Sunday, October 26, 2014

Music Briefly Reviewed: From the Reviews Archive, 2013-2014

Flutist Bob Downes, whose music is reviewed below.
THOMAS BORGMANN/WILBER MORRIS/REGGIE NICHOLSON
Nasty & Sweet

German tenor and soprano saxophonist Thomas Borgmann favors trios with bass and percussion, following in the footsteps of such deep predecessors as Albert Ayler, John Surman, Charles Gayle and Peter Brötzmann (the latter two he’s worked with). Borgmann may favor the burnished, steely tone of his post-Ayler brethren, but he’s perhaps a bit less paint-peeling and more outwardly methodical in his improvisational approach. In the 1990s and early 2000s he co-led an extraordinary trio with itinerant American musicians Wilber Morris (bass) and Denis Charles (drums). After Charles’ passing in 1998, AACM-schooled drummer Reggie Nicholson became the triangle’s third axis. Recording for such labels as Konnex, Silkheart, CIMP and The Lotus Sound, the BMC and BMN trios were favorites of the European festival circuit and, had not Morris died in 2002, BMN would probably still be an active group. Borgmann continues to work in a fine trio called Boom Box with drummer Willi Kellers and bassist Akira Ando (their disc Jazz on Jazzwerkstatt should be sought out), but it’s always a pleasure to hear new music from the saxophonist's archives. 

Nasty & Sweet collects two previously-unreleased BMN performances from Tampere, Finland and St. Ingbert, Germany in 1999 and 1998, respectively, with one take of the title piece taking up both sides of the first volume in this two-LP set. Morris’ bass sounds fantastic, a detailed and rumbling presence, deft pizzicato shot through with a surly motor and often a focal point of the music (could it be otherwise?). Nicholson is equally forceful in his approach, blending Max Roach with an almost rockish obsessiveness on the soprano-fronted final movement (in which the group is reminiscent of the Suman/Phillips/Martin trio). The following piece, “We Went Thataway,” is a rousing boppish tune subjugated to Nicholson’s exhaustingly accurate ride cymbal work, and points to an adage that “being free” in this music allows everything, including being free to work within the tradition. “Wilbur’s Mood” is positively dervish-like, Borgmann’s sopranino skating over a rhythmic whorl towards a lilting, spiritual close (the title track may actually be the piece that lingers most on Morris' sound). While Borgmann has mentioned that the trios’ work was cut too short by the untimely deaths of Wilber Morris and Denis Charles – and that is true – the unity and empathy developed in this music lives on in the saxophonist's subsequent performances and recordings. Nasty & Sweet is one hell of a place to get acquainted with these musicians and if one is already a devotee, its essentialness should be patently obvious.

STEVE DALACHINSKY/JOELLE LEANDRE
The Bill Has Been Paid
(Dark Tree)

Poet Steve Dalachinsky may appear like the gadfly of the New York underground music scene, a wry and salty but kind-eyed figure who has read as part of countless free improvisation concerts since the 1970s, not to mention emceeing the Vision Festival and similar avant-garde jazz events. He’s published numerous chapbooks and his work was featured alongside the photographs of Jacques Bisceglia (1940-2013) in the large volume Reaching Into the Unknown (RogueArt, 2009). But perhaps one’s personal association with Dalachinsky and his significant participation in the community might allow the intensity of his art to pass by.

This set of readings alongside bassist Joëlle Léandre, recorded in a house concert at the RogueArt headquarters in Paris is, in a single word, brutal. There’s precedence for bass and voice poetic combinations – the late Jayne Cortez reading with Richard Davis on Celebrations and Solitudes (Strata East, 1974) was marked by stark and streetwise intensity – but Léandre’s voluminous, muscular arco split tones and dusty fiddling, matching up with Dalachinsky hoarsely beseeching “do lovers really love / the way they say they love?” is positively spine-tingling. The opening twenty-minute piece, “Vocalise (for Jeanne Lee)” is an early, violent high water mark, frightening in its immediacy. Such visceralness shouldn’t only be attributed to the bassist – who sounds phenomenal here – as Dalachinsky’s delivery is both harrowing and oddly banal, for he’s able to turn expressionism on its head with a quick turn of phrase. Léandre is given three solo bass improvisations of descending length, the first including passages of fascinating guttural vocals amid her dry, meaty pluck, but the focus is on the three recitations. If there’s any “fault” to be found with the presentation – and it’s not really a fault per se – it’s that there’s a bleakly monochromatic nature to the readings and improvising, with very little let-up in the duo’s somber toughness. Dalachinsky and Léandre are relentless, but so is the experience that they draw from.

BOB DOWNES' OPEN MUSIC
Mixed Bag
(Openian)

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Bob Downes (b. 1937, Plymouth, UK) is nothing if not a torchbearer for exuberance and creative life. For his 75th birthday, he assembled a disc’s worth of archival material, dating from 1971 through 2007. Downes’ varied discography includes orchestral progressive R&B improvisations, free music, percussion-heavy compositions for dance, and music for meditation. Aside from a pair of LPs released on Vertigo/Phillips at the start of his career, Downes has issued all of his music on his own Openian label. He also seems to have taped an incredible amount of performances, thus allowing us to fill in the gaps with a range of archival documents.

Mixed Bag may wryly imply unevenness and a few “clinkers,” but rest assured that’s not the case with this set. While often discussed in the realm of the British jazz avant-garde, Downes’ music has a brusque populist sense and his ear is turned towards folk and traditional music from Africa, the Caribbean and South and East Asia as well as having a virile take on the broad categories of R&B, funk and rock. “In Rio de Janeiro” is a gruff minimal anthem for three flutists on concert, bass and contrabass flute, anchored by Downes’ buzzing repetition and variations, the leader occasionally enunciating the tune’s title in a tough chant. “Jamaican Jump Up” is a gorgeous orchestral calypso for a sixty-five-piece concert ensemble, with Downes’ heel-digging tenor floating over the top, while “Lola” is airy funk bolstered by a curious trio of bassist Barry Guy, drummer John Stevens and guitarist Brian Godding, bubbling and bell-clear flute improvisations and declaratory wordless vocals skating in and around the rhythm section. The tinny, wild-haired scumble of guitarist Ray Russell is present on two tracks, one with an added horn section and Downes on amplified flute pads and feedback, supported by a knotty, Mike Westbrook-like horn riff. A hall full of handclaps is appropriate on “Shriek Out,” but Downes’ solo tenor can carry its island rhythm with ease. My copy of Mixed Bag also included an additional CD-R of solo music recorded in 2012 as a dedication to then-recently departed reedist Faruq Z. Bey. Totaling twelve minutes and primarily rendered on tenor, these pieces exhibit a velvety, aching reflection, while the final bass-flute “Cool Groove” is a concentrated requiem of split tones and lamented overblowing. Throughout these two discs, Downes revels in the life of making music, with its necessary bouts of loss given equal weight to the strength of communal plenty.

MARCO ENEIDI/GLENN SPEARMAN/LISLE ELLIS/DONALD ROBINSON
For Our Children
(Botticelli)

If 2012’s Live at the Outpost (with Joe Morris on bass and Luther Gray on drums) marked the reemergence of alto saxophonist Marco Eneidi on the recording landscape, his axe, fingers and breath not losing a step, the archival release of For Our Children may serve as a reminder why Eneidi’s work was planted firmly on the map in the first place. Recorded in 1995 with Bay Area cohorts tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman (1947-1998), bassist Lisle Ellis and drummer Donald Robinson, For Our Children features a composition from each member of the quartet as well as a collective piece, and is issued in an edition of 100 with cover art hand-painted by Eneidi’s granddaughter.

Two and a half years before Spearman’s untimely passing, the tenorman’s brusque lyricism in full force throughout and a bright, florid conversational cap on “Angelica’s Bounce,” laconic bop-derived lines gradually morphing into grotesque exhortations over the supple dances of pizzicato and percussion. Eneidi’s alto emerges at several minutes in, joining Spearman in a brief, heaving unison before spiraling outward into flywheel gobs of Bird-like motifs and warmly metallic brays. The bassist’s “Cyrus Paints the Town” begins with a detailed, albeit folksy series of arco declamations and songlike fragments, grinding into a bit of low-end distortion that offsets passages of microscopic concentration. At six minutes in, high-pitched tenor peals give way to floor-shaking pulses, Robinson’s mallets and Eneidi’s breath giving an extra bit of shade to the proceedings. The leader’s “Fantasy for Niccolo,” like three of the tunes here opening unaccompanied, with Eneidi’s horn embracing a cozy, delicate liquidity punctuated by muscular charges. While Eneidi has rightly been labeled a firebrand for his work with Spearman, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and like travelers, he’s a player whose bluesy curls and piquant energy are serve sparse contexts well, and the trio section of this ballad is gorgeous. Spearman knows well the worked-over soles of experience and feeling, and his husky conversation-scraps that follow are pure icing on the cake. While it may be something more of an art edition than a commercial disc (and a bit tough to find), For Our Children is a gorgeous example of things to come from those both here and now gone.

KALI Z. FASTEAU
Piano Rapture
(Flying Note)
     
In the February 1989 issue of EAR Magazine, on the subject of multi-instrumentalist Kali Fasteau, writer Charles S. Russell stated “why this woman hasn’t been hastily signed up by Hat Hut or Nonesuch… is completely beyond me... my money says she’s not long for the land of cheap indies.” Over a quarter-century later, Fasteau is still releasing music herself on the Flying Note imprint, which she’s run since 1986. At this point, even larger independents are struggling so it’s quite possible that Fasteau is better off releasing her own music and controlling the means of production. Piano Rapture is her latest disc and finds the vocalist, reedist, keyboardist and percussionist sticking strictly to piano, primarily in duets with fellow reedists Kidd Jordan and Mixashawn (née Lee Rozie), as well as solos and one trio piece with reedist J.D. Parran and percussionist Ron McBee.

Rhapsodic, gospelized chords supplant Mixashawn’s keening soprano, egging him on with dense glissandi and chunky, interdependent lines on “Body Wisdom,” featuring Fasteau on electric piano, although she encourages reverential qualities in a plugged-in instrument. Mixashawn is a fine player who isn’t spoken of enough; his heel-digging tenor fits right in with the post-Aylerian bag, to which he comes honestly with captivating ecstasy. Meanwhile, Jordan purrs and dives through jarring interstices on “Faun Listening,” emblematic of a partnership that draws out some of his most subtle playing. It’s telling that three of the compositions here reference departed masters; “Roy’s Wake,” utilizing processed voice, organ, electric piano and flute, is for trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., while the solo piano works “Hai Tchicai” and “Another Southpaw” are for reedist John Tchicai and pianist Borah Bergman, respectively. “Roy’s Wake” is colorful and strange, blending massive pipe organ sounds with globular vibraphone effects, flute, and ethereal vocal tones – a ghostly tone poem of celebration and revelation that is at turns exasperated and doleful. The closing “Taliswoman” for trio captures Parran and McBee in a low, warble, either meditative or sharp and coloring the stark, roiling lines of Fasteau’s piano, which recalls the Far Eastern church of Alice Coltrane’s late 1960s work. An excellent set of recent recordings, Piano Rapture is fiery, exuberant and captures Fasteau’s music in excellent relief.

MICHAEL GREGORY JACKSON/ART ENSEMBLE SYD
Liberty
(Embla)

New Haven guitarist and composer Michael Gregory Jackson has been a vital, if not often discussed, part of creative music for the better part of forty years. From his early work with reedist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to proto-Black Rock group Signal, to his recent work with Danish improvisers in both a “power trio” and larger ensemble formats, Jackson has a diverse and captivating discography that skirts free music, soul, and art-rock. The guitarist’s first new disc in a dozen years, Liberty features Jackson’s guitar, voice and compositions alongside Art Ensemble Syd, a group from Sønderborg, Denmark that features saxophonist-flutist Simon Spang-Hanssen, flutist Thorstein Quebec Hemmet, violinist Heine Steensen, bassist Niels Praestholm and drummer Matias Wolf Andreasen. AES are apparently the “Official Jazz Ensemble” of Sønderborg, leaving one to rhetorically wonder why there aren’t groups of talented young improvisers supported by most American cities.

The opening title piece is rendered in two parts, the first in a soaring, chunky theme that unfurls rather quickly into darting alto, violin and flute commentary as Jackson’s wiry, nasally forceful improvising takes hold, while throaty bass and percussion maintain a clomping forward motion. Long, meditative lines are spurred by taut flecks, seamlessly moving into the second part, which focuses on Jackson’s abrupt and unadorned six-string clamber. “Gimbals” begins with muted, wowing tones before splaying out into jagged trio improvising; Praestholm has been part of Jackson’s Clarity -<3 TRiO in recent years (with drummer Kresten Osgood), and this piece exhibits a similar shade before being augmented by staccato ensemble knots. The focus on tough economy is certainly not at the expense of lyricism, which certainly imbues Jackson’s music, but Liberty is structured around the tension between stately ensemble voicings and a no-frills particularity that keeps the music’s gestures from escaping their material roots. For fans of Jackson’s voice (I’ve long felt it’s what made his work doubly unique), it’s clear and youthful on the folksy ballad “Down,” a dryly-sweet reprieve following the pointillist improvisation of “Citi.” The ensemble revisits an early piece, “Clarity,” here titled “Clarity 4” and updating the original’s lilted movement through rhythm units with stereoscopic sparring and Andreasen’s jittery, pulsing waves, coming to rest on a sinewy string trio. Liberty is a strong and welcome update on Jackson’s activities, which have been discographically absent for too long.

ACHIM KAUFMANN/FRANK GRATKOWSKI/WILBERT DE JOODE
Geäder
(Gligg)

While far from the first drummer-less chamber ensemble in the history of jazz, reedist Jimmy Giuffre’s trios of the late 1950s and early 1960s certainly qualify as among the most revolutionary in the field. The Giuffre trio of 1961-1963 produced only three proper albums as well as a host of European tour recordings, and put more firmly on the map bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley. Blending a swaggering, Texas sense of the blues with pan-tonal improvisations that seemingly borrowed from the aleatory interests of postwar composers like Earle Brown and Bruno Maderna, Giuffre’s trio was perhaps a bit esoteric for American audiences at the time, who were still making sense of another Texan, altoist Ornette Coleman. It’s probably fair to say that like a lot of the jazz avant-garde during this period, Giuffre’s innovations were more impactful on European players (though his music has certainly been championed by younger players in recent decades).

Over four decades after the second Giuffre trio broke up, German pianist Achim Kaufmann and reedist Frank Gratkowski, alongside Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode, embrace similar instrumentation with an equally rugged, openly improvised vocabulary on Geäder. Active for over a decade with discs on Konnex, Nuscope and Leo, this is their fourth album together. Kaufmann’s involvement with the piano utilizes frequent preparations as well as employing the whole of the piano’s “guts,” beyond plucked strings to ghostly washes on an Aeolian harp, against the wisps and clatter of de Joode’s bass (aggressively rubbing the wooden body or using ultra-high-pitched harmonic wails) and Gratkowski’s dry, warbling mouthfuls. On bass clarinet, the reedist’s excitable rhythmic bounce logically extends Dolphy with a healthy dose of Michel Portal’s whimsy. That said, his use of subtones, mouthpiece whistles and muted, noise-like effects (especially on alto) places him alongside contemporary non-jazz explorers like Jack Wright or Paul Flaherty. But comparisons aside – and they are few – the trio’s locus is collective improvisation, and whether presenting indeterminate textures or feisty subterfuge, they remain in constant, unified motion.

MELODIC ART-TET
Melodic Art-Tet

As Lithuanian Label NoBusiness Records has gone through the loft jazz archives, it seems like they’ve been able to tick off quite a few appetite-whetting sessions mentioned in the texts of Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life or David G. Such’s Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing Out There. Unissued Centering dates from bassist-composer William Parker; rare dates from violinists Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang and bassist Earl Freeman; and the post-loft supergroup The Group (curiously not commercially recorded though they were rather well regarded in the mid-80s). The Group featured Bang, altoist Marion Brown, drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. One of Abdullah’s other semi-contemporaneous appearances is equally storied and similarly never made any record dates: the Melodic Art-Tet. Featuring Abdullah, tenor/soprano saxophonist Charles Brackeen, bassist Ronnie Boykins, drummer Roger Blank and conguero Tony Waters, they lasted from 1970 to 1974. Luckily one of their final dates was recorded at Columbia University radio station WKCR in October 1974 (with William Parker on bass) and preserved for posterity.

Brackeen wrote most of the ensemble’s book – short, incisive themes as flywheels for bright, darting horn improvisations and a thrumming rhythmic surge, sometimes offset by gentle Latinate lines. The Oklahoma-born Brackeen was an associate of Don Cherry’s in the late ‘60s and it’s therefore no surprise that the quintet intersperses terse themes and rangy improvisations in a somewhat Cherry-like fashion. Though the saxophonist occasionally off-mike, turning to and spurring on his mates, the recording is mostly crisp and hot, doing a service to the concise and gruff energy that the Melodic Art-Tet had. Abdullah and Brackeen are excellently matched, the trumpeter’s commanding brittleness a perfect foil for Brackeen’s woollier incision. They would go on to share front line duties on the excellent album Liquid Magic (Silkheart, 1987, with bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Alvin Fielder), though Brackeen has since disappeared from the music scene. While this music went mostly unheard for decades, we can be thankful that it has been so lovingly presented at a time when masters of an earlier generation are receiving few dues and the creative music environment seems at risk of losing its bleeding edge.

TATSUYA NAKATANI
Present Presence
(Kobo)
TATSUYA NAKATANI & SHANE PERLOWIN
Anatomy of a Moment
(New Atlantis)

Like improvisers as diverse as bassist Peter Kowald and pianist Thollem (McDonas/Electric), percussionist and bow-maker Tatsuya Nakatani is a serious practitioner of touring, to the degree that it is a crucial compontent of his art. Living in a van and cooking for himself on frequent solo jaunts across North America, Nakatani lives the life of an ascetic, though his tours involve a healthy dose of community, improvising with dancers, musicians and non-musicians (for the latter, the Nakatani Gong Orchestra invites artists and the curious to participate in drone exercises).

Present Presence is a solo disc, on which Nakatani employs his array of large and small gongs, broken cymbals, bows, drum set and voice on thirteen short improvisations. They range from deftly rickety athletic pulses to shimmering bowed gong resonance, the latter eking out feedback-like drones, quavering subtones and glassy upper partials in a complex metallic display. “Coastal Arc” is a lightly phased piece for overdubbed hand drums, varying in density and inflection in a condensed nod toward Central African drum choirs and exhibiting a percussion format I haven’t seen in Nakatani’s live performances. And it’s fair to mention again Nakatani as a performer – his music is built on the theatricality of a “show” with dramatic openings, closings and an internal arc, as well as techniques that are incredible to witness in the flesh. But Present Presence does stand in very well for Nakatani’s live work – it’s beautifully recorded and even without the visualness of his actions, has a tactility all its own, not to mention including layered compositions that couldn’t be easily realized in a typical gallery gig.

As a traveling percussionist (though he has a home base in Pennsylvania), Nakatani engages a wide array of sparring partners. These have included trumpeter Forbes Graham, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Assif Tsahar, guitarist Omar Tamez and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Anatomy of a Moment features nine duets with guitarist Shane Perlowin (who now goes by the moniker Shane Parish), whose work has ranged from scruffy prog (Aleuchatistas) to nylon-string Haitian classical music and free improvisation. Perlowin’s vocabulary here employs a folksy minimalism drawing from island music and is exuberantly rhythmic; bolstered by Nakatani’s reverberant bowed tones, the two create a hauntingly affecting urgency on the opening “Long Walk into Light.” Nakatani creates an environment of detailed agitation and gutsy, broad swells to counter Perlowin’s Euro-Caribbean raga forms; switching to an electric instrument on “Last Night Now,” the feel is of languid desert rock, albeit with aggressive suspended-time fireworks. At the highest points, this disc quells the wonder at what Robbie Basho and Masahiko Togashi might sound like together, and throughout the pair create a deep, hard-bitten language of free-folk improvisation, the likes of which is rarely heard.

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