Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: June 2011

Travel Music

The solo improvised contrabass recital got its start in 1968 with a work by Barre Phillips, “Journal Violone,” which was recorded in London and issued privately on the Music Man imprint as Unaccompanied Barre (it was reissued in the 1970s by the Opus One and Futura labels – so far not on CD). It’s a staggering tour de force of poetic expressionism and tonal subtlety befitting a then-young master, and deserving of study by anyone interested in improvised music, whether a musician or not. In the ensuing forty-plus years, quite a number of bassists have stepped out into the unaccompanied realm, with recent New York transplant Michael Bisio among the latest to approach the medium with Travel Music. Bisio has been active on the creative music scene since the early 1980s, primarily working with saxophonists like Joe McPhee, Stephen Gauci and Joe Giardullo. This disc features six of Bisio’s own compositions as well as wonderful renderings of Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Charlie Haden’s “Human Being” (first recorded on Ornette Coleman’s Soapsuds, Soapsuds LP).

Travel Music doesn’t present a blistering whorl of techniques and approaches to shatter one’s preconceptions of what’s possible with the instrument in a solo setting. Rather, the set finds Bisio working through melodic and textural areas in vignettes that range from four to ten minutes. The opening title track is a simple, relatively somber and folksy pizzicato piece, deep and throaty eddies augmented by delicate strums and chunky anchor points with a minimum of filigree and a focus on whole, crisp tone. “Livin’ Large” could be construed as a piece to send horsehairs flying, but there’s a painterly delicacy to Bisio’s arco, circular motions teasing out wispy subtones and insect-like agility stoking multiple fires that coagulate into a harmonic field. “Nitro, Don’t Leave Home without It” is the disc’s centerpiece at a hair over ten minutes, and it’s a hymnal for the bass, laden with the pathos, searing vibrato, and abstract grotesqueries of Albert Ayler’s scorched-earth ballads. Following the fluttering and clustered digits of “MI” are the sawing chords of “Oil” that, while reaching into the instrument’s bowels, still engender a gorgeous, poised quality. While recorded on two separate days in late 2010, Travel Music gives the feel of a continuous performance (a la Phillips' work), Bisio putting himself and his “horn” through paces with unadorned conviction.

Canada Day II

Formed in 2007, drummer-composer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day was initially conceived as “a love letter to the mid-60s Miles Davis quintet filtered through '60s Blue Note records, with vibraphone replacing piano.” A collective approach to advanced harmonic-rhythmic modern jazz conceptions also paying homage to Eisenstadt’s birthplace, the group consists of trumpeter Nate Wooley, tenorman Matt Bauder, vibraphonist Chris Dingman and bassist Eivind Opsvik. Following their Clean Feed Records debut, a move to Canadian label Songlines presents eight of the drummer’s original tunes. Of course, it would be natural to assume that over the years, a shift in focus and output would naturally occur, and Canada Day II, while holding fast on the original lineup (the only change was a brief sub for Dingman in the form of cellist Chris Hoffman), the music is quite different in some crucial ways.

Eisenstadt is a multi-faceted composer, and one of the most interesting (and perhaps not initially obvious) inclinations in his work is toward the popular music of Senegal, Mbalax, and an ongoing study of Gambian Mandinka drumming (engendered through visits in 2007 and 2002-3, respectively). It’s taken a while for those influences to clarify in Canada Day, though recordings like Guewel (Clean Feed, 2007) and Jalolu (CIMP, 2004) immediately grew out of those experiences. Though Eisenstadt is a drummer-leader, like his other projects Canada Day II is not a “drummer’s record” in any expected sense, inasmuch as dates led by George Russell or Carla Bley aren’t really “pianistic records.” Leading from the drum chair shouldn’t necessarily be equated with extensive percussion parts, though his compositions are often rhythmically knotty and executed with a from-behind push and delicious swing.

There is only one real drum solo on the record, a quick compositional distillation of the opening “Cobble Hook,” which leads into a lilting, sunny horn and vibraphone line that nods at pan-tempo Afro-pop influences. Dingman gets the second solo, and his glassy, pelting vibraphone work recalls Jamaican vibesman Lennie Hibbert as much as it does postbop architects like Bobby Hutcherson or Karl Berger. Bauder’s quixotic keen enters into a flickering duo with the leader before bass and vibes encourage a bright, collective gallop. “To Seventeen” has an easy, pendulous plod that Eisenstadt picks apart, generating play between breathy stasis and metronomic beat. One wouldn’t know that Nate Wooley is a progenitor of contemporary brass and electro-acoustic noise judging by his solo here, which takes fat snatches from the gentle melody and winnows them into indicators of harmonic daring. As trumpet and tenor move through the theme towards arranged collectivity, the overarching texture is of a deceptively simple ensemble walk. Like all the titles here, the piece arose from experience – in this instance, of the composer’s neighborhood jaunts – which could be traced to the “songs from life” storytelling in certain traditional and popular music.

“Now Longer” and the following suite “To Eh/To Be/To See/Tootie” have more in common with the previous installation of Canada Day, with the latter being among the first compositions written for this record and expanding on arranged openness. Moving outward from Opsvik’s supple muscularity, “Now Longer” takes close-valued exhalations and places them atop a rock-solid vamp and percussive shifts. In an event-oriented analog to Wayne Shorter, Bauder parcels out flint and circular spurs before joining Wooley in a stroke of ambiguity. No contemporary tune has quite captured the essence of Andrew Hill’s loose Latin melodies like “To Be,” a jubilant and molecular theme with chunky tenor pitches buoyed by surprising chord changes. Dingman quotes Hutcherson, inventing and discarding his own net as Opsvik and Eisenstadt skirt the tempo. Coupled with a highlife vamp, the piece’s final melody looks from Port-Au-Prince toward Dakar. Throughout, extremely thorough arrangements give the leader’s four comrades a lot of choices and provide a taut balance between the “inside” and “outside.” Canada Day II is, quite thankfully, far from a recap and shows a very healthy growth of ensemble conception.


Inbetween Spaces

Crossing Points
(No Business)

It’s said that there are about as many ways to play the saxophone as there are saxophonists, but sometimes it seems easy to forget that, in a stream of recordings in similar formats, instrumentalists and the myriad combinations they find themselves in can produce surprising and extraordinarily different results. Take, for example, the saxophone-drums duo, which has its gestation in Coleman Hawkins’ duet with Shelly Manne on “Me and some Drums” (2 3 4, Impulse, 1962) and in the free idiom, flourished in response to the Coltrane-Elvin duets and Interstellar Space with Rashied Ali (Impulse, 1967/released 1974).

Peter Brötzmann, whose recorded duets with Han Bennink, Willi Kellers and Andrew Cyrille (among others) are extremely well-regarded, once told me that the most intense performance he saw was a duo between altoist Jackie McLean and drummer Art Taylor at the American Center in Paris in the ‘70s; it had been initially billed as a quartet with Siegfried Kessler (piano) and Patrice Caratini (bass), but the ridiculous tempo that McLean and Taylor worked with engendered casualties as bass and piano dropped out, leaving the pair to push forth for what Brötzmann estimated was three quarters of an hour uninterrupted. Three new duo releases from London (Hanslip-Carmona) and New York (Eskelin-Hemingway, Hooker-Chapin) spotlight just how different three breath-and-rhythm pairings can be.

Mark Hanslip has worked with pianist Hans Koller [not the German tenor player - ed.], and brings to his instrument a massive and cottony sound while fitting naturally into bop-derived phraseology. Extremely dexterous, Hanslip maintains facility while also being a rather unhurried improviser, and has a harmonic sensibility that also nods to Lou Gare and John Butcher. The first release in a decade-long recording career to feature his name on the cardboard marquee, Dosados presents him in an open setting with Spaniard Javier Carmona on ten improvisations and a reading of Steve Lacy’s “Deadline” (with liberal references to “Evidence”).

After the opening flits of “O Pointy Pointy,” the pair settles into “Mucha Mierda,” deft tenor volleys never reaching explosiveness, holding melodically true on simple repeated and abstracted phrases as Carmona’s selected and unselected animalian pummeling contrasts with Hanslip’s urbanity. After a brief and stripped-down percussion foray, the piece motors to a close. “Preambolo to Nipple 2” begins with hushed Rollins-like exhortations on top of resonant membranes, taut bounce and patter in ebbing density and sparseness, Carmona inventing an array of bullishly contrapuntal rhythms sparked by stoic keen. The Gare-Eddie Prévost version of AMM is a precedent for the quieter improvisations, nearly environmental ring to cymbals and toms as tenor gradates from cottony particulates to throaty post-bop arrows (such as on “ffs”). Dosados is an extraordinary set of duets from a very engaging pair, oddly complementary and not entirely combative. Hopefully there will be more down the pike soon from this pair.

Tenorman Ellery Eskelin and percussionist Gerry Hemingway have a long history together in New York’s downtown scene in larger groups as well as scaled-down conversations, though Inbetween Spaces (on Hemingway’s recently revived Auricle imprint) is their first official release as a duo. One might say that it’s about time considering the breadth of their shared experience. Eskelin is a player who is quite able to navigate traditional and open-form frameworks, exploring areas of softness alongside hard-bitten phrasing. Hemingway, too, has traversed historical lineage qua Klook and Max (the term “free-bop” was practically invented for the work of BassDrumBone) as well as engaging a somewhat “Europeanized” approach to tonal coloring.

Throughout the six improvisations on Inbetween Spaces Hemingway is on fire, presenting a detailed energy that gives Eskelin a range of different shoves – broad brushstrokes on the opening “Motion and Thought,” sashaying augmented patterns behind thick, unhurried tenor chugs. As density increases, the pair still conveys a boppish lilt, reedy and loosely referential arpeggios buoyed by an even urgency. “Stillness and Flow” seems like it could easily cross over into contemporary non-idiomatic acoustics, Hemingway scraping cymbals and gongs toward deep, metallic resonance as Eskelin flutters and teases out pillowy harmonics. Eskelin’s voice is beholden to the American tenor lineage, conscious of phrases and lyricism in a way that’s relevant to a sounding dialogue. In that sense, the duo retains a timeworn bent despite drawing from sources that butt up against “experimental” improvisation (especially in Hemingway’s use of techniques one might find in an Alvin Lucier percussion piece).

Baby Dodds and Sonny Greer make their way into the dry gallop of “Sustain and Footwork,” as well as the plastic tubworks of New York street musicians, which complement beautifully Eskelin’s burnished wrangling. Following the straight-arrow crackle of “Deft and Bounce” (there really aren’t any other words to describe it), “Shaken and Spill” traverses Parker/Lytton territory in its first few minutes, tenor worrying small patches and drawing up miniature acrobatics around chunky electric chatter. Hemingway gradually assembles strokes into damped rhythms and shining beats as Eskelin steps on the gas. Inbetween Spaces is a set of creative duo improvisation with a clear understanding of jazz past and immediate present.

Connecticut-raised and New York-based drummer William Hooker has been a massive, tempestuous aesthetic force on the American improvisation scene since the 1970s, though most people who know his work are probably aware of it from the perspective of ensembles with electronics, guitar noise and turntablists. His first LP …is Eternal Life… (Reality Unit Concepts, 1976) was a double record featuring a duo with David S. Ware, a Babi-like trio with saxophonists Hasaan Dawkins and Les Goodson, and a brutal tenor-bass-drums trio with David Murray and Mark E. Miller. A few years later, he returned to the duo format for Brighter Days, playing in an almost ethnographic-sounding conversation with altoist and flutist Alan Braufman on one side. Crossing Points is a 1992 recording now seeing its first issue, and finds Hooker setting up for a power play with altoist Thomas Chapin (1957-1998) recorded in drummer Jerome Cooper’s loft. There are three improvisations here covering two sets of music, one taking up two sides of an LP. According to Bruce Gallanter's notes, No Business has issued the performance with the sets reversed, though from listening it's hard to tell which order is proper (and it doesn't matter too much anyway).

Chapin is an interesting choice for a duo partner as though he was (and is) a very intense player, one doesn’t usually associate his work with fiery free music, though his earthy flights are certainly the stuff of a fine rhythm-centered combo. Starting with the ostensible first set first (LP2), “Addiction to Sound” recalls a bit of the Braufman-Hooker duo, not in that Chapin is a similar player, but because the piece offers a surprising amount of space at first, centering on tambourine as Chapin blows on a reed to the effect of wispy, brass-like sounds. Hooker’s vocal exhortations are in force from the beginning, encouraging from the bandstand while whipping up a tinny, miniscule storm on the lone frame drum. For what on the surface might not seem like a lot of music, it’s felt bodily as an environment of urgency, moving and grooving out of necessity as much as what’s inherent in the sounds themselves. Hooker eventually adds a tom and Chapin switches to a more standard manifestation of his horn and the salty pitch, curls and vibrato recall North African reed music inasmuch as the drumset evokes a monolithic choir redoubled on itself. The drummer starts with deceptively simple phrases and adds to them in a somewhat didactic way, which allows the listener (and maybe the player as well) to get comfortable with a sound or rhythm and as complexity is introduced, to be able to follow it very naturally. Superimposing these sound-rhythms and punctuating them with vocal cries brings a static circularity to the proceedings, a ritual of encouragement to Chapin’s harried growls, only to be broken off into more angular phrasing moments later with the altoist on a Johnny Hodges/Mike Osborne bent.

“The Underground Dead” takes up the second side in a rather different vein, Hooker keeping dogged time and gradually assembling his snare and tom rhythms from accent into significant sculpture as Chapin stretches out on worried bebop trills. Eventually, a deep, splashing tidal wave of metal and membrane envelops the altoist’s honks and searing yelps, swinging coagulations of infectious beat occasionally surfacing as a reminder of the music’s central kinetic force. It’s extraordinarily heavy, but toe-tapping and head-bobbing all the same. The first record comprises the concert’s second set in a continuous improvisation split over two sides, and titled “The Subway.” Circular-breathed alto and a constant, shuffling hum from Hooker’s drumset connote supreme agitation, tense and coiled haranguing that mirror the condensed, invariable grooves of the side’s vinyl. Of course, there are dynamics to be heard for once Chapin has exorcised certain demons, he moves on to an upward-reaching panoply of squawks and rubbery shouts that would have given Arthur Jones a run for his money. It’s easy to get ahead of oneself and lose sight of the fact that, although this is extraordinarily dense music, it’s also got rhythm and pulse and Chapin and Hooker are in a constant ballet of response as well as giving one another great support. As weighty, too, as the percussion parts are, there’s also lightness in Hooker’s playing, gossamer cymbal work lifting gobs of potential entanglement. Crossing Points is one of the crown jewels in both musicians’ discographies, and certainly one of the best examples of fire music duo playing in a recent setting.

Bebop Trio
(Creative Nation Music)

This spry trio recording grew out of the fertile environment produced by the New England Conservatory, home to such explorers of historical breadth as saxophonist-composers Joe Maneri and Steve Lacy, pianist-composers Ran Blake and George Russell, and others. For a group of young musicians to call themselves simply a “bebop trio” and engage the work of Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Duke Ellington and George Shearing via the pre-bop combination of piano, clarinet and drums is, if not subversive, at least somewhat odd and the threesome produce interesting, inspired results. It wouldn’t be surprising if pianist Kordis, clarinetist Spiegelman and drummer Thorvaldsson took Lacy’s dictum to heart, that the music of Thelonious Monk became a way to get to the “other side” – a place of free improvisation and unique compositional aims structured around a band identity.

One can hear the Jewish wedding music that inspired Maneri in the clarinetist’s desert flights on “Celia,” coupled with an almost stiff, rolling approach to the left hand (a la Blake) in Kordis’ piano. Of course, when one says “conservatory,” the expected result is something rarified and precise, which is exactly what this trio is not – there’s a lively blockiness in some instances, a frazzled European timing that belies how seamless this unit is as compositions and group improvisations merge in a lengthy suite. Ellington’s “Zurzday” is noirish and minimal in its first few minutes, supported by needling taps and woody pinpricks toward soft, chamber-like interplay, teased by Thorvaldsson’s rattle. Shearing’s “Conception” is a contrapuntal anthem, tone rows and vampy strum leading into the deceptively open and spry inventions from piano and clarinet. The curious choice of Hope’s “Boa” is relegated to near-theatrical swirl and fractured, coaxing yanks, drum and piano soli soon birthing the chromatic wisps of Nichols’ “Change of Season,” a segregated Thorvaldsson rattling underneath. Jaunty, harmonic pushes from Spiegelman signal the introduction of Nichols’ parlor-like melody with insistent knots. Whether or not Bud, Bird and Monk imagined the music of Bebop Trio – or like-minded groups Clusone and MI3 – recordings like this ensure the plasticity and longevity of the form.

(Loyal Label)

Twenty-five years removed from its influences, the approach of Seabrook Power Plant (Brandon Seabrook, banjo and guitar; Jared Seabrook, drums; Tom Blancarte, electric and contrabass) is a fresh take on merging progressive angularity with speed, volume, and nuisance. At its simplest, the trio is a blend of Eugene Chadbourne, Henry Kaiser and the Minutemen with a nod towards brutal prog clarity. After all, though the aforementioned forebears have technique in spades, it could easily be buried in the joy of throwing things at the wall to see if they stick (more often than not, they didn’t, and that was their fun). With the way paved, Seabrook Power Plant unleashes a series of eight salvos on their second disc that, while frantic and bright, can seem a bit sterile.

The opening “Lamborghini Helicopter” (which also features Judith Berkson on wordless vocals) could be a Shockabilly outtake, amphetamine-fueled and pedal-assisted banjo approximating a hornet’s nest as bass and drums stomp, hack and throttle one another. As an overture the piece works quite well, embracing precision and absurdity with equal aplomb. At almost seven minutes, “The Night Shift” is the longest piece here, ringing strums over pummeling choogle that measure out into torqued, math-y riffage, underpinned by Blancarte’s meaty arco (he doesn’t get enough stretching room here, methinks). Fuzz bass and reverberant banjo make “I’m Too Good for You” into a grungy, clattering aside; just when the opening section seems to wear out its welcome, sarangi-like bowed banjo and electronic drum clusters guide the piece to odder shores. Unsettling drones return on “Sacchetto Mal d’Aria” as a queasy counterpoint to nattering flits, before the rhythm section compounds its energy into a knowingly lunk-headed series of grooves, creating tension between doldrums and harsh, troubled activity. Seabrook Power Plant certainly has chops and ideas, but the pervasive feeling is that the trio needs to let its hair down even more.


  1. you've got the wrong Hans Koller, Mark studied with the great but happily not-late pianist/composer, best heard on the recent album 'cry, want' on Psi.