Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Jukebox Shuffles - New(er) Singles Reviewed

CIRCUIT DES YEUX
Ode to Fidelity

Ode to Fidelity is the new three-song 45 from Indiana’s Haley Fohr, a torch singer soloist who goes under the name Circuit des Yeux. She’s put out two full length LPs on Minneapolis’ De Stijl already, though this newest set of pieces strikes a chord that’s a bit more direct (less willfully experimental, perhaps), and as a result, it’s quite compelling. The A-side, “Barrel Down,” is the most fully realized cut, muffled processional strums providing a framework for a vocal impulse that moves through several iterations, from Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio/Myra Lee-era Cat Power into a ghostly operatic siren song, multi-tracked and swirling into the red before being overtaken by six-string scree. The flip features a riff from the minimalist gutter, a la Thalia Zedek fronting The Static, in the opening “Self Satisfaction,” followed by the shambled instrumental trance of “March with the Rich.” These days, oddball sides either seem to slip through the cracks or get too much hype, making one yearn for the days of, quite simply, a good lo-fi single, which Ode to Fidelity certainly is.

KEEFE JACKSON / FRANK ROSALY DUO
s/t
JOOKLO DUO
The Warrior

If there’s ever a genre of music that hasn’t really made it to the seven-inch single format, it’s probably free jazz. Sure, Blue Note released 45s of top selling artists like Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey back in the ‘60s (there were even some sweet red vinyl Kenny Dorham singles floating around), but that music had a danceable relevance in clubs and with Black radio DJ’s. The format wasn’t too well-suited to the avant-garde at the time, considering statements were often album-length at least. Sure, ESP had a couple of odd out-jazz singles for some reason (a Paul Bley Trio and an Ayler/Ornette split!), as did FMP and the ever-irreverent Dutch label ICP, and even stranger was a jukebox variant of Coltrane’s Ascension. But these were extreme oddities.

Cut to now, as the 45 has gone through a period of being the de facto medium for punk rock and outsider music, the concept of an avant-garde single isn’t quite as strange. Regular partners Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly (Scorch Trio, Dave Rempis Percussion Ensemble) and tenorman Keefe Jackson (Fast Citizens) cut a hand-printed example on white wax in 2009 for the Windy City indie label Molk (though it was recorded in 2005). More than anything this record is a testament to the concision apparent in modern creative music, as the pair are able to make engaging, spry statements that aren’t cut short by the format, fitting limber Kalaparusha-like tenor flint and Rosaly’s dry tidal waves into two four-minute sides. The saxophonist’s jaunty composition “Word Made Fresh” takes up the A side, heel-digging yelps and smooth, eliding phraseology in direct counterpoint to the drummer’s chunky melodicism. A bent, keening purr against the push of mallets and churning patter makes up “Real Absence,” an improvisation credited to both musicians.

Jooklo Duo consists of reedist Virginia Genta and drummer David Vanzan, and their work has appeared on a number of instantly-out-of-print LPs, cassettes and CD-Rs that have captivated the New Weird Europa environment. The Warrior is the first Jooklo-related material to be released on a US label (the young Northern Spy Records is run by former ESP staff), and is supposedly going to be followed with a full-length. That’s a good thing, because the pair takes the screaming buzzsaw over-blowing of Duo Exchange (Rashied Ali-Frank Lowe, Survival, 1973) as a starting point, reed-splitting tenor micro orgasms slicing the air as fractured rhythmic brutishness stokes the flames on “Primitive Power.” The flip continues at the same absurd pace, clattering metallic polyrhythm supporting reedy vomit in both tenor and soprano variants, as well as clarinet. Like Arthur Doyle, the reed instruments are channels for expressive ferocity, and their precise nature seems unimportant beyond slight refinements on extreme action. The Warrior plays at 33 rpm, extending by a couple of minutes each slice of brain-scraping and smoke-clearing exorcism. Good shit.

Ed. Note: Northern Spy honcho Adam Downey has informed me that the Jooklo single is indeed a 45, though it has been sounding great at 33 rpm (the labels don't specify). This reminds me of the scenario where a friend had Coltrane's Black Pearls LP on 45 by accident and declared what a smokin' bebop record it was... anyway, try it at both speeds if you dare!

TALIBAM!
Cosmoplitude

As mentioned above – and contrary to some of the literature out there – Cosmoplitude is not the first ESP-Disk’ 45, though it is the first to be released since their reemergence at the beginning of the last decade. At any rate, these two tracks exemplify the side of Talibam! (Matt Mottel, keyboards/vocals and Kevin Shea, drums/vocals) that’s keyed into the context of absurd dance-rock, as opposed to their more Zappa-Ra-noise leanings. “Cruisin’ the Cookie Isle” seems like an outtake from ESP debut Boogie in the Breeze Blocks, even reusing a police operator sample, and merges it with a hyperactive dance-party train wreck. It’s a fun and upbeat piece, but even Talibam! at their most Ritalin-addled still benefit from a longer-form setting to explore their ideation overflow. “Cosmic Attitude” is comparable, albeit a slower repetitive jam with Casio gloop pooling around electronic and acoustic beats, occupying a space of bleary-eyed early morning, semi-vacant dance floors and piss-soaked bathrooms. It’s a world that Talibam! may or may not be familiar with, but their mockery is one of the cruelest evocations of that setting I’ve heard. Cosmoplitude may not contain the most compelling music in their discography, but as with other Talibam! releases, it makes no claim to be anything beyond wry paradigm-changing gyration.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: January 2011

The first (second?) installment of 2011 reviews probably should have been run late last month, but preemptive holidays and general malaise shoved them into this month. Hopefully you find something here that's both enjoyable and a good way to spend that leftover holiday dough. Support independent music and media!

PIERRE FAVRE/SAMUEL BLASER
Vol à Voile
PIERRE FAVRE/PHILIPP SCHAUFELBERGER
Albatros
Along with pianist Irène Schweizer, percussionist-composer Pierre Favre is one of the central figures in Swiss jazz (not to mention European improvisation as a whole). His early recordings supported the Italian guitarist Franco Cerri; later in the 1960s he worked with Schweizer, bassist Peter Kowald, saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpeter Manfred Schoof and others involved with the nascent “new music.” Forty-two years after his first date as a leader (Santana, PIP, 1968), Favre continues to be an important name among the masters of European improvised music. Two recent Intakt discs capture the percussionist in duets with young but important Swiss improvisers – Vol à Voile (“Gliding”) joins him with trombonist Samuel Blaser, while Albatros finds Favre and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger working together. Both musicians are also members of Favre’s larger groups.

Blaser splits his time primarily between New York and Berlin; across these seven improvisations and two of the trombonist’s compositions, he shows himself to be, along with Joe Fiedler, one of the keepers of the multiphonic flame since the death of Albert Mangelsdorff in 2005. Far from such trombone-percussion precedents as Gunter Christmann and Detlef Schönenberg, the Favre-Blaser duo puts forth an elegant, meaty sense of motion, deftly humming blats and graduated peals ensconced by Favre’s punctuated clang and brushy swing. “Franchement” is a fine example of the pair’s interplay, crisp ride taps and rumbling polyrhythms a gradated field for Blaser’s bugle flicks and subtle tempo shifts. Favre’s language is so well-developed, especially through solo-exploration/composition, that in some instances it seems as though Blaser is chiefly responding to the percussionist’s structured rhythm. Blaser’s conservatory tone and controlled charge certainly carry enough kinetics themselves, however, to spur Favre into detailed thrum and plodding gong-and-bass landscapes. While the recording’s dynamics tend to be lateral, textural spins rather than vertical pyrotechnics, Vol à Voile remains an excellent slice of duo improvisation.

Schaufelberger has worked with Favre and fellow Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli since the 1990s, appearing in both improvised and contemporary classical contexts. His approach to the instrument offers curious rhythmic counterpoint to Favre, low- to middle-register repetition and spiky, cyclical forms drawing, presumably, from West African influences not dissimilar to the drummer’s areas of study. Courtly jabs imbue “Pino Caro” (like many of the tracks here, rather brief at a hair over three minutes), Favre decisive yet sparse in a bobbing meter as Schaufelberger’s lines tread similarly ambiguous territory. “Seeing” is marked by long, bowed gong tones and hanging plucks, Favre’s metallic artistry somewhat akin to disembodied feedback. Even when ostensibly atmospheric (and it isn’t always), the music on Albatros is still fraught with tension, sounds and events popping out in relief with subtle textural shift. At times airy and in other instances coiled, Schaufelberger and Favre make a well-matched pair, as though a Sublime Frequencies contemporary Afro-rock disc was being translated into the language of contemporary European improvisation. I’m curious to hear a melding of these three sensibilities – Favre, Blaser and Schaufelberger – into a trio, which could be quite engaging.

JOE HERTENSTEIN / PASCAL NIGGENKEMPER / THOMAS HEBERER
HNH

HNH presents a trio format unique though not unheard-of in jazz and creative improvised music, that of trumpet, bass and drums. There are precedents, for sure – German trumpeter Manfred Schoof had his New Jazz Trio with bassist Peter Trunk and drummer Cees See, and Bill Dixon worked regularly in the format, especially in the 1980s. Current Dixonian torchbearer Taylor Ho Bynum just recorded a set with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist John Hebert (Book of Three, Rogue Art). So for sure, this group has kin though we can effectively count them on one hand. Germans Hertenstein, Niggenkemper and Heberer (drums, bass and quarter-tone trumpet, respectively) all now call New York home at least some of the time, and Heberer is probably the most well-known of the three, having worked frequently with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra (Holland) and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. With the exception of Heberer’s closing “The Tolliver Toll” (for hardbop trumpeter-composer Charles Tolliver), all of the pieces work together as an uninterrupted suite, with the trumpeter and the drummer sharing most compositional credits.

Heberer has always been an interesting force in the ICP Orchestra – younger than most of the band, his steely classicism and erudite concentration sticks out from the painterly theatrics of figures like Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink and Tristan Honsinger. That’s probably part of the point, as much as the group was a collision of personalities as well as musical-historical impulses. He’s in good company here, as Hertenstein and Niggenkemper retain loose, tumbling precision in cool rhythmic telepathy. In the closing moments of “Screw the Pendulum” and the short “Glulan,” Heberer’s movement is towards biting multiphonics and metallic circular chuffs, a maximum made from micro-sounds a la Axel Dorner and Nate Wooley. He takes a crisp, Baroque tone and teases it with barbed blats, then lilts poignantly over spare tom flecks and pizzicato mapping in the boppish “Paul’s Age.” Sharp, gutty maneuvers from Niggenkemper’s bow alongside Heberer’s valve highlights, shrikes and pirouettes outline an improvisation on “Doin’ the Do,” which cycles into a taut, vamp-heavy tune halfway through. Enough can’t be said about the toe-tapping swing of Hertenstein and Niggenkemper – the drummer has the subtle complexity of an Ed Blackwell, able to patch infectious rhythms into the most abstract of group improvisations. HNH is definitely the kind of hip little record that might easily pass one by (especially in the vast Clean Feed catalog), but it’s well worth a second look.

HUMANIZATION 4TET
Electricity

Austin, Texas, though considered by some to be the Live Music Capital of the World, it isn’t exactly a hotbed for jazz and improvised music. So a May 2009 performance by this international quartet featuring members from Lisbon, Portugal and Dallas, Texas at the city’s Salvage Vanguard Theatre came as quite a pleasant surprise. Representing the Iberian Peninsula are guitarist Luís Lopes and tenorman Rodrigo Amado, while the sibling rhythm section of bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan González (the progeny of Dallas-based trumpeter-composer Dennis González and 2/3 of Yells at Eels) make up the unit’s other half.  When performing, Lopes stands or crouches, delicately smudging phrases and creating small, haranguing cells in a mixture of spattered flecks and feedback/distortion. His tone is rather thin, and he draws from a vocabulary aware of Ray Russell, Stefan Jaworzyn and Rudolph Grey, except quite absent much of their pyrotechnics and rather skewed toward choppy condensation.

Much of what made the group’s music attractive on their Clean Feed debut is present on Electricity, the follow-up on French label Ayler Records. Whereas the previous disc was made up solely of Lopes’ compositions (and therefore it seemed like Humanization 4tet was predominantly his project), Electricity also sports excellent tunes by Amado and Aaron González on a pretty equal numeric footing with the guitarist’s. Amado is a consummate tenor saxophonist, albeit one who still isn’t well-known on the international stage. One could easily make the comparison of Archie Shepp drawn through Ken Vandermark, but Amado’s tone is softer and his phrasing far less blustery, his peals wrapped in care and delicacy. The González brothers are an extraordinarily tight, telepathic rhythm section and maintain pliant, chattering grooves around wiry, staccato tenor/guitar improvisations and funereal lines. The bassist penned the opening “Dehumanization Blues,” fierce downstrokes leading into a flinty update on crime-jazz and husky, spiky motifs from tenor and guitar. Collective improvisation ensues after the jaunty, darting head of “Jungle Gymnastics,” but in this four-minute piece, the group’s empathy and constantly-directed comment (not to mention rhythmic acuity) maintain vital interest. “Procurei-te Na Noite” has a boppish bounce, distantly-hanging notes from Lopes’ guitar sliding the tune deliciously, obstinately out of tempo. The Humanization 4tet present unruly but accessible inside-outside jazz, very much worth further investigation.

INGRID LAUBROCK
Anti-House

German tenor and soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has, especially through her association with drummer Tom Rainey, become a regular in the New York improvising milieu. As such, her latest group also includes Rainey, guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianist Kris Davis and bassist John Hébert, all of whom are among the leading lights of contemporary music in the city. Of the disc’s fourteen cuts, nine are Laubrock’s own, which on paper might not be all that surprising but upon hearing them, their openness seems to operate in an area quite removed from “fly shit on paper.” Overall, the saxophonist’s playing has a fuzzy slink and exhibits a penchant for bunched rhythmic gobs, sly shifts that ensure the compatibility of someone like Halvorson, and Laubrock’s group concept also necessitates that she often guides without playing. That said, her dynamic range is pretty staggering, moving from low blat to high-pitched screech, vocalizing though the horn and plying cool, boppish runs, all with a low heat that seems to encapsulate both ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ improvisational languages.

The first piece engenders a creeping quality, quickly morphing into pounding, streetwise bite as Halvorson brings out sharp distortion over hacking rhythms in a tug-of-war between density and hushed delicacy, Laubrock directing the group with pinched straight-horn shouts. Interplay between fuzz guitar and piano characterizes the improvisation “Flowery Prison Cell,” absent any saxophone and a link to the harmonic razor of the short tenor-guitar-bass trio “Messy Minimum” and the bent, choked string warble that opens “Quick Draw.” Guttural huffs, piano and percussion scrape open “Funhouse Glockwork,” which tows an interesting line between simple, repetitive events and seemingly isolated actions. The title track is a wonderfully clattering array of parallel tempi that gradually falls into its free-bop place, and offers a fine cutaway view of Laubrock’s soprano playing as well as a Davis piano solo that tugs at post-bop seams, the whole unit maintaining a compelling rotation of interplay while never flagging rhythmically. Yet as the group explores sparser regions of color and shape, the heft remains, such as in the Miró-like field of “Big Crunch,” grey areas shot through with garish, winking blobs. At just over seventy minutes, my only difficulty with Anti-House is that its length can be trying, even as the music itself is full of ideas and intent. Perhaps that’s a more general indictment of our post-LP era or the shortened attention span of this reviewer, but by the time the seasick divergence of “Betterboon” (track 11) rolls around, it feels complete. Still, Ingrid Laubrock has wrangled four New Yorkers into quite a strong team effort.

RADAR FAVOURITES
Radar Favourites

Prior to this first issue of their music on a typically well-done Reel Recordings archival CD, I hadn’t heard of England’s Radar Favourites – nor had probably most people. A footnote in the history of British progressive music, despite an apparently prime bit of real estate in the form of a feature in Melody Maker, the group was a quintet formed by individuals with a broad and interesting pedigree. The music presented on this self-titled disc comes from archival tapes cut in 1974, as the group never cut a “proper” LP (whether or not that means anything). Saxophonist Geoff Leigh and guitarist G.F. Fitz-Gerald were in Mouseproof (Leigh was also in Henry Cow and Hatfield & the North), while drummer Charles Hayward made appearances in Massacre, This Heat and Crass, among other bands. The group is filled out by bassist Jack Monck (Delivery) and vocalist/keyboardist Cathy Williams on three original compositions and two improvisations.

Williams’ “Umbrella Walk” is probably the most fully explored piece here, melding Robert Wyatt’s haunting vocal playfulness with gong and cymbal detail in free time, rubato minimalism and angular small-group symphonics taking over the rest of this composition’s space. Fitz-Gerald’s guitar uncoils towards the last two minutes, stretching out in wooly, fragmentary blues atop a thrashing Hayward before fading out. Leigh’s opener “Peggy Delaney’s Hothouse Tinkers” is a decidedly lilting progressive-psych theme along the lines of the first Hatfields LP. As the piece stretches out, Fitz-Gerald’s minimalist raunch collides with syrupy organ fuzz and amplified alto saxophone towards an abrupt fade. There’s an odd, punky thrift to the jam “Blues for Henry,” opening up into snatches of interplay between Leigh’s soprano and Fitz-Gerald’s guitar (echoing some of guitarist’s collaborations with Lol Coxhill) before transitioning into the “Peggy Delaney” theme and a wonderfully relaxed, lengthy six-string exploration. “Blastest” seems to exemplify the group’s penchant for high-volume electricity apparently inspired by the visuals and density of the Sun Ra Arkestra. In this improvisation, fuzz organ, synthesizer gloop and guitar skronk are brought into play with piercing soprano in a free pulse, closing with an approximation of a Terry Riley organ/flute raga. Reel Recordings deserves kudos for unearthing this intriguing (if not unequivocally successful) entry in the history of avant-progressive music.

CHES SMITH & THESE ARCHES
Finally Out of My Hands

These Arches is New York-based drummer Ches Smith’s quartet, somewhat of an all-star game featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, accordionist/electronic artist Andrea Parkins and saxophonist Tony Malaby across eight original compositions. Noted for his work with Xiu Xiu, Carla Bozulich, Trevor Dunn, Marc Ribot and Halvorson, Finally Out of My Hands is (somewhat surprisingly) Smith’s first recording leading his own group. Considering some of the musicians that Smith has worked with over the years, as well as the instrumentation, an obvious precedent exists in tenorman Ellery Eskelin’s trio with Parkins and drummer Jim Black, which tore up the Downtown scene over a decade ago. Nevertheless, this quartet does present a strong identity, starting off with the anthemic punch and cabaret-themed oddness of “Anxiety Disorder.” Malaby is a fairly straight-arrow tenor player, but coupled to the church-organ diabolicalness of Parkins’ accordion and Halvorson’s spry clusters the four-and-a-half minute tune is a veritable creative improvisational “hit.”

The title piece is rather like a quirky folk-pop tune, albeit arranged for the odd trio of tenor, guitar and accordion. It becomes somewhat hamfisted as Smith and Parkins lay down plats of frantic goop underneath steely reed and scrambled guitar forms, but would have fit interestingly into a Bay Area setting (a la The TFFTHF). Similar vibes are conjured in the tweely-titled “It rained and the tent fell down.” Apart from the songs, as clear or as sketchy as their lines might be, the group’s modus operandi seems to be filling the area between thematic statements with dense racket, though it’s also hard to say how the pieces would play out as vehicles for soloists. There are occasions where it seems like the collective improvisational direction isn’t clear, like Malaby (in particular) is waiting for a cue, which is too bad because most of what bookends these moments is fairly interesting. The idea of blending off-the-wall rock tendencies with free music isn’t a particularly new one, but Smith and These Arches do capture a contemporary zeitgeist within this idiom in a way that’s engaging and quirkily fun.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Briefly Reviewed: Four on Posi-Tone Records

As the year draws to a close, with most holidays celebrated and top-ten lists submitted, the hope is that space has been left for tastes to grow and expand with new musical horizons and relationships to form over the coming twelve months. One challenge that I’ve had – and expressed here on a few occasions – is where dyed-in-the-wool jazz music fits into all of this. Despite an avowed love for historical jazz recordings as well as enjoying new music in the idiom, nevertheless the bug of challenge bites and I find myself questioning the current place of making refined statements within a timeworn linguistic structure (not that the same can’t be said for people working in the ‘free’ or avant-garde idioms).

Questioning, one must remember, doesn’t necessarily mean that a musical statement isn’t valid or engaging; rather, questioning something is a dynamic engagement with a thing or a concept. I can still find myself interested in and moved by music in the tradition while at the same time inquiring of that music’s function or value. Not coincidentally, the contemporary jazz that I find the most interesting is that which questions (in-) itself and for which expressive and structural boundaries are pushed at, even if only slightly.

Los Angeles’ Posi-Tone is one of the labels keeping close to a vision of modern, straight-ahead jazz that, while not particularly rough around the edges, remains full of surprises and engagement. Among their nearly fifty releases are discs by multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer Sam Rivers, trumpeter-composer Jim Rotondi, trombonist-composer Steve Davis (the New Jazz Composers Octet, etc.) and tenorman-composer Wayne Escoffery, alongside lesser-known or up-and-coming artists and ensembles. Not every title in their deep catalog is a winner, but in the several months that I’ve had to familiarize myself with a selection of their releases, there are a number which stick out.

Organist Jared Gold is one player whose work is impressive, drawing on the playing of such seminal figures as Larry Young and John Patton for his harmonic choices, which are often salty and slightly dissonant. On Out of Line, his third disc for Posi-Tone, Gold is joined by guitarist Dave Stryker, drummer Mark Ferber and tenorman Chris Cheek on six originals and three covers. It’s a fairly strong statement to open one’s set with a cover of a tune like Hank Mobley’s “An Aperitif” (which appeared on 1967’s Thinking of Home, first issued in 1980). Cheek’s flinty, cutting tone meshes well with Gold’s stopps-pulled jounce and steaming modal clamber, propelled by a loose stoke from guitar and drums.

Minus tenor, the trio settles into an easy lope for “Preachin’,” which despite missing hard-toned fire (and not that Cheek is particularly ‘out,’ but his phrasing and projection are unequivocally weighty), nevertheless sports fine grit and ebullience. Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” has openness to its groove, though one does get the feeling that Ferber’s drums could have an external push to them. His dustily tasteful propulsion/carpet is clearly part of the axis on which chunks of electric grease turn, so a little more recorded presence could balance the proceedings. There’s pregnant ballpark goo to Gold’s tone on “It Is Well,” mostly a vehicle for organ, tenor and barely-there brushes, with Cheek’s cottony minor explosions providing an interesting counter to the leader’s grinding evocations. In all, Out of Line is a solid disc with some fine grease and expansive playing, but could have been better served with a little more realization of its “in the red” qualities.

Tarbaby (winner of the “most charged band name award”) is a collective made up of drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Eric Revis and pianist Orrin Evans, which formerly also included saxophonists Stacy Dillard and J.D. Allen. On the group’s second disc and first for Posi-Tone, The End of Fear, Allen is present as a “guest” along with altoist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Evans has a kaleidoscopic approach to the tradition, heavily gospelized but also florid, ethereal and rhythmically crepuscular. The presence of Revis and Waits – along with the odd bits of studio chatter and samples – might seem to nod in the direction of Bandwagon redux, but there really isn’t much basis to compare Evans with Jason Moran. The trio moves deftly through “Brews,” a shifting array of reflections and expressions of the piano-trio, never losing its step or becoming overly flashy. That’s an island of pure form in a disc that does lean on conceptualism a bit – mostly clear in the use of sound-bites to shape the area around forays into dissonance like “Heads.” One would hope that they believe their music can stand on its own, free or inside, but attaching snatches of verbiage seems to unseat what otherwise is honest group playing.

“Jena 6” is pointillist, full of gradient shifts and subtle turns in its shortish length – like much of the music here, a wide range of colors and shapes are worked into and out of tracks that mostly hover around five minutes. This disc is one of the more adventurous recordings to feature Payton, and he gets a full seven minutes to stretch out around alternately lush and thrashing piano, bass, and percussion on “Hesitation.” Revis’ muscular arco, echoing an interest in players like Henry Grimes, Steve Tintweiss and William Parker, is quite well represented, and his throaty pluck helps to bolster the questing lilt at the heart of “Tough Love,” which compositionally (if not pianistically) recalls Andrew Hill. At times, one might wish that Tarbaby stretched the performances a bit lengthwise and shrunk their reliance on snatches of verbiage intended to shape our appreciation of the music’s aesthetic and social weight. Nevertheless, concision never really hurt expressive actualization.

Tenor saxophonist Brandon Wright and alto saxophonist Jacám Manricks lead two strong small-group dates recently waxed for Posi-Tone; the former with Boiling Point and the latter with Trigonometry. Wright's session features venerable drummer Matt Wilson alongside pianist David Kikoski, bassist Hans Glawischning and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. Wright has worked with the Mingus Big Band, Maria Schneider Orchestra and Chico O’Farrill, among others. A mix of originals and standards, Boiling Point opens strongly with “Free Man,” its bright head arrangement reminiscent of incisive Blue Note 1960s dates, and something about the tune and the front line nods toward the Freddie Hubbard/Wayne Shorter team. Wright himself is a rough-and-tumble hardbop tenorman, drawing from the school of tenor playing exemplified by Joe Henderson, Tyrone Washington, Sam Rivers, Alan Skidmore and their brethren, buoyed perfectly by a hard charging rhythm section. Though on the surface such a tune can easily fall into the “revivalist bag” (and it does), one forgets comparisons as “Free Man” rockets forward. Filmic lyricism imbues the following “Drift,” explored further in Kikoski’s opening, Wynton Kelly-like cadenza to “Odd Man Out,” which moves into odd-interval Shorterish lilt once the head comes around. Wright’s husky and sandblasted tone, coupled with turns of phrase that move well outside of cookie-cutter territory, mark him as one of those rare products of jazz education (U-Mich., U-Miami) willing to actually “search” within the idiom. One can’t say enough about the importance of that impulse, as well as the presence of inventive and dynamic sidemen, making Boiling Point feel like a “band” effort.

Already a busy figure on the New York scene, Manricks is going forward with young, semi-free innovators like drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Jacob Sacks to support his larger-form compositional efforts (heard on Labyrinth, available here). Trigonometry is a quirky small-group date with pianist Gary Versace, drummer Obed Calvaire and bassist Joe Martin, with trombonist Alan Ferber and trumpeter Scott Wendholt guesting on three of the disc’s ten tracks (all are originals save for a cover of Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann”). On the latter track, Manricks is supported only by bass and drums, moving from the loquacious theme to a soft burble and gooey cry, with odd flurried warmth to his collected tones. Some of Manricks’ lines seem like those of a classical saxophonist, but their movement is bop-informed, like a weird update to Lee Konitz’ Motion. It’s no surprise that Dolphy would be an important influence – not necessarily because both are altoists, but because Manricks is also interested in broader concepts of organization, and has employed lush orchestral arrangements to his compositions in some intriguing ways. That lushness comes through on the sextet piece “Nucleus,” which if it nods in the direction of Gil Evans, does so in simpler knots, perhaps a little more on the Graham Collier side of things. The leader’s curlicues occupy a wholly immediate world, while chordal backing keeps Manricks’ arrangements hovering in the air. “Mood Swing” is a particularly fine feature for Versace’s darting classicism as a partial framework for the altoist’s lateral sketches, implications of dark grandeur from the composer’s horn. With two fine discs under his belt, as both a composer and improviser Jacám Manricks is a player to watch, questioning the nature of his art while still holding fast to tradition.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ear Conditioning with Tenor Saxophonist Ted Brown

Perhaps there’s a simple reason why followers of creative improvisation are inspired by and have embraced the music of the school around pianist-composer Lennie Tristano. Tenorman Ted Brown, who began studying with Tristano in November 1948 and continued working with him throughout the 1950s, puts it this way: “Tristano taught me how to get as free as possible on a tune and its structure. We would practice a tune enough that it became second nature – it was a feeling more than something strict or clearly laid out.” Ted Brown is one of the lesser-known disciples of Tristano and his music, whose tone is equally allied with predecessors Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and whose approach to improvisation is given to flights of airy delicacy and fluidity while also putting forth significant, flinty weight.

Brown was born December 1, 1927 in Rochester, New York and had the good fortune of a musical family. His father was a banjoist and four-string guitarist in a traditional jazz band, and he taught Ted to read music at age six. “I got lessons from both my father and my grandfather, and I began to play the violin in sixth grade. There was a woman who I liked from the Eastman School of Music who came to our school to teach; I started practicing three or four hours a day on violin until the eighth grade.” Brown’s uncle played tenor sax and clarinet, and it wasn’t long before an interest in the woodwind family was instilled in him – while taking violin lessons, Brown also got lessons from his uncle on the clarinet. He and a cousin, a saxophonist, began rehearsing stock arrangements to play at the school dances – dance bands had impressed him, but the absence of a violin chair had nudged Brown in the direction of the reeds. Brown’s father, a professional pilot, was recruited by the Navy following Pearl Harbor, and was eventually stationed in California, necessitating a move to the West Coast in October 1942. “By the time I got to Redondo Beach High School in the fall, all the classes had filled up and I wasn’t sure what to take. I wasn’t planning on taking music classes, but band was one of the few things still open, so I joined the school band.” The band was led by a trumpeter who also had an after school rehearsal band as well as a gig at the local country club, which got Brown into playing out at a young age.

Christmas 1942 was good to the Brown family – his father bought him a tenor and a clarinet of his own, as well as a phonograph and recordings of clarinet and tenor solos (including Hawkins’ “Body and Soul”), which his father helped him transcribe. “I got a good feel for playing solos, and it helped to be able to memorize them from records.” Brown graduated in 1945 from Long Beach High School, where he’d transferred a year earlier, and had started playing in an impressive area rehearsal band. Later that year he began playing in a big band in Huntington Beach, which afforded him lots of tenor solo spots. “I got on a USO tour of the Army bases that fall; we went up and down the West Coast. In January 1946 I was in a road band that toured bases in Texas and the Southwest, but even though the war was over, I got drafted because they’d discharged so many soldiers. My father sent me a telegram that I’d gotten my notice while I was on the road and the guys in the band were giving me all sorts of advice to help me fail my physical – staying up all night, drinking tons of coffee, pretending to be mentally ill, but none of it worked and I passed. I was shipped off to Virginia for eight weeks of basic training, but since I listed my occupation as a musician, I was assigned to Army Band Training School. It was very boring – our training was like how to go up and down a C major scale. I got to know some other musicians, though, like the Chicago saxophonist Lloyd Shad, who really got me listening to Lester Young. Don Ferrara was also there, and Red Mitchell. I first heard Charlie Parker in the Army. Warne Marsh was in another company, but we were stationed on the same base and I knew him a little then, too.” After being transferred in 1946 to the Post Band at Camp Lee in Virginia, Brown’s duties included “keeping up the library, having hour-long rehearsals and we were free on the weekends – it was very easy, so there was a lot of time to transcribe records.”

It was also during his service that he visited New York City for the first time, and saw Lester Young, Allen Eager and Bud Powell at the clubs on 52nd Street. “Bud was playing a tune I’d transcribed, “Koko” (which is based on “Cherokee”) but he played it so fast – I’d never heard anything like it.” After being discharged, Brown went back to Southern California, sitting in on sessions in LA and San Pedro. It took a bit of work to be accepted into the Central Avenue scene around saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss – “they’d call these obscure bebop tunes, ones they thought I wouldn’t know. But I’d go out and buy the records so I’d make sure I knew them by the next week. It got to a point where they couldn’t call anything I didn’t know, so at that point they were cool with me.”

But New York was calling, so Brown moved there in September 1948 and immediately got a day job working a sales floor on 5th Avenue preparing for the holiday rush. Brown’s army buddy Bob Stacy, a clarinetist, was a student of Lennie Tristano and recommended he stop by a session; that November, Brown began studying with him. “I finally found someone to answer my questions about chord changes and progressions (because my father had only taught me melodies), and I also wanted to become more confident in my improvising. Lennie convinced me that I only needed some basic information, and helped me to understand chords and rhythmic figures. After my first lesson, he told me to write a tune to bring in to my next lesson, and to write a solo that I would like to play if I could. I had to memorize these pieces, and he liked what I wrote so I had to bring something new in each week for the next two years.”

There wasn’t really anywhere for Tristano and his students to play; they’d rented studios occasionally, but in 1951 Tristano found a loft on E. 32nd St., and brought in all his high end recording equipment from his home on Long Island. “At the beginning, sessions were on Wednesday and Saturday. I played with Lennie and the drummer Al Levitt on Wednesday nights while Warne and Lee played on Saturdays. When Lee went on the road with Stan Kenton in 1952, I substituted with him on Saturday. Lennie would have another pianist there – Ronnie Ball, whom I liked very much – and he would instruct from the control room.” This was the nexus of the Marsh-Brown band with Ball, drummer Jeff Morton and bassist Ben Tucker that eventually recorded three albums of music on the West Coast. From 1952 through 1955, Brown had a lesson once a week with Tristano and made the Saturday sessions, which usually lasted until 2AM. “One night, while they were playing cards, I grabbed a pair of brushes and started playing on a snare. Lennie liked what he heard and walked over and started playing the piano – he told me to keep it up. I had a little money in savings, so I bought a snare, bass drum and a ride cymbal and began playing along with records. One night while Lennie had his stand at the Confucius Restaurant, he asked me to sub for a couple of nights while the other drummer was away. I got through it, but we played at a slower tempo. Lennie had taught me to feel the pulse of a tune in my head, and I suppose I always had a good feeling for rhythm and drummers.”

The 32nd Street studio was condemned in 1956, forcing the end of the New York school. Marsh, Morton and Ball moved to Los Angeles to find work, and Brown, who had recently married, followed suit that year; he hadn’t seen his family since moving to New York and felt like it would be a good change. “Ronnie, Warne, and guitarist Don Overberg had a gig and Don left, so I came in and everything fell into place. We had some pretty good gigs at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and in Hollywood. Three weeks after I got there, Warne had a date for Imperial, which came out as Jazz of Two Cities. Dates for Kapp (one side of the compilation Modern Jazz Gallery) and Vanguard (Free Wheeling) followed, with the latter released under Brown’s name because of contractual issues. “Ronnie arranged the tunes initially for two horns plus rhythm; we brought Art Pepper in as well, and Ronnie re-arranged the charts for him. I doubt Art even looked at them – he came in and of course played wonderfully.”

Marsh’s manager was pushing him toward a group with Pepper, so Ted left the band and, tiring of LA, returned to New York in April 1957 to begin raising a family. “In 1961, my day job was with a company that went bankrupt right before Christmas – I had two kids and a wife, and I wasn’t sure if I could make rent. My wife was from Massachusetts so we moved to Lawrence, Mass. and I got a job in a textile mill, which I completely hated. I read an article that said musicians made good computer programmers because of their creativity, so in 1963 I started doing night school in Boston to learn computer programming. I wanted to leave the mill, of course, but my boss – once he learned that I was studying to be a programmer – convinced me to stay because they were going to institute computers in the mill. He put me in charge of the computer department.” Music wasn’t plentiful at this time, though Brown had a gig with a trio in Lawrence and also played a little bit with the bandleader Herb Pomeroy and drummer Alan Dawson. “I was trying to figure out how to get back to New York, so I accepted a job as a computer programmer at CBS, and then once that job got consolidated, I moved around to other programming gigs in the City. My old job at the mill wanted me to come back – they doubled my salary, so I took the job, but work took more time than I realized it would, and music was out. Besides, nobody was really playing the kind of stuff I was interested in.”

In 1972, a former student who was interested in learning some of Tristano’s lines asked Brown to sit in, which got him playing again. He returned to New York in 1976 after the mill laid him off; Brown began spending time with Lee Konitz and they gigged together in New York and New Jersey, which resulted in the Konitz-Brown quintet recording Figure and Spirit (Progressive), with Joe Chambers, Albert Dailey and Rufus Reid. After more schooling to learn new programming developments, Brown worked as a programmer for Polygram until 1982, and then as a database manager for a commodities trading company. Music was becoming, once again, a major factor – in 1987, he went to Holland with pianist Hod O’Brien, playing the BIMHuis with drummer Johnny Engels and bassist Jacques Schols, and he later worked gigs with Konitz and Dutch pianist Rein de Graaff. This European live presence, though still sporadic, resulted in recordings for Criss Cross Jazz and Steeplechase, including dates with Konitz, pianist Harold Danko and guitarist Steve LaMattina. The Japanese jazz public also turned out to be rabid Ted Brown fans, which resulted in a 2009 gig at Tokyo’s famous Pitt Inn and a resultant recording. As for his current group, bassist Joe Solomon, a student of Tristano, invited Brown to a session with pianist Michael Kanan, who was very much a disciple of Ronnie Ball. “He impressed me right away; I could sense where he was, and everybody was listening and interacting. Of course, Ronnie was one of the swingingest pianists around and since Michael sounds a lot like Ronnie, it’s a great fit. Improvising in this way, when it happens and everyone is aware, is what keeps me sane and healthy.” At 83 years old, we can only hope for many more opportunities like this from Brown and his mates.

This article appears in abbreviated form in the January issue of All About Jazz New York. Images courtesy the archives of Ted Brown. Visit Ted Brown's website.

Complete Discography:

Ronnie Ball All About Ronnie (Savoy, 1956)
Warne Marsh Jazz of Two Cities (Imperial, 1956)
Various Artists Modern Jazz Gallery (Kapp, 1956)
Ted Brown Free Wheeling (Vanguard, 1956)
Warne Marsh & Ted Brown Live in Hollywood (Marshmallow, 1957/2010)
Lee Konitz & Jimmy Giuffre Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre (Verve, 1959)
Lee Konitz Figure and Spirit (Progressive, 1976)
Ted Brown & Jimmy Raney In Good Company (Criss Cross, 1985)
Hod O'Brien I Hear a Rhapsody (Blue Jack, 1987)
Ted Brown Free Spirit (Criss Cross, 1987)
Lee Konitz Sound of Surprise (BMG, 1999)
Lee Konitz & Ted Brown Dig It (Steeplechase, 1999)
Ted Brown Preservation (Steeplechase, 2002)
Ted Brown Shades of Brown (Steeplechase, 2007)
Ted Brown Live at Pitt Inn, Tokyo (Marshmallow, 2009)
Ted Brown & Gene DiNovi Live in Yokohama (Marshmallow, 2009)
Ted Brown & Kirk Knuffke Poundcake (Steeplechase, 2012)
Ted Brown & Brad Linde Two of a Kind (Bleebop, 2012)

List of Recorded Compositions:

“Blimey” (1985, 2012)
“Dig-It” (1976, 1999, 2009, 2012)
“Featherbed” (1956, 1957, 1976, 1999, 2012)
“Jazz of Two Cities” (1956, 1987, 2009, 2012)
“Little Quail” (1956, 2002)
“Preservation” (2002, 2012)
“Smog Eyes” (1956, 1957, 1976, 1999, 2012)
"Slippin' and Slidin'" (2012)