Thursday, June 2, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: Gems from the Archives

Indian Summer

While predominantly known for issuing important recordings of members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago/AACM during the 1960s and ‘70s as well as ancillary recordings of interest to followers of modern creative music (trumpeter Bobby Bradford, multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell, saxophonist Charles Tyler), the onward-rolling Nessa juggernaut also includes a number of other postwar individualists. In the saxophone chair, recordings by Warne Marsh, Von Freeman and Ben Webster have risen to the top of the label’s estimable catalog. One of the imprint’s lesser-known dates is a 1981 session led by Chicago tenorman Eddie Johnson (1920-2010), now seeing its first issue on CD. Indian Summer was Johnson’s first 12” LP as a leader, though he’d waxed a number of sides for Chess in the 78rpm era, as well as appearing in the Ellington orchestra and on James Moody’s Last Train from Overbook (Argo, 1958). A decade and a half of silence preceded the Nessa date, which joins Johnson with trumpeter Paul Serrano and the rhythm section of pianist John Young, bassist Eddie De Haas and drummer George Hughes on a range of somewhat obscure tunes from the standard repertoire.

Johnson has a huge, taffy-like sound that certainly aligns him with figures like Coleman Hawkins and Ike Quebec, and he also has an avowed affinity for Lester Young and Paul Gonsalves. Like some of the latter’s fine recordings from the early 1960s, there’s a curious juxtaposition between swing era or pre-bop sensibilities and the crisply updated conception of his bandmates. Serrano is generally a rather brittle trumpeter, his bright phrases skimming over Young’s ornate peaks and the dry, easy push of bass and drums. It’s just tenor and rhythm on the opening Ellington-Strayhorn number, “Self Portrait (of the Bean),” in which Johnson starts out with the wide, pillowy theme before digging in for bonier but gently swinging choruses - how he constructs his phrases is not something that is technically obvious (to me), but there’s simple power and beauty in his bridging unvarnished prewar sonics with a rough-yet-straight modern phraseology. The title track is a prime example of how the front line is unified in its differences, Johnson’s plunging and serrated neckline giving way to a steady, condensed brass exposition and the pianist’s tumbling arpeggios. The rhythm section provides ample support for the leader’s cottony bounce, which becomes steadily more heated as he moves through the changes. De Haas has space to explore the nuances of middle and upper register pluck with introspection, aided by a brief right-hand piano tessellation before the theme closes.

It’s on the ballads where Johnson’s sound really becomes most clear, enveloping with colorful and heavy-grade vibrato fabric as Young and Serrano peck and stairstep over their own reflections on “Blue Star” and Jordan’s “Misty Thursday.” Even with the latter’s relaxed ebb Johnson wrings more jaggedness from the theme, setting it up for orchestral trills. The CD reissue adds a version of “I’m Old Fashioned” to the original set of seven tunes, filling out this fine introduction to an under-recognized Chicago tenor giant. Indian Summer was followed by sideman appearances with vocalist Kurt Elling and pianist Jodie Christian, as well as another date led for Delmark in 1999 (Love You Madly, with the same rhythm section). While Johnson was not particularly noticed outside the Windy City, Nessa is doing something to change that.

3rd Version

It’s always seemed like the Europeans were better at making jazz-rock fusion work, and that’s partly because neither jazz nor rock music were originally European art forms. Somehow coming to neither form naturally allows a more honest blend to take place, often with an over-arching sensibility drawn from either regional folk or art musics. Of course, the best American or Afro-American jazz fusion generally is closer to electric jazz – and simply that – than anything else, forgetting for the moment that jazz itself draws from a diverse range of sources. Being a bit more isolated than other Scandinavian countries might have allowed the Finns to render jazz-rock in an even more individualist light, resulting in a cluster of fine electric jazz and progressive music on labels like Love, Blue Master, Odeon and even RCA Finland. Though most Finnish creative music from the 1970s is rather difficult to find, a few titles have seen their way to reissue, most notably as a result of the interest of American indie label Porter Records, which has already put out three excellent discs by Finnish pianist-composer Heikki Sarmanto and now adds two ultra-rarities from flutist Vesa-Matti Loiri and saxophonist-composer Eero Koivistoinen to the label roster.

Known more for his acting abilities than the music he made, Loiri did wax a rather popular 45 in 1980 as a result of the Eurovision song contest, “Huilumies” or “Flute Man.” Nine years earlier, he recorded an obscenely rare LP for Finnlevy, based around the Stephen Stills tune “4+20” and also including an early version of “Flute Man,” here titled “Itkev√§ Huilu” (and one of the standouts). He’s joined by an ensemble consisting of guitarist Hasse Walli, bassist Pekka Sarmanto, Koivistoinen on soprano, percussionist Reino Lane and keyboardist Tuomo Tanska, among others. While many of these names might be quite unknown even to keyed-in European audiences, thirty-odd years ago they were the cream of the Finnish jazz crop. 4+20 isn’t exactly in keeping with jazz-rock, though, having much more in common with folksy acid-prog, even if three Herbie Mann tunes make it into the set (a natural choice for a young countercultural flutist).

The title track, done in three versions across the record, actually lends itself quite well to flute, guitar, bass, wordless vocal and bongos, in a groovy time-capsule raga like better-executed Seventh Sons. Pekka Sarmanto is a fine linchpin, acting as the Danny Thompson to the dusty freight train of Mann’s “Turkish Coffee,” Loiri buzzing and wailing through an effervescent cylinder. Walli’s overdubbed electric guitar spreads out its flints before the piece segues into audio collage of playing children and crashing waves (not unlike the divisions between sections on Swedish reedman Gunnar Lindqvist’s Orangutang LP). “Candle Dance” is a somewhat abrupt juxtaposition of claypipe ceremonial dances and pinched, Coltrane-esque blues courtesy of Koivistoinen and Tanska. Following the effected vocals and goofy, parlor aside of “Mummon Kaappikello” is a break-laden version of “Coming Home Baby,” taken at a brisk, slinky SoCal rock tempo. Loiri certainly isn’t the flutist that Herbie Mann was from a technical perspective, but he’s aided by strong players like piccolo artist Esa Pethman and Tanska’s compellingly gritty organ. 4+20 is a period document, but it’s interesting and gives a view of how many different aesthetic pots some of these Finnish musicians’ hands were in.

1973's 3rd Version is, on the other hand, prime Finnish fusion, and presents the Helsinki- and Berklee-educated Koivistoinen at his early heights. On what was his seventh album as a leader and second for Finnish RCA he’s joined by guitarist Jukka Tolonen, Reino Laine and Craig Herndon on drums and percussion, with Heikki and Pekka Sarmanto rounding out the rhythm section. Koivistoinen is probably one of the most-recorded Finnish jazzmen, though that hasn’t translated to any real visibility outside Scandinavia. Four lengthy pieces (three by the leader and one by Heikki Sarmanto) make up this disc, which both seems of a piece with early American electric jazz (Weather Report, plugged-in Wayne Shorter, Steve Marcus, etc.) and distinctly apart from it. The opening title track is rhythmically busy and sets the stage, diametric but synced drums filling in the nooks between amplified upright chug, wowing Fender Rhodes and the tasteful complexity of Tolonen’s flits and lines. Sailing atop this stew is Koivistoinen’s soprano, bright corkscrews stepping gently away from the prevailing Coltrane model into a classicism that, while slightly detached, is nevertheless a driving complement to the rest of the group’s florid funk. Tolonen is a master of creative and integrated soloing, bugged and distorted with earthy blues-rock drive, and gives someone like Jan Akkerman a run for his money. Paired with the more introspective electricity of Sarmanto’s Rhodes, the result is a strong textural and expressive juxtaposition.

“Near but Far Away” is an open and stately tune that gives space to Koivistoinen’s tenor in a pliant and craggy mixture as airy cymbals support a meaty fraternal engine. The pianist’s “Muy Bonita Ciudad” blends Nordic pastoralism with a Spanish tinge and toothy grit, bowed bass and droning strums echoing a Vitous-Sharrock vibe that strengthens the gooey, tone-row hymnal at its core. While some of the pianist’s earlier acoustic work recalls Keith Jarrett, there’s more individual range available here, in robust company and with a few years of regular work under his belt. Following the composer’s mood-shifting dives, Koivistoinen stretches out from saccharine pinch to rending wails, egged on by collective surge. Tolonen’s lengthy solo is threaded workmanlike through vamp and castanets, from unaccompanied poems to heady wrangled clusters. Not enough can be said about the active accompaniment of guitar, Rhodes and rhythm throughout the disc, creating a continually shifting environment around one another as well as the leader’s bright flights. 3rd Version is a hell of a record and comes with the highest possible recommendation to anyone interested in jazz of the 1970s.

Life Amid the Artefacts

The creative music environment is full of characters that, while perhaps not crucial to the music’s overall growth, nevertheless contributed some fascinating documents. It’s always debatable how or whether someone’s work was canonically necessary – individual fans may love or be dismissive of certain obscure artists – but then again, that’s part of the reason why canons are so oppressive. Of course, when a certain musician never appeared on any contemporaneous recordings, it’s hard to judge their place in history – but a “record” of a performance, whether studio or live, doesn’t negate its value. While the UK label Emanem has long been a major documentarian of British free music and brought to the CD and LP a number of fascinating archival recordings, Life Amid the Artefacts might take the cake as an unheard curio. The disc brings together a number of performances whose common denominators are percussionist Dave Solomon and saxophonist Herman Hauge; the latter is nearly absent from recordings (the only LP representation is in the saxophone section of the Spontaneous Music Orchestra’s += album) and no longer active as a musician. The material here includes a fifteen minute presentation of the octet Free Space and the quartet Otherways in recordings from 1973 and 1984.

At first glance, one might think that these two groups are a perfect complement to the recently reissued Teatime sessions, as both discs focus on the second wave of London improvisers. Though collectively these three groups share musicians – Solomon, violinist Nigel Coombes and guitarist John Russell – the music is entirely different. A September 1973 rehearsal joins Hauge and Solomon with bassist Marc Meggido and pianist Simon Mortimer for three improvisations that, while similarly low fidelity, are very different from the subversively Dutch-themed work of Teatime. Solomon chatters and bashes in a field derived from somewhere left of Sunny Murray, while Hauge’s alto playing stitches together cooler, worrying inventions from the John Tchicai/Lee Konitz playbook with occasional bursts indebted to Trevor Watts. While piano and bass are under-miked, their wandering chordal flesh helps to outline the group’s collective, spiky pulse. From just days earlier is a Little Theatre Club recording with Coombes in for Mortimer, high-pitched glissandi mating with bowed cymbals and piercing alto squeals that gradually coalesce into a biting, shimmering stew that, on the surface, seems reminiscent of some of the textures one would find in early 1970s Afro-American art music – violin, bass and drums as a more jittery Revolutionary Ensemble, perhaps. The closing two tracks are alto-drums duets recorded in a mid-80s London Musicians Collective performance, and are quite cleanly rendered as Solomon’s rattle and pop complements the quixotic, lyrical trills of Hauge’s alto.

Free Space is altogether quite different from Otherways, and is more closely related to the sonic exercises John Stevens was doing with the SME/SMO during the early 1970s. The group apparently shifted in membership and “Intermediate” is the only surviving example. It features Stevens on cornet, Hauge and Watts on saxophones, Russell, Solomon, Coombes, Meggido and ex-SME bassist Ron Herman. “Intermediate” is an additive piece that moves from hushed breath to micro-movements and responsive, short phrases exuding delicacy as well as lemony sharpness. While not nearly as massive as the SMO material, Free Space provides an interesting missing link between smaller and larger-scale collective interaction, as well as being an interesting aside in the story of “not necessarily ‘English’ music.”

Tribute to Bird and Monk
(Labor Records)

Polish-born pianist, composer and arranger Heiner Stadler was, if not extremely well known, nevertheless a significant force on the New York scene of the 1960s and ‘70s. He recorded two excellent LPs worth of material between 1966 and 1973, released as the two volumes of Brains on Fire on Labor Records. These sessions featured such artists as vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, trumpeter Jimmy Owens, saxophonist Tyrone Washington, bassist Reggie Workman and drummers Joe Chambers and Lenny White. Stadler’s compositions are fundamentally interesting as inside-outside jazz, and it’s a testament to their value that he was able to recruit such high-caliber soloists. His third record as a leader (though he doesn’t play, his arranging and direction does shine through) is this collection of six Monk and Parker compositions, recorded in 1978 and originally released as a double LP on Tomato Records. Here, Workman and White make up the rhythm section along with pianist Stanley Cowell. The front line consists of trumpeters Thad Jones and Cecil Bridgewater, AACM trombonist George Lewis, tenorman George Adams, and Warren Smith on tympani. This self-produced re-release is the set’s first appearance on CD, and the only difference from the original is a slightly shuffled track order, which probably reflects the original recording sequence rather than what the exigencies of format allowed.

Though modal soloing, vast dissonances and deceptively free sections bridged by knotty post-bop are, on the surface, reminiscent of composer-arranger George Russell (especially in the more to-the-original-point recastings of Parker), Stadler’s music is its own thing. Reimagining Bird and Monk pieces in the way that the composer has, source material is a lifting-off point by no means covering already hallowed ground. The chunkily dispersed progression of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” is recognizable, but painted in such a way as to call up Alban Berg and Carla Bley, where snatches of the melody seem more like quotes and oblique nods than a desire to “play it straight.” Cowell is in particularly fine form on this piece as well as elsewhere on the set; he’s not particularly Monkish – at least not obviously so – instead calling up ringing vortices that provide their own rhythmic direction. It’s not hard to see why he was the pianist of choice for heavies like Max Roach, Marion Brown and Charles Tolliver.

Between Adams’ gutbucket salvos and the more condensed needling of Bridgewater (who replaces Jones on this cut only), the front line is quite boisterous, melding earthy funk and bullish freedom towards a caterwauling close. Even if the Parker tunes are a bit more in the pocket, Stadler nevertheless encourages a considerable amount of collective interplay, overlapping restatements of the theme sparking Lewis’ bright, slushy flywheels on “Au Privave.” “Misterioso” is tumultuous and, while the crotchety theme makes its way through White’s jabs and clumping piano, bass and tympani, one is immediately struck by how Stadler and the sextet have entrenched the piece in referential avant-garde pointillism. That is to say that this “Misterioso” isn’t so much the tune, but an open restructuring, oblique and more concrete references cohabiting precariously. Stadler has both stripped away aspects of the real “tune” as well as its more ineffable essence, only leaving fragments of each, and if one is looking for absolute faith, one should look elsewhere. Hence Stadler’s music is, in this case, a Tribute to Bird and Monk in idea more than logical execution, but there's a lot to be said for its uniqueness.

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