Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Music Reviews: February 2011

Ideal bread?
(NCM East)

Trombonist Brian Drye might be a new name outside of the New York environs, but he’s certainly a figure to keep a bead on. Probably most recognized for his work as part of the Kirk Knuffke Quartet (recording for Clean Feed in 2008) and his quartet The Four Bags (trombone, accordion, guitar and reeds), Bizingas combines these two going concerns for a frenetically off-kilter stew in keeping with the blends of jazz, avant-garde composition and underground rock song structure that prevail in some of the more interesting new music. Drye is joined by semi-regular partner Knuffke on cornet, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, and percussionist Ches Smith for ten of the leader’s original compositions that, while recorded two years ago, remain tartly fresh. The trombonist is well-versed in boisterous slush (positively Rudd-like on "Sifting"), but he approaches that feeling with a deft, bugle-flicking poise that meshes perfectly with Knuffke’s sharp classical technique; it’s no wonder their partnership is so fruitful. This fact contrasts elegantly with the gritty, ringing indie-rock textures of Goldberger’s guitar and Smith’s animalist but melodic attention to the beat.

A few years ago it might have seemed cloyingly populist to merge improvised composition with forms and sounds gleaned from the clipped language of punky contemporary music, but that bright energy is certainly something that, in its best instances, gives difficult music a sly accessibility. Bizingas fits well into this aesthetic; take for example the closing “Untitled Moog Anthem,” which blends stark, dust-kicking guitar twang, Krautrock-inspired reverberating loops (a la Popol Vuh), lockstep rhythm and ebullient, brassy knots. The opening singsong “Tagger” recalls the Deerhoof-inspired vibe of Ches Smith & These Arches, while “TMT” elicits both somberness (through its dusky piano-guitar left side) and pointillist excitement (with right hand fills, careful cornet incisions and stone-skipping percussion). Drye and company have waxed a solid date with interesting, between-the-lines compositions that serve as a distraction from the musically obvious.

Music of John Coltrane

On a previous collaboration, bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin explored the music of Thelonious Monk (Monk Dreams, a 2009 No Business release), which was particularly interesting because not only was there no piano or drums, but Halperin’s playing is an amalgam of Warne Marsh and Sam Rivers – two figures not often associated with Monk’s music. It’s a little more believable, in terms of format, for a tenor-bass-drums trio to “chase the Trane” as it were, but what is immediately striking (especially if Halperin is in one’s unheard file) is that the improvisational lines here are about as far from Coltrane as Duval’s bass playing is from John Ore. Here, the pair is joined by drummer Brian Willson (a regular past participant in some of saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s groups) on a program of six well-worn Coltrane originals such as “Giant Steps,” “Moment’s Notice,” and “Naima.”

Opening the former with a tempestuous rubato section is a step in the right direction, and Halperin – as he did throughout the Monk program – enters the theme with oblique reference, catching only fragments of the tune at first and expanding upon them. When he finally states the familiar melody, it’s done in a halting, inquisitive manner, almost as if he’s respecting the signification and power of the tune’s composer by clearly and confrontationally delineating his own path, which though full of scalar runs, has a simultaneously cool methodology and a rough tone. Willson has all the cuss and spit of an Elvin Jones, tidal waves of coppery crash a gutsy foil to the tenorman’s questing introspection. After a brief bass solo, Halperin returns to peck obstinately at small sections of the theme; Willson takes his spot and the tune halts without any more space given to the head. The South Asian-North African landscape of “Living Space” certainly remains in the trio’s improvisation, but it’s still quite shocking to hear how far from the original’s group-rhythmic implications these three musicians stray, decidedly into their own tumbling, gutsy orbit. “Naima” begins with flinty pirouettes as bass and tenor spar, Halperin corkscrewing upward in florid lines that import a few trampoline moves from Trane and Sonny Rollins, though he mostly occupies a tense area that shrouds the tune’s bedrock, making phrase choices just to the side of what one would expect.

“Moment’s Notice” starts with a squawk and, while the tune itself is more clearly outlined, the absolute individuality with which Halperin approaches it is staggering, as though the Father, Son and Holy Ghost had all been wiped away (cue Willson’s absurd bop-to-backbeat approach for a final death knell). Lest one think this set is all some sort of Freudian head trip about desecrating the compositional “specificity” of Coltrane’s work, it’s rather a highly-charged blast through the master’s songbook by three players who have an extraordinary amount of individual things to say and can find other harmonic areas to occupy from Trane’s blueprints

Something Quiet

Known primarily as an electronic music composer and instrument maker, Bob Gluck is also a pianist of some renown; Something Quiet is his second disc of improvised music for the British FMR label and joins him in a trio with soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo and bassist Christopher Sullivan on six slices of group music, and a take of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” The precedent in this drummer-less trio might be a revamped/skewed variant on the Jimmy Giuffre/Paul Bley/Steve Swallow unit of the early 1960s, but obviously this music is of its own stripe and not altogether as quiet as its title implies. “Dolphin Dance” is a duo for piano and bass, focusing on Gluck’s lush, strident approach while retaining a gently atonal ambiguity around rhapsodic chords, supported by delicate, woody pluck in both rushes and thumping shades.

“October Song” begins with condensed needling, Gluck stabbing at Giardullo’s reposed statements before heading off in a clangorous run, a whorl of motion that recedes as quickly as it appeared, moving into a play of refracted light and supple interlocking, cubic details. As with most of the compositions on this disc, it segues into another area of feeling, extrapolating from section to section. “Going Away” focuses on an upward harmonic movement; Giardullo, whose soprano has a whole, soft sound, climbs through breathy intervals and, in a way, acts as a winsome foil to the pianist’s more architectural phrase concepts. Sullivan’s bass, mostly played pizzicato, offers robust, chugging counterpoint to the kaleidoscopic foraging of reed and keys. The trio’s sparse weight can fill in, expanding into spiky orchestral mass in “Still Waters” as Giardullo howls over the top, the piece culminating in a meaty bass workout. Something Quiet is full of wide-open and often extremely intense music from this colorful chamber trio, and it is well worth seeking out. 


When filling out the umpteenth best-of-year list for 2010, one category that I consistently failed to fill out was “best tribute” or “best repertory band.” The main reason for this is because I don’t really think about repertory bands, although as any jazz follower would, I find new interpretations of old chestnuts and lesser-covered tunes to be rewarding. A group like Ideal Bread, which was formed in 2006 to interpret the music of soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy, doesn’t feel like a tribute project. Of course part of that is because there is no soprano present (saxophonist Josh Sinton is a baritone player), and until now what we thought made Lacy’s compositions distinctive was the presence of his curling, piercing-yet-warm straight horn. But most of what’s happening here is that Ideal Bread have made these tunes so much their own that it’s hard to think of this as just a “repertory” situation – they’re a band playing someone else’s compositions and inhabiting them honestly, beautifully, but they also have their own strong personality as a unit. The quartet is rounded out by trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Transmit is their second disc to date, featuring seven Lacy tunes from the obscure to the more well-known.

One of the most intriguing pieces here is their rendition of “The Breath,” a tune that’s fairly frequently revisited throughout the Lacy discography, albeit in a much sparer version than what’s presented here. Sinton noted in an email that “‘Breath’ outlines a Major 7th chord, a fairly static object that implies only itself and its own tonality. It can go somewhere, but it needn't. This static hum is often an area for pensive reflection in the program of a Lacy concert or album, however the quartet version has an uncanny similarity to Bernstein’s composition “Somewhere” as performed by trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon and tenorman Archie Shepp on their 1962 Savoy record. Sinton said he hadn’t heard the recording, and puts it this way: “‘Somewhere’ is simply an ascending minor 7th, but given the harmonic context, it is clearly outlining a dominant 7th chord, which is a fairly dynamic harmonic object that immediately implies motion to another chord/place. They need to go somewhere. Creatively I hear the opening gesture of ‘The Breath’ as a literal exhalation of the breath whereas I always seem to hear ‘Somewhere’ as longing or reaching.” Being a non-musician myself, I felt an analogous audible connection in the arrangement, without thinking of the specific structural/formal concerns. Thematically the horns circle delicately, wispy whirligigs and upturned winks on a measured, soft-shoe swing. Bari huffs and mouthpiece twitter couple with Dixonian gulps and wails in the ensuing improvisation, shaded by a halved pulse and retaining a song-like outline before the final upward rejoinder.

“Papa’s Midnite Hop” is from Trickles (Black Saint, 1976), and Radding and Fujiwara give the throaty shuffle of Kent Carter and Beaver Harris a crisp update. Sinton’s baritone is burly as hell, navigating a bluesy bar-walk sensibility that curiously extrapolates from Harry Carney into Roswell Rudd (trombonist on the tune’s original version), while Knuffke inhabits a high-and-winsome chattiness. Meanwhile the sharp, repeating tap of “Flakes” is given a nearly pattering groove, the rhythm section alternating skates and shoves behind the trumpeter’s poised swagger; Sinton’s solo moves through athletic runs, syrupy odes and garish circular-breathed strokes in concert with Fujiwara’s shimmering, fleet rumble. More than just a covers band, Ideal Bread are one of the most invigorating contemporary jazz quartets working. Recently at New York's Salt Space, they performed some of the most “far-out” Lacy music from Forest and the Zoo (ESP, 1966), Roba (Saravah, 1969) and Lapis (a solo-with-overdubs classic recorded in 1971 for Saravah). It’ll be interesting to see what facets of Lacy-dom they workshop next.

Near to the Wild Heart
(Not Two)

Brazilian-born saxophonist Ivo Perelman is a player who exploits very well the vocal/expressive link between the reed and string families – one of the more pertinent arguments for a link between him and fellow South American tenorman Gato Barbieri, with whom he has (not always accurately) been compared. Perelman also doubles on cello, and some of his most rewarding discs have featured ensembles heavy on the presence of arco swirls – like those of cellist Daniel Levin and bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg (on Soulstorm, Clean Feed, 2010). Near to the Wild Heart is an eight-part suite of improvisations for string-reed trio, joining him with bassist Dominic Duval and violinist Rosie Hertlein.

A significant portion of Perelman’s work has been in power trios, where his throaty split-tone tenor can hurtle with the added force of bass and drums (one of the best examples was his group with William Parker and Rashied Ali). But this is different music, not easily compared with the tropes of tenor and rhythm. Even with the muscular interplay of Duval’s gestural bowing and the cottony arrowheads of Perelman’s tenor ostensibly signs of a certain kind of kinetic, there’s a sort of manic post-Webern scrabble that pervades these duos and trios. Hertlein is a major factor in the improvisations’ strength; I’d only heard her work with clarinetist Rozanne Levine’s Chakra Tuning, and the combination of deft classical language with wordless vocals and triple-stopped, bowed whoops and hollers sails over keening tenor and bass thwack with an otherworldly energy. The third movement is a particularly fine example of this, jarringly flitting between poles of liquid femininity and masculine rumble. Violin, voice and high-pitched tenor shriek become a blur as Duval works up a cloud of horsehairs underneath in dense, sweaty motion.

Curiously, the final minutes of the piece find Perelman working out a delicate, almost languid phrase pattern, having its origins in the Shepp/Webster school (even if the string interplay doesn’t match its direction one for one) and culminating in a reference to Charlie Haden’s “Song for Ché” or a similarly keening Latin American folk melody. There is a robust, songlike quality that emerges in other fragments throughout, melody and rhythm spontaneously becoming foregrounded as pure-sound/action canvases fall to the side. A sinuous dance-walk gains ground in the fifth section, for example, first with trudging tenor and bass before Hertlein takes flight over a deft, full walk, finally intertwining with Perelman in a ballet of paired strokes. At turns viciously powerful and delicately gorgeous, Near to the Wild Heart is some of the most compelling string-driven free music I’ve heard in ages and as one who has not always been shaken up by Perelman’s music, I’m already being sent back to the shelves for more.

Spectropia Suite
Abstraction Distraction
(d'autres cordes)

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp is a curious figure, and one whom I haven’t always cottoned to as a listener or a reviewer. He’s a guitarist of extraordinary ability, sure, and he’s able to crane a diverse range of phrase structures out of custom-made and standard guitars, all within an improvisational structure that, while not entirely “warm” or “forgiving,” nevertheless remains clear in intent. But above that intent is the presence of a remove that, time and again, has always made Sharp’s work difficult to inhabit – electronic processing and sheen cloud over the mistakes and references to tradition that, even among the “freest” of improvisation, gives it an essential sense of humanity. That’s not to say that Sharp and his work aren’t valuable parts of our musical-artistic climate, just that I personally have always found him difficult to enjoy. Finally watching him perform on film did unlock some of the person behind the music, as has reading some of his writings, but for me that’s been limited to his work as an instrumentalist.

As a bandleader/composer he draws from a de-centralized, post-structural grab bag straight out of the New York art scene of the 1980s, and it is here that his group music resides. Spectropia Suite is film music, and brings Sharp together with a cast of major improvisational figures – not improvising – such as alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trombonists Steve Swell and Curtis Fowlkes, pianist Anthony Coleman, bassist David Hofstra, cellist Tomas Ulrich and others. Sharp himself plays guitar, woodwinds and has processed the entire thing to retain a certain noirish appearance that was necessary for the visual element to adhere. That said, it does stand on its own in some instances, as events like a collision of twanging, scumbled guitar and tapping din with laptop-induced fuzz seems divorced from a greater unseen action, while massive dissonances imbue snatches of cabaret-jazz and atonal string quartet music alike. The real ringer is Debbie Harry’s rendition of “This Time That Place,” which is altogether reminiscent of some of Lydia Lunch’s damaged torch-singer pieces; though not quite as full of personality, its mere presence is enough to get one to sit up straight. More interesting is the solo piano version, “This Place That Time,” with Coleman’s airy poignancy a fair shake deeper thana gravelly voice and a somewhat dead arrangement. Mostly, the music here is difficult to get in touch with because it all seems designed toward a purpose other than itself, whether film or concept, and if cohesiveness is part of that vision, it certifiably suffers.

Abstraction Distraction is music for saxophone and electronics and follows a similarly dissonant architecture to that of his group music, wrapping husky reed work in a sheen of electronic whir and reverberating drum samples to the point of near burial. However, in practice it‘s much more interesting work. On “Limbium,” Sharp’s tenor playing is a genuinely engaging, throaty post-Ayler/Shepp exploration without “exploring,” a signifier of emotional evisceration pushed further underground by over-the-top rhythm samples, loops and long, swirling tones. Again, one is faced with the fact that this music is a constructed environment for detached humanity, techniques of freedom being codified and subsumed into “sound art.” It’s perplexing because clearly what’s exhibited here is saxophone playing that, on its own, would be quite engaging, but it’s instead a tool to be used toward disembodied statements. This disconnect can, at times, be forceful enough to objectively stand on its own as a “thing” – “Boot the Plute” is quite interesting in its malleable abuse of gutbucket tenor playing through electronic demarcation. While not as wincingly left-field as Alfred Harth's Cassiber or as naked as Dickie Landry's saxophone delay (indeed, the closing “Manaus” is akin to a mangled Landry soprano piece), Sharp's reed-and-synthesizer work is rooted in difficult contrasts. That's not to say that there aren't moments of unity, though, as clattering pads meld with processed glitch on “Vortex Field” and clouded multiphonics coalesce into a ghostly trio with sampled electric bass, drums and plugged-in sounds on “Blown Away.” Sharp's music is confounding, to say the least, but not without certain artistic necessity.

Three Kinds of Happiness
(Not Two)

Three Kinds of Happiness is the third disc and first on the Polish Not Two label to feature Windy City-schooled bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore, a trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride, on eight of the leader’s tunes, which are becoming less about exploring instrumental capacity and more about negotiating motion and group unity. After all, Stein isn’t a doubler – he only plays the bass clarinet, and aside from Luxembourg’s Michel Pilz and Germany’s Rudi Mahall, I can’t think of too many artists who are such dedicated specialists on the instrument. He’s really honed his lateral phraseology, which initially differentiated him strongly from such clear predecessors as Eric Dolphy (he’s most indebted to the reedman’s sound on the bluesy “More Gone Door Gone”) and Michel Portal – now it’s utterly clear when he hunkers down into the bowels of semi-introverted texture.

The boppish “Crayons for Sammy” that is our entrée into Locksmith Isidore’s world is a sure sign that this is a different record for Stein and his mates, whimsical and fleet-footed swing somewhere between Klezmer and West Coast jazz distinctly reminiscent of clarinetist Perry Robinson’s early tunes. There’s a dry push-pull to “Cash, Couch and Camper” with Roebke’s calloused warmth a decided anchor to the trundling, leaky swagger of Stein’s horn and Pride’s perfectly-placed bombs. This is, of course, new music, but it’s hard not to think of, say, a Wilbur Ware-Bruz Freeman combo out of Chicago’s past (Pride is a New Yorker if one wants to split hairs) when hearing the choppy swing of the rhythm section on a number like this. Stein is such a distinct player that the natural response should be to focus on what he’s bringing to the table here, but then again this group isn’t called the Jason Stein Trio, and as he enters into what could be a burbling auto-dialogue that takes Dolphy at his most guffawing and smooths over the intervallic leaps, Roebke and Pride keep a steady if diffuse time around him on the agit-ballad “Little Bird.”

While occupying a lower end of the spectrum, the “Straight Up and Down” inebriation of childlike walking phrases in the first half of “Ground Floor South” are Steve Lacy-ish, as is the crystalline, Monkish wistfulness of its second half. While blurring the tonality and phrasing of what might be deemed acceptable in mainstream jazz, Stein’s soloing here is as beautiful as it is mercurial. When the trio takes things “out,” it isn’t without a sense of where the “one” is; gritty subtonal arco peals offset by clattering rimshots and reedy gurgle retain pulse and togetherness, only to erupt into a slick ramble on “Arch and Shipp.” The closing “Miss Izzy” hearkens back to the first Locksmith Isidore date, 2008’s A Calculus of Loss (Clean Feed, with Kevin Davis on cello), and was recorded live at Krakow’s Alchemia. It’s by far more brazen and Stein’s phrasing recalls Willem Breuker at his most reed-bitingly bullish, bass and drums pouring on a clumpy funk as the leader winds down to conciliatory purrs. Locksmith Isidore is, quite simply, a bad-ass modern jazz trio assembled by one of the strongest voices on the bass clarinet to emerge in recent years.

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