Friday, April 20, 2012

Music Breifly Reviewed: April 2012

Walking on Marclay
The Rock on the Hill
Blue Door

French label Nato, started by Jean Rochard, has long been a bastion of unlikely or surprising but very successful meetings. That’s spilled over into a routinely excellent festival in the adopted second home of the Twin Cities, Minnesota Sur Seine, which has been going strong since 2004. The festival, much like Nato, brings together musicians (and styles) that may not have previously held common ground. One focus of Minnesota Sur Seine has been the collaboration between Twin Cities jazzmen and European masters, which started back in 2000 when French reedman Michel Portal recorded Minneapolis (Universal) with a multi-national group under Rochard’s direction. That initial entry has been parlayed into such collaborations as bassist Adam Linz (of free trio Fat Kid Wednesdays) working with pianist François Tusques, or prog-jazz group Happy Apple joining with baritone saxophonist François Corneloup for a Softs-like jam in 2005. Two recent Nato discs spotlight some very strong European-Minnesotan collaborations that, one can hope, have some longevity in their legs.

The Rock on the Hill is an outstanding meeting between English soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill (whose Instant Replay was an early high water mark in the label’s catalog), American expat bassist Barre Phillips, and Fat Kid Wednesdays drummer J.T. Bates on a program of seven improvisations. Waxed live in Paris in 2010, it’s somewhat hard to believe that Coxhill and Phillips hadn’t recorded together previously, considering a shared history in European free improvisation that goes back over four decades. In terms of perceived aesthetics – Coxhill’s whimsy and Phillips’ dusky erudition – I guess they might be cut from a different cloth, but they’re both quite patient and delicate in approach. Phillips’ massed arco chords and Bates’ dry, continual expansion and contraction on the opening “Rivers Bend” create a deep and varied environment for Coxhill’s pensive, sinewy tone, which is like an entreaty across the moors. Bates has grown as a percussionist in the years since I saw him regularly in the Twin Cities; still a very “active” player, his brushwork and sense of pacing bridge the gap between reservation and angularity on “Anything So Natural,” and jovially tumbles on “Scratch.”  “Tarentelle for Nelly” finds Bates and Phillips engaging in choppy and obsessive interplay as Coxhill brings an almost saccharine quizzicalness to the proceedings. As much as this session is a meeting between two veterans of free music, their jazz history should not be disregarded – Coxhill’s gentle swing is readily apparent throughout, as harmonic twitters are stretched out into an oddball soft-shoe. It may have taken a while for this beautifully unadorned session to take place, but we can be thankful that it did and was so finely captured.

J.T. isn’t the only Bates jazzman in Minnesota – his brother Chris is an excellent and visible bassist and together they make quite a rhythm section. In jazz, sibling rhythm partnerships such as Albert and Percy Heath or Cody and Charnett Moffett are well documented. More pertinent to Nato and the French creative music scene is the brotherly pairing of drummer Jean-Louis and bassist François Mechali, who were on call for a number of excellent French avant-garde recordings and concerts in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Blue Door finds the Bates brothers supporting Parisian pianist-composer (and frequent Sur Seine visitor) Tony Hymas on a program of twelve pieces, all but one composed by the pianist. Hymas is a rather florid player who finds that rare meeting point between classical pianism and the blues – he’s worked with Jeff Beck and Jack Bruce in addition to composing for the Ballet Rambert and performing the modern repertoire. “The Way Back Home” would fit on a modern blues date, featuring Hymas in a gin-coated vocal atop a thick and churchy instrumental push. With left-hand weight and parlor fluidity, Hymas has programmed jaunty dedications to his heroes with “Blues for Red Garland,” “The Kid from Whiteville” (Phineas Newborn) and “Superhero 2” (Errol Garner). “Whiteville” could have appeared on We Three, with Chris Bates’ arco introduction a fine nod to Paul Chambers on this spry and unpredictable post-bop excursion. Hymas’ phrasing doesn’t follow convention in any way, pointillist eddies and robust comping a paean to Newborn and Monk while also decidedly modern. Recontextualizing pieces written for Michel Portal and Sam Rivers, Hymas’ seamless command of a variety of keyboard approaches are given foreground readings. He’s not as post-modern in his stylistic grab bag as someone like Jaki Byard; rather, Hymas uses style in a way that one would create tonal shifts across equal surfaces. Romanticism, bop, soul and the avant-garde are lateral movements in Hymas’ language, and Blue Door is an excellent introduction to his art.

The Fall
(Creation Music)

I’ve said this elsewhere, but the idea of the improvising musician as storyteller is one that has seemed incomplete or, at the very least, tough to wrangle. Sure, the music comes from experience – it is experience – but it’s also abstract and a thing itself, at its heart non-representational and multi-dimensional without the same sort of imagist narrative that one expects from program music or even tone poems. Evocation is another matter – it’s entirely valid for a piece like Wadada Leo Smith’s “The Light on the Dalta” to generate the colors, sounds and smells of a rural Mississippi river, even as the music is imbued with something else. It is with evocation in mind that pianist and improvising composer Joel Futterman’s The Fall takes its place in contemporary piano music. Inspired by a serious fall that the pianist took at his home, the three movements on this disc – simply titled Part One, Part Two, and Recovery – are an outpouring of spontaneously realized emotion that puts into relief the full experience of injury, not in the sense of the music itself being “injurious,” rather in poetic experience.

A roiling, pointillist maelstrom at the outset, Futterman uses ricocheting single notes set against broad, sweeping strokes to build an environment that is inward, dark, hazy and volatile. To compare this work, even in its first few minutes, to any of the pianist’s other recent solo outings would be unfair, though Futterman’s vocabulary uses noticeable building blocks – skittering, overlapping right hand phrases and a massively resonant, earthy left with interdependent movement of the two. But even if one recognizes his language (and it is recognizable), what separates The Fall is that it relives the tangle of firing synapses that he literally experienced with driving, burbling energy and quilted, architectural detail. There are pauses to reflect on previous outpourings or new vistas, Futterman worrying the piano’s strings in flashes and spikes that are resoundingly physical, even if comparatively subdued. The second movement rolls gently at first with a few flourishes that almost look to post-bop, anthemic chords trying to peek out over a landscape of instability and fragmentation. Knuckling and swiping against more robust passages, Futterman’s canvas feels as though its ground is being rebuilt to support the flashes of wincing color that this nervy set puts forth. The final movement, though quickly making clear its undertow, is built around a lush, pastoral easing that Futterman nudges with scumbled play and tart refraction. There are recollections of earlier dark and wrenching passages but they’re quickly offset with bright clambers. He finds in pent-up blocks a sort of Monkish grace, and in crashing gestures a rhapsodic, gorgeous lyricism. The Fall is a process that asserts itself anew with successive listens and, more than a portrait of life-changing incident, a complex parallel experience with its own unique life, results and responsibility.

Mt. Tongariro
(Between the Lines)

Swiss saxophonist and composer Christoph Irniger’s Pilgrim is a quartet that operates between rugged, clambering and tensile improvisation and a palpably mainstream atmosphere across a suite of six original compositions loosely inspired by the New Zealand volcano Mt. Tongariro. The ensemble also features bassist Christian Weber, pianist Vera Kappeler and pianist Michi Schulz. Perhaps a new name to American audiences, Irniger has also worked with pianist Christoph Wiesendanger, drummer Nasheet Waits and others across the Zurich-NYC spectrum. He studied with Dave Liebman and Mark Turner, and brings crispness to the instrument that plays out as equally hard-edged and cottony. I don’t know if one can encounter the tenor without embodying the giants who’ve gone before; Irniger seems to have appropriated Wayne Shorter’s polyhedral chords and odd intervals, but in a way that’s quite personal. One also hears something lighter, perhaps gleaned from Lee Konitz or Steve Lacy. But it is as a bandleader that Irniger seems to shine the most.

The group begins tense and metallic on the opening “The New World” – piano strings plucked and scraped, cymbals grappling with drum heads, and Weber’s guttural col legno girding it all. Irniger emerges with pillowy harmonics, brushing up against Kappeler’s sparse, low-to-midrange curls. As a melody starts to take shape, the wistful murk of piano and tenor grow into a form that’s gleaned from mid-Sixties Miles, or perhaps Shorter’s The All-Seeing Eye (Blue Note, 1965), albeit with an appealingly poised ebb. The saxophonist harps on a winnowed phrase and the quartet expands it with a demonstrative rhythmic push, akin to the “melodic-free” music espoused by Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet or pianist Nobu Stowe’s work. That’s followed up with “Pathfinder,” round and a little bluesy, its jagged time supporting a melody that the foursome tug at, not so much to obliterate, but at least unfurling the edges a bit. Schulz’ drumming is out of the Tony Williams/Joe Chambers/Tony Oxley bag, rustling and brash while also particulate.

Minimalism is something that attracts Irniger – at least in the context of Pilgrim – and this grows as much out of what I perceive to be the group’s improvisational forefathers (Miles/Shorter/Jarrett) as Morton Feldman and lowercase improvised music. The opening of “Dead Man” is a case in point, where breath, bow, and piano create a sparse environmental interaction that leans toward Polwechsel as much as it does Grachan Moncur III, gradually pushing at the walls so as to become almost unruly. But even the volcanism which ends the tune remains tightly hemmed, which makes the proceedings all the more arresting. The title piece follows a similar line to the disc’s opener, stripped-down romanticism emerging from a disjointed stew that still carries a sense of rhythmic unease (Kappeler’s prepared piano adds subtle dissonance). It’s weird to think of music that toys so much with its own seams as being equally adept at flaunting accessibility, but Christoph Irniger and Pilgrim have done just that with Mt. Tongariro.

The Big Lift
(Porto Franco)

Bay Area trumpeter-composer Darren Johnston has been getting around in a variety of ensembles in recent years, from freebop with reedman Aram Shelton and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa to Balkan and chamber music. He’s got a nice, fat, incisive sound that sticks out in a collective improvisation, keen rhythmic sense and darting phraseology, all of which add up to a player to watch. San Francisco and Oakland do have a wealth of interesting musicians, but Johnston’s broad-mindedness have encouraged him to seek out other playing situations such as that captured on The Big Lift, which joins the trumpeter with a quartet of Chicagoans – trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly and bassist Nate McBride on a program of originals and rare covers of Ellington's “Black and Tan Fantasy” and Ornette’s “Love Call.” Bishop and Johnston pair well together – both are sort of “mouthy” players, with the trombonist’s combo of showy, blatting tailgate and measured precision offsetting the trumpeter’s controlled natter.

The brass duo that starts off “Glass Ceiling, Paper Floor” embodies a range of approaches that play out as linear and immediate – multiphonics, fluttering, brash New Orleans swagger, circular breath and particulate classicism. When the rhythm section enters with a Vandermark-like vamp (all too common in new Windy City jazz), the horns work through a head that’s reminiscent of Andrew Hill, navigating direction and interest. Adasiewicz is a not-so-secret weapon here, pelting and ricocheting as Rosaly gradually doubles and inverts the beat, burying rhythms with cloudy strokes. I don’t think I’ve heard too many renditions of “Love Call” outside the Coleman/Redman quartet, and Johnston and company put a curious spin on it, gnat-like circular breathing and slushy flicks buoyed by Adasiewicz’ heavenly, distant chordal plenum. “Two Ways of Running” has a nice gallop to it, with a theme reminiscent of hunting horns, before trombone and trumpet begin yanking at each other’s sleeves. Energetic and brief with a hint of Spanish/Moorish melody, it’s a strongly kinetic piece. Thick arco bass and suspended metallic clang mark “The Rock Quarry,” which has an elementally pretty duskiness, something that’s hinted at throughout the corners of this disc but which manages to be in full view here. In places, the Adasiewicz-Johnston combo tends to recall the golden years of Blue Note, but it’s probably only a passing reference. While it takes a few cuts for The Big Lift to separate itself from a number of equally respectable discs with similar personnel, this is a finely assembled band/program with enough personality to befit a working unit.

The Story This Time

I remember once calling Warne Marsh’s Ne Plus Ultra (Revelation/Hatology, 1969), a quartet with altoist Gary Foster, bassist Dave Parlato and drummer John Tirabasso, analogous to Marsh recording for ESP. A somewhat rough-hewn recording and open-ended vibe characterizes the date, so to me it seemed like a plausible if stretched characterization, though individuals close to Marsh and Revelation weren’t too keen on my thread. Anyway, though entirely crisp in execution/recording and significantly freer than Marsh’s work, bass clarinetist-composer Jason Stein’s The Story This Time might be a better candidate for such a comparison. He’s joined here on a program of originals and covers from Marsh, Konitz, Tristano and Monk by fellow Chicagoans tenorman Keefe Jackson, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. The foursome complement one another perfectly, Stein’s quixotic and leaky bass clarinet a fine+ foil for Jackson’s pillowy and muscular tenor. I’ve said this before, but despite the obvious Dolphy-formed lineage of the instrument, Stein’s playing is about as far as you can get from Dolphy. His phrasing is full of asides and rather than leaping wide intervals, he paints his latticework within a narrower, weirder range. Michel Pilz, Andre Jaume and Henry Warner are all apt comparisons (if they’re needed).

Marsh’s “Background Music” starts the proceedings with a hairy, unruly romp through the theme, Rosaly’s dry plastic cymbal work and occasional bombs keeping things chugging along loosely. Of course, as with the original, it’s in the soloing where things start to shift around, Stein dipping into a rabbit hole while Jackson’s ebullience plays out a bit behind the beat. “Laced Case” is grittily out of tempo as Abrams and Rosaly yo-yo against the horns in a gooey exploration of rhythm changes. Stein is devilish in his haranguing, pinched high warble and mouthful-of-marbles glossolalia supported by spare bass and drum accompaniment before things coalesce in a husky, fluid swing. Alternately, Jackson’s tenor is fueled by a powerful and hawkish rigor, yet reveals a wistful softness as he works through his ideas. “Little Big Horse” posits Stein as a composer of bright Konitz/Mulligan lines, even as his exposition on the theme is spiraling, taffylike and detailed. Jackson nudges at the leader before carving out his own area with staccato heel-digging that’s reminiscent of J.R. Monterose.

Konitz’ “Palo Alto” emphasizes the rapport between the hornmen by opening with a free duet cadenza, sputtering and diving into a breezy rendition of the theme. Stein and Jackson are knock one another around in collective commentary that’s alternately playful and bullish, as Abrams and Rosaly accompany with throaty ease. “Hatoolie” is one of the more avant-garde pieces on the date, bass and percussion working in fractured interplay and deft hum behind the hornmen’s pops, brays and sinewy flair. But at heart, the quartet is elegantly boppish, as rugged as things get – witness “Work,” on which Jackson employs the contrabass clarinet for a jovially weird low-end hunt-and-peck (indeed this piece, as “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Skippy,” are among the finest Monk renditions in recent memory). Both clarinetists employ bluster and delicacy in equal measure, and put forth a masterfully twined energy. In this case, looking forward is unequivocally about tradition.

Where Dreams Go To Die
(Molk/Prom Night)

Tres Hongos (three swine) is a free improvisation trio comprised of Chicagoans Frank Rosaly (drums) and Marc Riordan (piano), and Oakland-based trumpeter/sound artist Jacob Wick (ex-NYC/Chicago). This disc, comprising five pieces, is their first release and balances well the tension between group listening and players pushing back and challenging one another. Of the three, Wick is probably the least well-known; his disassembled solo trumpet performances, swarm, are enigmatic and frustrating but bear the fruit of an artist in self-dialogue who is not afraid to fail (I witnessed it in November 2010 in a cold outdoor space). He’s also worked in various ensembles with bassoonist Katherine Young, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, and others. Wick belongs to the “micro” school of trumpet playing and builds a language from crumpled fluffs, circular breathing, percussive wind and valve actions, whistles and guffaws. He’s a bit more fragile in his approach than fellow travelers Nate Wooley, Taylor Ho Bynum and Peter Evans, and less linear, but as an extended technician his reach is impressive.

On “God’s Girlfriend,” coiled inhalations and exhalations kiss and sweep alongside Riordan’s plaintive right-hand accents and whining patter from Rosaly’s hands, sticks, and surfaces. The trio takes an already somewhat fragmentary language and parses it further, piano and percussion emphasizing both space and seemingly disconnected, random gestures while Wick flutters, scrawls and crinkles in the path of a drunken moth. “Champagne Bayside” begins with fluent skitter, Wick both steely and limpid in runs that soon smear themselves in taut shrikes, spurred by Riordan’s jagged circularity and high-volume athleticism. The latter is somewhat reminiscent of European masters like Alexander von Schlippenbach and Irène Schweizer (or contemporary American pianist John Blum) in his quick, edgy constructions. Sure, he’s more pointillist than any of those three, but poised between robustness and hesitancy, his art is interesting. The piece is a series of soli, duos and trios, although each of these sections is arrived at spontaneously. Piano and trumpet play off of one another with crackling, muscular brilliance, while Wick and Riordan pair together especially well and scale brightly against Rosaly’s agitated breaks, needles and subterfuge.

Though there isn’t a clear thematic thrust for Tres Hongos to reference, they work within a very physical mode of improvisation that is literally sparse and retains a lot of energy. Their rapport seems to be based on achieving copacetic balance through regular undermining. Rosaly bashes or stops playing altogether against one of Riordan’s “prettier” phrases, while Wick might pick up a stately, clarion call only to let it fall flat. The closing “Franklin at Night” begins with gulps and scribble, Wick’s terse, insectile ululations a focal point amidst arching chords and heaving rattle. One might ask what separates Tres Hongos from a range of equally facile contemporary improvisation trios. The answer is that, rather than being polite, they go for punching one another in the arms just enough while retaining poise. That's not an easy task at all.