Monk's Mood," and a series of highly engaging recompositions of further standards. "Ella's Night-Light," for example, reworks "Stella By Starlight" ingeniously. The re-presentations are so inimitable and so complete that their original reference points become almost irrelevant. There are also a few quirkily engaging originals that are more or less tabula rasa.

Dulin plays plays bop without the bop. He has rethought the roots of modern jazz and remade them in his own stylistic image. A description of his playing? He has a harmonic grounding in traditional form and at his own volition, deconstructs, reconstructs and supersedes those forms at will. There is a rhythmic abundance to his playing at times, the modern equivalent to those semi-bizarre, tumbling anarchic introductions Erroll Garner pulled off so dramatically, only they are not quite the same, and they don't introduce anything but themselves.

Other times he gets into a linearly swinging chain of notes that don't have the least bit of cliche about them. Still other times he can go into a rubato passage that gives his own take on those pianists that came before in this mode, only he does not quote!

There is much to dig from the standpoint of the trio. Nice arrangements, profound drumming, bassmeistering of a high sort. . . .

Anyone who looks for something rooted yet innovative in the piano trio bag will do well to listen to Ride of Your Life. Dulin could well be a major new voice and you are getting in on the ground floor.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SNUS Makes Uninhibited Improvisation Seem Natural

Ever since it has become a productive form of Western music making from around 1960 through to today, free improvisation has not always found large audiences, especially in the States. And yet it is a rather natural form of human activity. The "great composers," many of them anyway, were excellent at it, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven especially. Consider also those itinerant musicians of ages past who provided the music for local dance events (on several continents). They would show up with a certain amount of prepared melodic material and then would often freely interpolate of an evening.

SNUS (Ayler) is the happy product of a trio consisting of Swedish musicians Niklas Barno, trumpet, and Joel Grip, contrabass, plus the seemingly ubiquitous French drummer Didier Lasserre. They virtually, effortlessly provide a set of music that flows with a natural quality. And like others in this genre they in some ways inherit the venerable traditions mentioned above.

A trio with trumpet as the principal horn is a comparative rarity. SNUS makes it seem an inevitable outcome of their individual talents and preferences. Part of the situation has to do with the taxing nature of the trumpet embouchure. To be the only horn soloist in a small group means that the player does not necessarily get the rest his or her lips demand. There seems to be no problem on that score with Mr. Barno's chops. He sounds comfortable and quite capable throughout the program.

And more than that, Barno has something to say on his horn and he does so with extended tonal techniques and sonically interesting improvisations. He's a post-Cherry, post-Bowie sort of player (and of course those trumpet titans have shaped the modern free player enormously). But again, there are some timbres and textures that the trumpet can produce naturally. Cherry and Bowie exploited those possibilities with an ingenious conceptual thrust. Barno too uses the physical tone production possibilities available to him, but to his own ends.

His music mates in SNUS cajole, comment and set up complementary color and melodic elements that make the whole more than a sum. There will always be a qualitative element to a free improv gathering, and that's of course true of any musical event in any style. With the music at hand that is especially critical and accounts for the fact that a musical transcription of what transpires on this disk would leave out so much in terms of sound and attack as to be only a small percentage of what to hear and listen for.

Hearing may be believing. SNUS is unpretentious, alternatingly playful and raucous music making that you can believe in. And there is an element of fun, the thrill of free interplay that pervades the program from beginning to end. This recording will not change the world a whole lot by its existence. It will, I hope, provide you with fifty-plus minutes of creative sound production that will excite, enchant and enlighten. SNUS catches three imaginative musicians in the unselfconscious act of creating musical magic out of thin air. It's a natural, human thing they do. And they do it well.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tony Malaby's Apparitions in an Impressive Outing

I am guilty. I have not paid enough attention to the tenor and soprano work of Tony Malaby. And so when I first put his new album Voladores (Clean Feed) on the player for a spin, I really didn't know what to expect. What I got was an impressive recital from his group Apparitions, which is Tony along with the always interesting Drew Gress on bass plus drummer Tom Rainey and drummer/percussionist/malletman John Hollenbeck. There are eleven pieces, one by Ornette, three group improvisations and the rest Malaby originals.

The tracks provide a stimulating framework for the improvisations that Apparitions quite convincingly put across. The free-oriented ensemble of the two busy drummers, Drew's rangingly dynamic bass and Malaby give density but not clutter to the sound stage. What most impresses is Malaby's solo work. He has a sureness, especially on tenor, and a fluidity of line that put the emphasis on musical creation. He does not sound like anybody but he phrases with the confidence of a Trane. He can string together some startling sixteenth-note runs, then hang back and lather up some rich, sultry Ben Websterish effusions, then dive into multiphonic tears. And he has masterful control over the sounds he produces. Listening to this disk will make a believer out of you. A believer, that is, in the importance of Tony Malaby in the many-acred pool of crafty manipulators of the horn of plenty (or of scarcity, depending who is playing)!

Seriously though this is one headlong plunge into first-notch improvisation, from a group that one could no doubt listen to in an evening's worth of sets and emerge energized and refreshed. Nice job!