Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Listening.

If we are to talk about “problems” in appreciating and engaging art, one of the chief concerns is that after a certain point in life, people don’t want to have to be taught to do something unless they are getting paid for it. That in-itself is understandable at the basest level (who doesn’t want some sort of non-intrinsic reward sometimes?), but it isn’t a very fruitful path if one wants to expand one’s horizons. By the time you get to be of a certain age, you don’t want to be taught how to listen to music or see what is in a work of visual art. That seems like something that you should know how to do from an elementary age. The thing is, we still have to learn how to appreciate even the things we like. With music – and with jazz/improvised music especially – understanding how to listen came well after my first or even second engagement with it, and unknowingly I sought teachers who would help me to hear the history and beyond it so I could hopefully have some grasp of what this music is.

With the drums, I thank Alvin Fielder for helping me to hear the lineage and really study where different rhythms and phrases come from. Even as a non-musician and someone who, when I was a musician, didn’t have the greatest sense of “time,” I’ve learned more about where modern jazz drumming comes from through knowing and talking to Alvin. He is a historian and a treasure.

For finally beginning to love the trumpet, as well as a true appreciation of tone and understanding how this music is put together orchestrally, credit is due to Bill Dixon and Stephen Haynes. I am still learning how the trumpet does what it can do and it is a challenge, but for gaining knowledge about the subtleties of sound and assembling the “parts” of a piece of music, I owe Bill and Stephen a lot.

Picking apart the music critically and thinking about the literature around it started with David Raskin (my art history mentor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and continued with Bill and Stephen as well as (writer-musician-composer) Allen Lowe, (writer) Larry Kart, (producer-label owner) Chuck Nessa, (musician-scholar) Karl Evangelista, (musician-educator) Jeff Crompton and a number of others.

Of course, having the good fortune to interview and interact with quite a few of the music’s most important figures has helped tremendously, and that also goes for getting to know and being involved with a community of fellow travelers/friendly experiencers who are enthusiastic and willing to share. In writing for Ni Kantu and other places as a critic, one might take away from that a lack of substantial negativity about the music – rarely do I give negative reviews, though it does happen sometimes. Acquiring an understanding of how to listen (and I’m still doing that and will probably always do that) has quashed most of the propensity to give a recording bad marks. Plus, I barely have time to write about all the great music that enters the marketplace, much less a set of music that (to me) isn’t interesting.

Without trying to sound like I’m on any enlightened plane – far from it – I do think that appreciating art is a learned thing, taught through getting to know the creators (biographical experience) and others who are part of the sub-cultural fabric. As pianist Burton Greene wrote in his autobiography Meditations of a Musical Pesty-Mystic (Cadence Jazz Books, 2001), and quoting Swami Satchidananda, “to understand is to stand under where you are already standing.” Being willing to learn and try to have humility in that process, remaining a student even if it can be agitating to do so, is an undeniable step in the right direction.

Sparked by a question of whether audiences are "afraid" of new music earlier today I'm not sure that they are, but I can say that to accept the idea of continual learning is a tall order, and ultimately a rewarding one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Happy Birthday Mal Waldron

Today would have been pianist and improvising composer Mal Waldron's 86th birthday (he died in 2002). Since I first heard him on record with reedman-composer Eric Dolphy in the 1990s, Waldron has been one of my favorite pianists. That anthemic insistence, coupled with didactic minimal variations and a wistful classicism captured the "intellectual" fascination I had with the music early on, but his emotional power and affable wit have filled the humanist side of the music, which has been the most lasting way in which he has affected me.

Known as an accompanist/collaborator with Billie Holiday in the 1950s, Waldron was the "house pianist" for Prestige records throughout the decade and is one of the most unique voices in hardbop. His work-songs appeal to a strange, obsessive side that isn't always obvious in the music of Bobby Timmons and the Adderleys, but it could be said that they are a foundation of the genre. In the late 1960s, he became associated with the avant-garde after relocating to Europe, frequently working with other unclassifiable expats like Steve Lacy, Fred Braceful, and Charlie Mariano. He even recorded with members of the krautrock ensemble Embryo. Popular in Japan, Waldron recorded numerous sessions for Japanese labels as well as European independents. Walking the line between inside and outside, his vast catalog is one that I can honestly say is entirely worth dipping into.

Below are two very different tracks - the first is a wonderful, knotty arrangement of the standard "The Way You Look Tonight" from 1957, while the second is a sterling example of his "free" period (notice that as busy as it is, metrically it remains very tight) on the French Futura label from 1970. Finally, I highly recommend the documentary Mal by Dutch filmmaker Tom Overberghe, which you can also find on YouTube. Wish I could have met him - he seems like a sweet man and a deep spirit.

Late Summer Review Roundup

Summer in Texas (yolk, yolk)
Sometimes a little desk-clearing is in order, though that sounds like a rough way to put it. Some of these reviews were slated for publication elsewhere and got cut due to space/magazines shutting down/etc. Others are cases where the material has just fallen by the wayside (with no impact on its quality, it's just a time thing) or as with a couple of these discs, they have just been in my car stereo too much to bring inside to write on. Anyway, the music discussed here is timeless and hopefully will get us all through the dog days of August. Enjoy!

There Was

Composer-reedman Aram Shelton is a very unassuming character, which is partly why his trajectory is so interesting to watch. Based in Oakland, California for the past several years while studying at Mills College, he’s still found time to maintain his Chicago roots, playing with cooperative ensembles like Fast Citizens and Rolldown as well as various West Coast aggregations. As an improviser, he’s probably one of the most consistently exciting altoists on the contemporary scene, having studied intently the music of historic messengers like Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and wrapping it all into his own conception. Two recent discs on the Clean Feed label put an excellent spotlight on some of Shelton’s activities – namely, the quartets Arrive (which began in Chicago) and the decidedly Bay Area band Cylinder.

Arrive features fellow Rolldown members Jason Adasiewicz (vibes) and Jason Roebke (bass) along with drummer Tim Daisy, and There Was is their second disc to date. The opening title piece gradually shifts from spare tonal exploration to sharp alto pirouettes atop a taut, active thrum, Roebke’s fistfuls making this groove edgily pliant and brightly accented. The vibist’s solo shows just how much he’s progressed over the last few years, bright pools and fragmentary sub-tunes making themselves clear in one of the most strikingly (no pun intended) individual statements on the instrument in recent memory. “Frosted” exhibits a shredded view of a nocturnal half-ballad as Shelton takes a caressing tone and eviscerates it with gutsy near squall, at other times making coagulated blues. Adasciewicz matches delicacy with crisp, snaking movement in a mirror to the saxophonist’s devilish turns before Daisy inflects the tune with calypso-like rhythms. From the lilting melody of “Lost,” it’s a quick transition into Roebke’s woody muscle, using hands, bow and forearms to craft tensile opposition. Reprising the theme, its resonance is catchy and Shelton’s blistering statements rekindle the fiery gobs of AACM sound as much as they do an aggressively-tinged hardbop push. He’s clearly a player who knows two divergent traditions well, but his own work as an instrumentalist-composer is to find ways to bring them together.

Cylinder is the cooperative quartet of Shelton, trumpeter Darren Johnston, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Kjell Nordeson (who splits his time between California and Stockholm). The trumpeter composed the opening “The Ear That Was Sold to a Fish,” which recalls the John Carter-Bobby Bradford Quartet in its uneasy funereal unison before splaying out into curling alto, as meaty pizzicato bass and Nordeson’s light rattle build a rhythm environment. “The Deep Disciplines” pits short, darting segments against sawing insistence, alto and trumpet in loose commentary atop a swaying hull and obsessive patter. A drummer who builds his language from small rimshots, highly-tuned taps and deadened thuds, Nordeson is one of the most engaging parts of this quartet, especially as he counters Mezzacappa’s robust and steadfast bass playing. The pair tugs at one another on the brief “Shells,” written by the drummer as a chunky rhythmic exploration that soon steps out of bounds while horns pile on with cutting interplay. Mezzacappa’s closing “Earthworm” is a spacious roil with bass clarinet and drums played off of rude harmonic scrawl in varying degrees of density. Cylinder presents a solid program of piano-less quartet music and, while not all of it is entirely distinctive, the contrasts between the group’s four personalities should make for excellent future results. Both discs are a fine place to introduce oneself to Aram Shelton’s music

Outdoor Spell
(Northern Spy)

I remember the first time I heard “Waterloo No. 2” from composer Rhys Chatham’s Die Donnergötter LP (Homestead, 1986). What was immediately so striking about this minimal appropriation of the drum-and-bugle corps was that it seemed so celebratory while at the same time reveling in a sort of stasis. The piece captured something of Albert Ayler’s marching band music of the mid-60s, but turned that static, pliable free time into a different web. Chatham’s minimalist pulsations were not so much points to be leapt from but rather ensconced within. That enveloping quality has been a part of his music ever since, especially among guitar orchestras like An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1989) and A Crimson Grail (2007). Outdoor Spell returns to the small ensemble and to brass, with Chatham’s multi-tracked and electronically augmented trumpet the basis for the four tracks here, often utilizing chuffs, spit, and whine to create an environment that moves well beyond our expectations of brass music. Certainly the Bill Dixon school has done a lot to expand the conception of how the trumpet can be played (at its simplest) and the possibilities of the instrument’s linguistic capabilities (which seem nearly limitless). Chatham is not basing this work on anything Dixon might have developed (though it does have parallels) – rather, it follows from his previous work, creating deep sound fields out of grouped filaments, overlaying long tones, short upturned phrases, sputters and kisses into gradations of color.

“Crossing the Sword Bridge” is extraordinary in this regard, assembling a march from ptooeys and multiphonic inflections, a surface pockmarked by growls and screams that nevertheless has an obvious interest in texture, with sections that range from chunky to gauzy. Once an area is defined, Chatham overlays it with events that soon multiply and themselves are integrated into a regal and swirling canvas, though surprisingly the piece never feels overly dense. “Corn Maiden’s Rite” is a duet of sorts, employing the cajón of Beatriz Rojas as a resonant bottom for intertwined, piercing calls in environmental folds; the percussive base is counteracted by paced blats, giving this dance an immobilized bounce. In trio with guitarist Jean-Marc Montera and drummer Kevin Shea, “The Magician” is the closest I’ve heard Chatham come to free improvisation, glitchy dives and pot-boiling agitation vying for space with the composer’s breathy slabs. However, improvised mass doesn’t suit Chatham’s conception well – at least how it’s done here – and this is the least successful of the four pieces here. Though its closer is unnecessary, Outdoor Spell is still a fine notch in Chatham’s discography and shows an instrumental side of his work that we don’t often experience. Not only that, but “Crossing the Sword Bridge” is a particularly stunning new piece in his oeuvre.

Apocryphal Fire in the Warehouse, and Other Explanations
(Harmonic Convergence)

For the second disc by Chicago quartet Extraordinary Popular Delusions (Mars Williams, reeds and misc. instruments; Jim Baker, synthesizer and piano; Steve Hunt, percussion; and Brian Sandstrom, bass, cello and guitar), their work falls even more squarely within the realm of non-idiomatic improvisation than it did on their 2007 eponymous Okka Disk release. Though it is important to their gestation – especially on the side of Williams and Hunt – the connection to the blistering grab-bag of Hal Russell’s music seems a bit more distant, to the point that if one were interested in comparisons, the group’s texture would be the result of a triangulation between AMM, the AACM and the Sun Ra Arkestra. The music is surprising, but within the juxtapositions on which it thrives, there’s an organic quality to the work. The opening “Cold Child with Fedora” employs soprano saxophone, gongs, patchy analog electronics and thin, bowed harmonic glissandi in a steady burble, a fuzzed-out “bug music” investigation that shifts to expansive dynamism once ringing piano chords and the chug of bass and drums enter. Surfing atop this volcanic rhythm section is Williams who, switching to alto, unleashes torrents of choppy peals (it’s no wonder he’s been a favored sideman of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and Russell) up to an abrupt end.

“Treadmill to Obliviousness” wraps sopranino saxophone and jaunty keyboard angles in a healthy dose of reverb, giving this rough-and-tumble fragment a curious distance. The title piece is a paint-peeler at first blush, piano and alto in shearing mode until the ensemble falls away to give space to a vaguely saccharine bit of unaccompanied saxophone. When Baker and Sandstrom return, it’s with a healthy dose of electrification to the point that the pianist’s fragmented melodies have a twinge of grunginess. Elsewhere, Baker is reminiscent of Paul Bley, in the bluesy turnarounds of “Screen Door Slam” for example. Though Extraordinary Popular Delusions could easily ply their trade in saxophone-and-rhythm free jazz, and they do that well, it’s when they investigate areas outside of any idiomatic comfort zone that the music becomes really interesting. Patchwork synthesizer, guitar feedback, electric zither and indeterminate rattle are tools to not only broaden the quartet’s textural resources, but also proof that they’re able to continually surprise themselves with the challenge of investigating other sonic wells. Of course, we know that the secret to why this group works so well is what’s in between those poles, as well as a deeply shared history.

The Harmonic Convergence label doesn't appear to have a website, but you can buy their releases from Forced Exposure.

The Hymn Project

One could say that The Hymn Project is Norwegian contrabassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s first proper Texas recording since moving to Austin in 2008, though for all intents and purposes it is a cross-traditional, global set of music. Assembled with Dallas-based trumpeter Dennis González and his sons, bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan González alongside Austin-based cellist Henna Chou, The Hymn Project presents a mixture of traditionals and music composed and improvised with Norwegian and rural Southern American folk hymns in mind. Of course, it’s not too hard to draw a line from this work to the music of Albert Ayler, perhaps the most significant musician in modern jazz to have used hymns and folk music from both America and Europe in his work, and to a striking result. Granted, the Flaten-González group is far from being Ayler-esque, though in the opening “Hymn to the Incoherent” I detected a pizzicato cello quote of Ayler’s “Ghosts” that was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. Of the two bassists Flaten is often the throatier, lower-toned player while Aaron González employs a higher-pitched, lute-like pizzicato. With a string trio, there’s a variety of blended and oppositional sonorities that sweep around and underneath the trumpet, Dennis Gonzalez’ soft, skimming brass footfalls able to find nooks within a mass of swirling arco on the stately “Doxology.” The Norwegian traditional “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg” envelops Chou’s amplified cello in a dose of rafter-shaking reverb, while Flaten’s Garrison-like strums and the trumpeter’s chunky flits maintain an earthward glance. The closing “Herido” is a stone classic, bolstered by a monstrous vamp that occasionally tugs at its own sense of time, with the trumpeter singing the words of St. John of the Cross (in Spanish) and supported by driving cymbal and conga rhythms. One could easily imagine such a tune being compiled by Universal Sound twenty years hence. Though Flaten’s work with The Thing, Atomic, and other high-octane Scandinavian improvising groups is unimpeachable, it’s wonderful to hear him in a context that finds its strength in delicacy and a diverse set of musical-cultural streams.

Requiem for a Pit Viper
Children of the Blue Supermarket

Portland-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley might not be a household name – at least, not outside of the upper West Coast environment that he plies – but that shouldn’t stop anyone from investigating his work. I’ve written about him before in the context of his playing with Los Angeles trumpeter Bobby Bradford on Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival (Pine Eagle, 2010). In short succession, Halley has released two more discs on his Pine Eagle label – one another quartet and the other a set of poetry matched by tenor and drums.

This particular version of the quartet “replaces” Bradford with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, another longtime fixture on the West Coast creative music scene who’s also worked with reedman-composer Vinny Golia and trumpeter-composer Jeff Kaiser. On Requiem for a Pit Viper, the rhythm section of Rich’s son Carson Halley on drums and bassist Clyde Reed returns to work through a program of ten original compositions. The format is reminiscent of the mid-Sixties Shepp/Rudd aggregation as well as Dutch tenorman Hans Dulfer’s work with Willem van Manen (check the rumbling “Maj”), and though Halley is certainly a player who stands ably on the shoulders of history, this is decidedly contemporary music. His volleys are spry and rubbery while connected to the burred, throaty wail of modernists like Sam Rivers, stomping and sinewy lines that mate well with Vlatkovich’s poised, detailed chortle. As for the rhythm section, Reed is a strong-yet-malleable supporting player, and while it’s hard to tell whether he’s gotten more comfortable or I have with his playing, Carson Halley’s presence here has both bite and a tense, spacious quality. It seems like he spends an ample amount of time listening to the other three players and works his way in (or out) when (and only when) it’s called for, and that wasn’t something I noticed on Live at the Penofin. Full of jovial slushiness and impassioned fire, Requiem for a Pit Viper is definitely a session not to sleep on.

The father-son team support poet Dan Raphael on Children of the Blue Supermarket, which is culled from the Penofin Jazz Festival archives. Poetry and improvised music certainly have a long history together going back at least to the Beat poets and recordings of Kenneth Patchen and pianist Al Neil, finding flower in the work of Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and New York free players. It’s not too surprising that the Halleys would find interest in a wordsmith, because the tenorman’s titles frequently implore a poetic impulse. That said Raphael presents a challenge because his poetry (perhaps unsurprisingly) doesn’t explore the same musical approach that a Don Lee, Jayne Cortez or Nikki Giovanni brought to the idiom. Tenor and drums offer a parallel commentary to Raphael’s surrealistic, agitated observations of a person outside/confused by the complexity of modern reality. His phrases often co-opt clichés like “the rain falls mainly on…” and surround them with echoes of techno-despair. In cases where words and music don’t peaceably coexist, butting heads can often create a fantastically messy tension, but that presupposes that each are independently valuable examples of the form. In this setting, only the work of the Halleys bears repeated attention, and for that reason Children of the Blue Supermarket doesn’t get off the ground. However, it does whet the appetite for a Rich Halley-Carson Halley duo CD.


From out of the depths of London’s Freedom of the City crew of young improvisers comes the pairing of flutist Neil Metcalfe and bassist Olie Brice, who have been playing together for several years though Brackish is their first duo recording. Brice’s frequent confreres also include tenorman Mark Hanslip and drummer Mark Sanders. Metcalfe’s name could be familiar from work with reedman Paul Dunmall, guitarist Roger Smith, and the Dedication Orchestra. None of this necessarily describes the duo, but it does give one an idea of where these two players might stand in the context of English improvisers. Brackish features eight improvised pieces that, firstly, use a rather expanded palette on two very specific axes and, secondly, the pair have a sense of dynamics and space that far exceeds the numbered value of two people. Between guttural swatches and harmonic wisps, Brice’s bowed and generally manhandled bass makes a fascinating study of contrasts with the panoply of tonguing and breathing techniques – and the colors that result – from Metcalfe’s flute. The music is perhaps a little more poised than, say, the work of Bob Downes and Barry Guy, as the flutist’s pops and twirls have much in common with the language of the 20th Century concert flute (bringing to mind Averil Williams and Barre Phillips on Max Schubel’s Son of Quashed Culch). Buzzing and deadening the instrument’s metallic nature towards wood or clay is another aspect of Metcalfe’s approach, heard at the opening of “Hidden Song” and dovetailing with Brice’s fiddled whispers. Between the harmonic and percussive aspects of the bass and similar, albeit much higher-pitched echoes from the wind spectrum, and the fact that these players have a turn-on-a-dime sense of reaction, it all makes for an incredibly engaging and unique duo. FMR releases don’t get a lot of talk Stateside, so hopefully Brackish won’t slip through too many cracks – it’s wonderful.

Turbina Anthem
(No Business)

Though Portuguese trumpeter-composer Sei Miguel has been a fixture on the Lisbon creative music scene since the 1980s, it was not until Clean Feed released Esfíngico in 2010 that I became aware of his work (and even then, only through the prodding of guitarist Joe Morris to give the music serious thought). While that session was a quintet featuring trombone, circuits (courtesy of frequent collaborator Rafael Toral), percussion and electric bass, the trumpet-guitar duo of Turbina Anthem is an instrumentally pared-down affair. It’s an interesting combination; Gomes’s guitar playing generally harps on noise effects, and those gobs of tinny six-string fuzz shouldn’t have too much in common with the very clean nature of Miguel’s trumpet. Certainly it’s not that simple, because both musicians operate outside of traditional tonality, and while on the surface Miguel’s trumpet playing might seem to have a relaxed precision, he tends to hit his notes on either side of consonance, fluffing or bending them ever so slightly, causing a shaky and knobby essence that is brilliant in tandem with the metallic overload and wiry coagulants in Gomes’s playing. There’s a limpid incompleteness to both musicians’ phrasing as well, Miguel reveling in tones that seem to be near death and phrases that act half-completed as feedback, distortion and preparations merge in an oddly conversant symphony of unruly explosions. In five different iterations across the LP, “The Pale Star” features acoustic guitar informed by the dustbowl anthems of steel-string Americana in a diversion from the electrified pieces, as Gomes constructs wispy circular motifs alongside Miguel’s unresolved statements. While the guitarist might find ways to obliterate the guitarness of his instrument, focusing on rhythms and sounds that seem closer to non-musical din, in what’s clearly a conversation between two very rigorous improvisational minds, those sounds become musical by the structure they inhabit. Through reflection and a sense of architecture, those sharp sounds are given an active musicality, one that results from opposition and shared creative space. Turbina Anthem is a tough, sometimes stark, but very rewarding collaboration.

Live in London
(No Frills Music)

Saxophonist and clarinetist Blaise Siwula is an acolyte of the fire-and-brimstone school of reed playing, abstracted to the sonic sources that have welled up over the years in musicians like Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, and Shoji Ukaji. Live in London is just that, a series of eight solo tenor and clarinet pieces recorded in December 2008 on a visit to England, along with one duet featuring Alan Wilkinson on baritone saxophone. As much as Siwula pulls from the sandblasted reaches of energy music – and the closing “Time’s Up” with Wilkinson is a joyous shout of hard-bitten, screaming multiphonics and wind shear reminiscent of messengers McPhee and Gustafsson – there’s a lot of variability in his playing. “Stutter’s Waltz” is a three-minute slice of whittled resonance that plays a tense game with the possibility of breaking off into whoops and hollers, yet far exceeds any sense of “exercise.” The connection with McPhee isn’t too implausible, although perhaps Siwula is a little more interested in garishness in his wide-vibrato, wall-shaking preach. That’s notable with “On the Plains of Brooklyn,” which calls up both Rust Belt river silt and the music of the Scottish highlands, somehow mincing a penny-whistle with blustery tenor skronk. It’s a lot to fit into a short piece, but Siwula does it.

“Old Friends” takes a well-worn melodic fragment and ramps up the swagger into athletic curls, blats and paint-peeling sharp masses, though at the piece’s center is an awareness of the instrument’s stately history even as the saxophonist tears through it with winking abandon. Lest one forget Siwula has worked with melody hounds like pianist Nobu Stowe and guitarist Dom Minasi, “Time One Down” is an approximation of a pre-bop chestnut, sweetly closing the disc’s first third. Although that first third is also a bit more lo-fi, the music isn’t harmed, and the following thirty-minutes recorded at Ryan’s FlimFlam grants longer pieces (including the aforementioned duet) that, while mostly not as hell-bent, nevertheless provide a window into Siwula’s quick wit, massive tone, and love for his forebears. “Ryan’s Shuffle” is a fine example of this fact, toying with and building on some arcane melody much as a free mid-60s Rollins, albeit with a little of the non-idiomatic sandblasting school thrown in. Even when he’s taking it the distance, Siwula knows how to bring the music home to an almost hokey-sounding prewar vibe before stretching into high-pitched screams. If you really want a slice of Blaise Siwula’s world, Live in London comes highly recommended.

Race Cards

Seven years of waiting isn’t really that long, considering how consistently “fresh” creative music is (or is supposed to be). Released in 2010 but recorded in 2003, percussionist-composer Warren Smith’s Race Cards follows on a spate of ever-greater visibility in contemporary American improvised music, which has resulted in new recordings by the Composers Workshop Ensemble and a presence in the ensembles of Bill Dixon and Stephen Haynes. One might call him a veteran – Smith has been recording and performing since the early 1960s – but his approach to percussion and ensemble color is something that is continually evolving. Race Cards joins Smith with French horn player Mark Taylor, bassist Tom Abbs and tenorman Andrew Lamb on nine original compositions that also include Smith’s poetry. Compared to some jazz-poetry combinations, Smith’s recitations are extremely musical, following the rhythmic cadences of his drums – filling, accenting, encircling, and exploring lines and variants. Following the knotty opening title piece, “Tel-lie-vis-sion” is a bit more didactic and trance-like, chanting with simpler rhythmic inflections on corporate media and the war machine (both poem-compositions are political protests). Referring to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, Smith is topical, but even if the names have changed since the recording date, the concerns remain the same.

Of course, to call anything Warren Smith does “simple” is unfair – his music is a studied and experienced natural fluidity, which is why his speech and drum patterns mate so perfectly well to the point of being one and the same. “Linke und Rechte” begins with a march, lilting tenor and French horn commingle until the piece shifts into an open section for shakers, cymbals and auxiliary percussive devices. Taylor and Lamb each give tightly controlled orations supplanted by Abbs’ deep-toned counterpoint and a shimmering, rustling field. There’s an ease to the proceedings and never a hint of overplaying, which might encourage less-attuned ears to miss something like how elemental Smith’s time is, or how perfectly-placed his ricocheting notes and movements are. “Indiana’s Wedding Song” segues almost seamlessly from “Linke,” a Spanish-tinged keen backed by Abbs’ motoring vamp and a delicate, pervasive ride cymbal. The horns tug at the theme but never get too far out, and at four minutes in length, the tune carries a concise elegance. The closing “Sippin’ an’ Smokin’ wif Milton” (one would assume the reference is to bassist Milton Suggs) is both laid-back and terse, salty blues riffs played out over a walk and Smith’s marimba cascades. Switching to drums, the leader’s loping time backs Taylor’s huffing brass, although it’s loose enough to provide the soloist with a wide range of movement. Lamb is stately and sublime in his tenor work, occasionally reaching strangulated tongue-speak but mostly enunciating very direct R&B lines. Though far from “plain Jane,” Warren Smith’s Race Cards is a shining example of undiluted modern jazz with soul and subtlety.

News? No News!
Mystic Maze

German reedman Gebhard Ullmann (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) has been a fixture on the international improvising scene for a number of years, splitting his time between Berlin and New York and culminating in such cooperative groups as Conference Call (with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller) and Basement Research (with trombonist Steve Swell, saxophonist Julian Arguelles and the rhythm team of John Hébert and Gerald Cleaver). As a tenor player, Ullmann is exceptionally steely, his hard-bitten tone recalling the more cerebral side of Sam Rivers’ work, an architect of clean, short chord-rearranging bursts and sinewy, athletic lines that are far from pages torn out of the Brötzmann playbook. It’s hard not to hear Eric Dolphy in his bass clarinet, which is strong and detailed, but he quite naturally expands on the “Hat and Beard” composer’s woody apparitional presence. Ullmann also writes interesting tunes, unresolved tone poems and throaty knots that retain a hot sense of swing.

The Ullmann/Swell 4 unites a woodwind-slide front line with veteran bebop and loft-jazz drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Hilliard Greene; News? No News! is their third disc, second of 2010 and first on Berlin’s Jazzwerkstatt label. Across the set’s sixty-plus minutes, Swell and Ullmann share compositional duties quite equally and there are also two shortish group improvisations. The idea and execution of a reed/trombone front line and piano-less quartet recalls mid-Sixties New York free jazz, certainly abetted by the presence of Altschul, who brings a “ragtime to no time” approach to the kit loosely moving in and out of free-bop swing toward shimmering, allover flickers. There’s an ebullient roar to the trombonist’s opening “More Hello,” searing reedy peals and bright, slick bluster characterizing the horns’ jovial, animated dialogue around a surge of rhythm. A cruel, groggy slink is part of the theme to “New York 5:50,” Swell’s slushy tailgate a wry declamation to Ullmann’s pensive bounce. The frenetic clunk that closes “Composite #1” leads into woody sway on “Kleine Figuren #2,” bass clarinet belches trailing off into wistful snatches of melody as drums, arco bass and trombone comment in lazy parallel. The companion piece to “New York,” “Berlin 9:35” has a more insistent purr, trilling into acrid, burnished collective wrangle. News? No News! is an excellent update from the Berlin-New York camp.

Bassist Chris Dahlgren has worked with Ullmann since 2005, recording as part of a trio with pianist Art Lande. His band Lexicon also includes Ullmann and Christian Weidner on reeds, percussionist Eric Schaefer and keyboardist Antonis Anissegos; Mystic Maze is their first disc. It’s a concept date in the fullest way possible, with several of the compositions setting early Twentieth Century American and British anti-Bartok criticism to pan-tonal music, both fixed and improvised. Except for the short take of Bartok’s “Mesto,” the set of twelve tunes is credited entirely to Dahlgren, and at their best the pieces move through loose, atonal jaunts at a mild clip. But the angular, inflected recitation of scathing, mocking reviews of Bartok performances are suited to a particular taste – that of the undergraduate composition student, perhaps. Recasting these essays as angular beat-like accompaniment to the music is already a bit pretentious (even if the goal is to make them “musical”), and is made even moreso by the fact that their subject has been part of the canon for at least half a century. Given that the recitation of text is so crucial to this music, it’s difficult to erase the erudite hipness of its delivery even as instrumentally compelling actions occur. That said, there are some interesting pieces here – “Painless Dentistry No. 1” is a particularly strong update on mid-50s West Coast outside modernism. Anissegos is a revelation on piano, and coupled with Dahlgren’s precise tone and open instrumental elocution, and Schaefer’s charge, the rhythm section sounds good. Though it’s pointless to suggest an artist make a record different than the one they already made, I’d be interested to hear Lexicon without an explicit concept attached.

(Put Your) Hands Together

Trumpeter and improvising composer Nate Wooley is a tough person to keep a bead on, mainly because with each passing year, his discography gets ever lengthier and his work broadens in scope. Able to bridge the worlds of modern creative (jazz) and noise/experimental music with seeming little effort, the intrepid listener/collector has a lot to keep track of. Another challenge is the fact that he approaches each end of that spectrum with honesty, curiosity, and believability – in other words, he sounds utterly convincing as a noise musician as he does a jazz player, which is far from an easy feat. On (Put Your) Hands Together, Wooley leads a quintet that follows in the framework of modal post-bop that his work in drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day evinces, but with a decidedly hard-edged spin. He’s joined by Eisenstadt and Canada Day bassist Eivind Opsvik, vibraphonist Matt Moran and Josh Sinton on bass clarinet for a program of ten originals, three of which are different versions of the piece “Shanda Lea,” named for Wooley’s wife. In fact, all of the compositions here are named for important women in the trumpeter’s life.

The first iteration of “Shanda Lea” opens the disc, heartfelt and lilting cadenzas with little turns and swallows that bridge harrowing flurries. There would be a tendency to hear this as a starting coda, or even a run-through of approaches to the trumpet, but it is in fact a self-contained and poetic solo composition that more than holds its own. The title track follows and is strikingly reminiscent of Andrew Hill’s “Ghetto Lights” in its laconic slink; Wooley’s solo takes on the hardbop lexicon and toys with it, building out from Woody Shaw-like arpeggios into bold, screaming peals and subtonal chatter. Sinton follows in trio with free-time squawk that gets into the low-down dirty side of Dolphy to an almost grotesque degree. It’s hard not to think of Bobby Hutcherson in Moran’s glassy swing, ricocheting off the push of Eisenstadt’s drums before Wooley and Sinton return with the head. “Erna” is a different sort of piece, bowed vibes and soft patter leading before the quintet moves cautiously into a march, unifying iterations of the stair-stepped theme. From a short Sinton-Wooley duo on “Shanda Lea,” moving from stateliness to daring pierce, the quintet returns for “Ethyl” and its hanging, cyclical minimalism. While the bar lines reflect roundly suspended areas and quiet control, the improvised sections allow Sinton stretching room over a tugging rhythm. The degree to which Wooley has orchestrated this ensemble allows one to hear beyond his voicings in duo with Opsvik, or in a cracking trio with Eisenstadt, and feel the entirety of the group without necessarily anticipating its direction. Sure, this is a strong “jazz quintet” record, but Hands Together is so well organized and diverse that it is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Earth Grid

Zomes is the name that guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and composer Asa Osborne has given to his post-Lungfish solo work, and Earth Grid is his second album (first for Thrill Jockey). It might be safely assumed that with vocalist/shaman Daniel Higgs primarily working banjo-raga revivals and drummer Mitchell Feldstein now in Arboretum that the age of Lungfish’s particular brand of monolithic trance-rock has come to an end. Zomes is an entirely instrumental proposition, eschewing the larger imprint of Lungfish for condensed, low fidelity home recordings. Once Osborne settles into the crisp downstrokes and lock-stepped drumbeats of “Pilgrim Traveler” abetted by a snaky electronic pulse, his status as the onetime architect of Lungfish’s music is made abundantly clear. Muffled keyboards and beats make their way out of the ether on “Melody, the Prism,” but just barely. This leads into fuzzed organ chords hanging in a breathy stasis, gone quickly enough that the piece is nearly incidental. Lungfish were never psychedelic in the traditional sense, but they were quite minimalist; Zomes has basically isolated that gene even further, presenting it with a very personal home-recorded vision. The most curious pieces are a bit harsh, such as the distorted guitar fragment opening “Step Anew,” jarring attention before Osborne moves into another variation on loops and crafted, head-bobbing environments. Each of the fifteen pieces is rather short, most hovering around two or three minutes, but as oddly sparse as they are, their song status is forthright. Zomes presents essentialist, subtle rituals, metronomic and hummable structures that yield potently spiritual music.