Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Music Briefly Reviewed: Fall 2015, Part One

Cover image from Steve Lacy's Eronel LP (Horo, 1979)
Shot by Isio Saba
Mollies in the Mood

Red Cloud on Silver

As of this writing, reedist Peter Brötzmann has almost wrapped up his forty-eighth year of recording – a feat by no means insignificant, given that a fair number of artists haven’t survived on this planet as long as this statesman of German free music has been making records. Brötzmann tends to split the difference between maintaining working units (as much as he’s able in today’s fractured landscape) and building up new partnerships, and while he’s held together small orchestras and mid-sized groups for surprisingly long stretches, it is perhaps the duo in which one can hear him work his craft in the most naked way possible.

Brötzmann founded BRÖ in 1967 to release his first record, The Peter Brötzmann Trio (later reissued as For Adolphe Sax by FMP), in a small edition as no German record company was interested in issuing his music. He followed up the trio LP with the watershed octet date Machine Gun in 1968 before co-founding FMP in 1970. In 2003, with the assistance of Eremite Records founder Michael Ehlers, BRÖ was relaunched as a platform to issue limited-edition new recordings of Brötzmann’s music, exclusively focusing on duets with percussionists. Like the original BRÖ LPs, each edition also features a silkscreened jacket, albeit now pulled by Alan Sherry. Mollie’s in the Mood, the third in the LP series (there is also a run of six handsome CDs, none of which duplicate the music on vinyl) joins the reedist with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, a striking young member of Chicago’s improvising scene, for three improvisations. Adasiewicz started out as a drummer and brings a naturally percussive, rather than purely melodic or pianistic approach, to the instrument. Though his attacks are often chordal, they are jaggedly driving and provide oblique tonal bedrock for Brötzmann’s garish, bluesy flights. The LP’s midpoint, “’Round the Sun” finds Adasiewicz using long, bowed and reverberant tones and tessellations of micro-patter in contrast to thick tenor coruscations, and there’s ample space throughout for Brötzmann to slowly dig in and play around with age-old themes.

Brötzmann and Swedish drummer Peter Uuskyla, a veteran of saxophonist Bengt Nordstrom’s groups, first recorded together in 2001 with bassist Peter Friis Nielsen, and have since met numerous times in trio and duo settings. The latest is this 2LP set on the young Swedish label Omlott, which has also released Uuskyla’s solo music as well as reissuing part of their previous duo disc, Born Broke, as a single LP titled Dead and Useless. Uuskyla is an incredibly limber drummer, economical and swinging in constant funky inversions that ratchet the saxophonist towards a jittery stratosphere. That’s not to say that Uuskyla can’t embrace the calm, metallic ache that pervades Brötzmann’s music, matching bitter pathos with brushy piles and accented silence. On the second movement of the title piece, unaccompanied tenor – the theme for Fred Hopkins that Brötzmann often references – appears midway through, before Uuskyla answers with darting rollicks. It’s a plaintive respite amid sheer, rolling, grooving sound. Brötzmann’s largesse is given a thick, expertly carved pathway here, and though he’s found numerous long-term drummer partners over the decades, each bringing something different to the whole, this particular pairing is one that I find extremely rewarding.

Seizures Palace

When I saw Cactus Truck on their first US tour at a stop in the now-departed Brooklyn venue Zebulon, their set was brief – about fifteen or twenty minutes – and full of high-octane shred. Their debut record was about the same length and by the time one got a chance to appreciate their meld of post-Ayler preachy skronk and loose-string, gritty punk, the salvo was over. The trio features Amsterdam-based American saxophonist John Dikeman, drummer Onno Govaert and guitarist-bassist Jasper Stadhouders (Made to Break), and seemed to have learned much from the less-is-more school of putting together a punk record. But their latest, Seizures Palace (captured live at the Brooklyn venue of the same name) throws out hardcore brevity in favor of a more typical forty-five minute disc, divided into nine sections. In a way that’s perfectly reasonable – improvisations should be able to hold for a length of time, and all three musicians can maintain lines, interplay, and interest – and a longer disc allows them to stretch out into tension-holding vignettes of fuzzed strumming (Stadhouders on “Fetzer”) and unholy saxophone gales fed by Govaert’s twirling caterwaul. That said, a part of me still wished for doling out the goods in bite-sized chunks – say, a seven-inch EP with the shimmying rage of “Fourth Wind” backed by the elegiac cries of “One for Roy.” But that’s not the band’s problem, and going by the example of Seizures Palace, they remain firmly ensconced as one of the tougher power trios active in current free music.


A graduate of Bennington College and student of Bill Dixon and Milford Graves who has worked with trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr., bassist Wilber Morris and trombonist Bill Lowe, drummer Ehran Elisha’s most recent collective offering joins him with his pianist father Haim, bassist Ken Filiano, and regular partners saxophonist David Bindman and violinist Sam Bardfeld on a program of eight compositions. The suite “Continue” is a full-band work, while “Kiryat Moshe” and “Subway Sundays” are piano-drum duets, “Revadim” is a piano solo, and the disc closer “Boui’s Elegy” is a percussion solo. While undeniably “free music,” the title of Continue is apt, for these five musicians work within a parallel tradition. If modern jazz drumming is derived from various combinations of Max, Roy, Blakey and Kenny Clarke, free jazz percussion might be said to come from Graves, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Ed Blackwell. In this fashion Elisha shows himself to be a student of Graves and Blackwell, with a bit of Cyrille’s lush economy added on for good measure.

The title suite fills approximately 45 minutes over four parts, hinging on constantly inventive, robust percussion belted to supple, rhapsodic piano dissonance and Filiano’s tough, keening arco and unflappable time. Haim Elisha approaches the keyboard with delicate, insistent poise; like Matthew Shipp, his harmonies are transportative and complex, full of bricked masses that evince a concentrated ripple outward, while Ehran adds on shimmering waves in a field of interleaved tempi. Bardfeld and Bindman paint in bitter, toothy swirls and dovetail in grainy, stretched commentary, though the ensemble’s focus is primarily on the rhythm section’s lyric push-pull. Ehran’s percussion is a consistent multidirectional rumble, heard to advantage in a lengthy solo on the third movement of “Continue” and “Boui’s Elegy,” which shifts from conversational song craft and taut refrains to dry tonal explorations and choral studies across a six-minute span. Harmonically and rhythmically powerful, Continue offers a fascinating and beautifully crafted slice of modern improvised music – yet one that isn’t without roots in song.

Drums and Horns, Horns and Drums

Lawnmower II
(Clean Feed)

Perhaps less visible in New York than he could be, Boston drummer Luther Gray has been a stalwart figure on that city’s improvisation scene since the outset of the Millennium, working regularly with guitarist/bassist Joe Morris, pianist Steve Lantner, saxophonists Jim Hobbs and Allan Chase and others. Initially heard as a rock drummer in the catchy din of Jenny Toomey’s DC-based Tsunami, Gray’s study of jazz and African musics has made him a rhythmic powerhouse of subtle complexity, almost Blackwellian in his level of unassuming invention.

Drums and Horns, Horns and Drums places Gray in a trio with Chase and Hobbs on a program of seven tunes – including Toomey’s “Fall On Me” and an opening cover of Bad Brains’ “We Will Not” that in its madcap bray approaches some of The Thing’s punk covers. On the title track, Chase’s soprano is a bent whirl atop Gray’s locked fluidity, ululating chants and declamations that contrast beautifully with Hobbs’ low-key, dryly popping alto, leading into a stripped-down and slinky chorus from the leader. “Sequential Failure” finds the trio in measured breaths, Gray sticking mostly to glockenspiel and brushes and lending the proceedings a sparse, coiled energy reminiscent of the Creative Construction Company. Gray, Chase and Hobbs are resourceful musicians – in the words of Joe Morris, Chase can “play anything” and that certainly applies to all three artists on this disc, who move through a range of textures, emotions and ideas within a fairly narrow instrumental palette.

Lawnmower’s first incarnation was with the guitars of Geoff Farina (Karate) and Dan Littleton (Ida) in addition to Gray and Hobbs. Here the quartet is adjusted to include bassist Winston Braman and violinist Kaethe Hostetter on a program of collectively composed originals. Both violin and bass are amplified – the violin is a five-stringer – and each musician lends both discursiveness and a soaring, warm cast to the ensemble, Hostetter bent and a half-step below the normal violin range to meet Hobbs’ dry curl, and Braman’s concentrated parallel plod and syrupy noodle an interesting foil for Gray’s steady, loose roll and delicate timekeeping. Among these parallels there is a nod to folk music – it’s hard not to think of Appalachian string music in some of Hostetter’s phrasing – and, with pedals and reverb applied, a bare-bones pyschedelic drift on “Space Goat.” An ensemble that can meet with open curiosity in a variety of forms, from harrier-themed density to a hymnal lull, Lawnmower practices a rare genre-free empathy among modern improvised ensembles.

The Tone of Wonder
(Uncool Edition)

By now, the departure and return of Henry Grimes is in itself the stuff of legend, to say nothing of his status as one of the most consistently powerful bassists of the 1960s. He got his start in the 1950s and made a number of fine appearances with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, (Rahsaan) Roland Kirk, and Tony Scott before diving headlong into free music where his impeccable time often kept otherwise loose playing situations in motion. All of his current activities are within the latter realm, far from the nascent inside-outside approach that he once occupied and well apart from the structuralist aims of many contemporary improvisers. One might call Grimes an ‘outsider’ in today’s climate, and the two solo bass and violin improvisations that make up The Tone of Wonder certainly encourage such a notion.

“Cyclic Passions” is the forty-minute opener and is worth the price of admission alone; as a solo (and as a soloist), this music doesn’t operate as others of its ilk – it’s not a solo symphony (think Journal Violone), nor is it a run through of various approaches to string instrumentalism and their attendant devices or tricks. Grimes plays and plays, motoring in constant, unflappable expression, whether utilizing a gritty arco – one can almost feel the grains of dried rosin against the strings – or a spry, pizzicato rumble, occasionally switching to sawing and scrabbling on the violin. That unflappability is something that always marked his playing, a dry relentlessness that, in or outside of time, was probably one reason he was called on to make so many sessions in the halcyon days of New York avant-garde music. It can be difficult to sustain long solo flights without a predetermined direction and both pieces on The Tone of Wonder do fill the plate to capacity, but there’s a poetic beauty in the colorful, isolated concentration of hearing Grimes churn away, lost in music and creating a singular string environment.

Themes for Transmutation

Drummer Bobby Kapp seemed to disappear after the close of the ‘60s; during that decade he worked extensively with saxophonists Marion Brown, Noah Howard and Gato Barbieri. His traipses across the world of improvised music took him to Mexico and into nightclub singing and gigs with Dexter Gordon, before returning to the world of free music in 1999 on a program of duets with Howard (Between Two Eternities, Cadence Jazz Records) that seemed to pick up right where they left off thirty years earlier. While leading the Fine Wine Trio (with bassist Gene Perla and pianist Richard Wyands) and reuniting with other denizens of the 1960s vanguard, Kapp’s ability to lead a band of free players on a recording has been absent from discographies, but that has been given a welcome change by this document of four improvisations joining him with pianist Matthew Shipp, reedist Ras Moshe and bassist Tyler Mitchell.

Kapp doesn’t necessarily approach the date as the sole focal point – indeed, throughout his recorded legacy, his tasteful and inventive drumming has been a carpet for others to ride, and this is certainly true here, using mallets and brushes to spread out time alongside bowed bass and refractive piano shapes alongside Moshe’s buzzing birdsong on “Romance into Love.” Moshe is a player who has internalized a ton of music as a listener and historian, yet engages his axes (tenor, soprano and flute) beholden not to any one school – fleet and caressing at one moment, violent and hackle-raising at the next, but building and stoking his lines with continuity and intelligence. The album’s third piece, “Mystery into Awe,” is a prime example. Shipp, while certainly well known as a leader-composer in his own right, plays to the egalitarian nature of this disc and his motion acts to support and feed the quartet. As a drummer, Kapp should be reinvestigated in terms of his contribution to the history of the music, and hopefully that will start with perhaps the first of numerous contemporary and future appearances as a cooperative bandleader. 

School Days

As I remember it, one of the first revelatory experiences I had in listening to jazz was the understanding that a lot of music really happens between the notes. Certainly that’s nothing Artur Schnabel hadn’t already encountered, but as a late teenager this concept was new to me. I recall having a conversation with a friend where the music of Monk, Braxton (Creative Construction Company-era), and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964 – specifically “Hat and Beard,” dedicated to and inspired by Monk) presented itself as exemplars of the dynamic between sound and space. Such a revelation seems now to be rather quaint, especially as the musician-composers in question have so much more to their art than this dialectical tension. Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg mentioned to me a few years ago “Monk was the architect, yes, but Herbie Nichols was… a painter!” Nichols, a Mengelberg favorite, was bebop’s storyteller, an evocative imagist, garish and playful, whereas Monk designed frames into which musicians could fill in (or not) an environment of their own design. Monk’s tunes are difficult, and even when played “correctly” most interpretations sound far from “right.” One has to live with a tune for quite some time, even if (and perhaps especially if) it’s out of another composer’s book.

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy knew Monk’s music extraordinarily well; he also knew Nichols’ music, Bud Powell’s, Ellington’s, Cecil Taylor’s, and later, Mengelberg’s. Originally a player of traditional jazz, an encounter with Taylor led him in a route that skirted bop and went straight into the jazz vanguard of the late ‘50s, playing in Village coffee houses and lofts alongside people like tenor horn player Tom Stewart, saxophonist Tina Brooks, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, pianist Mal Waldron, and in Taylor’s groups. Lacy’s first LPs as a leader were waxed for the New Jazz imprint in 1958, with either Waldron or Wynton Kelly on piano, before convening piano-less groups with trumpeter Don Cherry and baritone saxophonist Charles Davis. Lacy was active but relatively underground within an already underground, albeit teeming creative music scene – working in sideman gigs that went buried for decades, or slightly less obscure appearances with Gil Evans, the Jazz Composers’ Guild Orchestra, and a short but vital term opposite Charlie Rouse in Monk’s band. 

If one was trying to pen a Lacy discography towards the end of the ‘60s, it seemed like a pretty wild leap from “qualified” bebop sessions to the free music that he released after relocating to Europe in 1966. Even then, he was far from our idea of a blisteringly avant-garde player. In hindsight, the cognoscenti knew that Lacy had a band that used the repertoire of several pianists – mostly Monk, but also Taylor, Nichols and Ellington – as grounds for exploration. Famously, when later asked about such projects, Lacy’s response was that Monk “helped [him] find a way to get to the other side,” where lived his own unique compositions and a logical path towards freedom. He and his cohorts found their own ins and outs of the "high priest of bebop's" compositions, but with a level of interdependent action that seemed parallel to bop.

Lacy's quartet featured trombonist Roswell Rudd, a musician who had also made the leap from traditional jazz to free music, and a variety of rhythm sections, the most celebrated of which included bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Denis Charles. They cut demos that were shopped around to Columbia and other labels, but nobody bit. It wasn’t until 1975 that a live recording from the Phase Two coffee shop in 1963 was released on LP by Emanem; by then Lacy was celebrated rather than criminally obscure, but his cohorts had at the time either retired from music or were less visible. The program consists of seven Monk tunes played with unbridled openness – they’re not really “free jazz” but the music is incredibly free, reveling in the possibilities of each tune and taking risks, landing with both feet on the ground while tearing through a knot-maker like “Brilliant Corners.” This CD reissue also adds two live cuts that Lacy recorded with Monk in 1960 – bassist John Ore, drummer Roy Haynes, and Rouse fleshing out the ensemble. This is the first issue of School Days to present the music in proper order, with the first two tracks absent a late-running Grimes.

“Bye-Ya” finds soprano and trombone in garrulous dialogue atop Charles’ dry, shimmying West Indian rhythmic counterpoint, and there’s an absence of fat in this bass-less take that opens the disc, Rudd’s slush acting as a slippery harmonic anchor for Lacy’s winnowing excavations as they wheel and tumble in rhythmic dances. Despite the attention given to Charles’ squeaky hi-hat, his pot-stirring crispness and skating tom attack are reminiscent of Blakey in an Afro-Caribbean mode, and the fours traded between horns and drums are straight out of Herbie Nichols. Naturally adding in Grimes’ robust harmonic resources would change things up significantly, and as he enters on “Monk’s Dream,” the rhythm section sounds warm, thick and spry, Charles’ shuffling bounce thwacking off Grimes’ scumbled motion. One could write entire poems about the short, trilling phrases that Lacy builds off of the tune, in folksy investigations and pirouettes that, birdlike, use the melody and harmony as a feeder.

“Brilliant Corners” is tremendous, both hornmen sliding and growling on the theme at a tough clip, and Rudd’s subsequent choruses are astounding, brightly burred athletic flicks and passages of knotty, blue tailgate and brushy swing. In 1963 figures like Curtis Fuller and Grachan Moncur III might’ve received more ink, but the expressionistic and elegant Rudd was clearly one of the most intriguing trombone soloists of his generation. Lacy’s subsequent upper-register flights and jubilant, quacking curls are pearlescent refractions held high yet maintaining forward motion. Grimes’ pizzicato is in full flower as he recapitulates Lacy’s phrases with a robust, woody motor – something not always recognizable in his free playing. “Monk’s Mood” is wistful and golden, trombone and soprano imbued with a glinting processional quality, Rudd eking out fluttery cries and furrowed jabs as he arcs across changes, nudging Lacy with shapely accents. The set closes with a tear through “Skippy,” introduced as a duo for soprano and drums, quickly adding bass and trombone as the quartet volleys through the tune’s chromatic descent, vocal elisions biting as Rudd catches some earthy funk aside Lacy’s painterly corkscrews.

The inclusion of “Evidence” and “Straight No Chaser” by the short-lived Monk quintet is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the music appears a bit choppier than it does in the hands of Lacy and Rudd and the rhythms play out almost didactically. Monk’s keyboard approach is vertical, spiky and tough, an entire orchestra that Lacy’s fingers, breath and brain respond to with austere elegance, perhaps not as assured as Rouse’s plentiful, vigorous conjurings, but by the time “Straight No Chaser” rolls around, he opens up, bouncing off the tune with a charge that nearly upends the rhythm section. While not as barnstorming as Rouse, Lacy is already gaining command of his own language vis-à-vis Monk. It’s an interesting contrast and also obvious that the saxophonist is being put through his paces, something that makes this Carnegie Hall performance quite special.

There’s a lot to say about the comparison between this group and the quartet with Rudd, chiefly in terms of how the later unit had so clearly taken Monk as a linguistic vantage point and run with it. While Monk’s tunes were the initial framework, the music that Lacy, Rudd, Charles and Grimes put into that frame was uniquely their own – Monkish, but a new music. The line between School Days and the mid-60s ensembles that Lacy fronted with trumpeter Enrico Rava, for example, is not that difficult to draw, though the latter are more aggressively open. More importantly, perhaps, is the idea that the line between bebop and free music is also logical and present. As Lacy wrote in the sleeve notes to The Gap (America-Musidisc, 1972) of the intense flurry that is “La Motte-Picquet,” “[it] is a station on the Paris metro, composed a year ago and dedicated to the memory of Sonny Clark, who liked this kind of tune.”

Sens Radiants
(Dark Tree)

The French trio of baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro, bassist Benjamin Duboc and percussionist Didier Lasserre create a hell of a lot of racket for three musicians whose palette is quite slim, and are able to create an environment of unresolved tension across the single hour-long title piece, recorded live. This trio has appeared once on disc before, also on the Dark Tree label (2011’s Pourtant Les Cimes Des Arbres), although Sens Radients is particularly remarkable in terms of how the trio applies its tiered intensity. Lassierre is a drummer of minimal means and uses a single snare drum and an array of cymbals for his landscape of scrapes and wet shimmer, applied in jittering, narrow waves that serve to agitate the bellows and whines of baritone saxophone and contrabass. Smacking and scrubbing his lone drum, augmented by reedy pops and subtonal, motoring growl, Lassierre solidifies the relationship between action and tempo, a declaration that is picked up and expanded upon by the trio’s other members in quick succession. If one takes apart the group improvisation and examines each unaccompanied passage, one will find that the sparse, isolated phraseology that each musician utilizes is something that expands outward, carried in conversation towards a greater whole – skeletal logics that give the music maximum heft, reaching toward a controlled martial scream amid roomy triangulation. I can’t say I’ve heard anything like this group before, and that’s saying something.

Root of Things
(Relative Pitch)

To Duke 

I’ve Been to Many Places

At Oto

While a continually active force in creative music since emerging from studies with Dennis Sandole and Ran Blake in the late 1980s, the last few years have seen pianist Matthew Shipp seemingly in a different place with his art. He’s been a leader or co-leader of small groups since 1988, but a decade and a half working alongside saxophonist David S. Ware (1949-2012) put him more firmly on the map. With the disbanding of that quartet, perhaps something was unlocked with respect to the pianist’s music. The resolve and steady conviction that appears in his current work truly places it in another area of refinement that, perhaps, only appears with age and experience.

The principal working unit for Shipp’s music is the trio – an equilateral setting that has long been the bedrock for pianists as diverse in approach as Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor. Shipp’s recent contributions to the format feature drummer Whit Dickey and bassist Michael Bisio; Root of Things is this group’s third disc and first for Relative Pitch. Whereas previous discs have included separate soli for each member of the trio, Root of Things builds introductory statements by Bisio, Dickey and Shipp into the final three compositions – the bassist’s deft, meaty arco and supple, pizzicato chunks a six-minute entrée into “Path,” the leader weaving through choppy molehills as Dickey’s cymbal pulse outlines the ensemble. Dickey’s dry, shuffling swing introduces “Pulse Code,” setting up a theme-and-variations/elaborations master class before bass and piano chase one another through sectional spaces. “Solid Circuit” closes with the gradual evocation of a theme, coming into view through fragmentary references and harmonic inversions that signal a cellular anthem. With the rhythm section eventually locked into a rolled-off drive, Shipp nags at a kaleidoscopic center, surrounding with emphatic shards and lyric tracers. And for those who counter that “free music” can’t/won’t swing, the tension between broken rhythms and fixed-time segments on “Jazz It” offers more than enough sinewy grooves, albeit running them through a prismatic minefield. Shipp has been rather vocal in his criticism of certain pop-jazz and genre-blending pianists, but the takeaway from this record is that improvised music offers enough aesthetic information to provide the “avant-garde” and the “populists” with whatever tools they need.

To Duke on the other hand presents snatches of Ellingtonia interspersed with pieces of Shipp’s own devising, a program of eleven tunes performed by the Bisio-Dickey trio in a cohesive hour-long set. A magnanimous figure whose work is at the very fabric of much postwar jazz yet who, like Monk, Bird, Coltrane and Powell, is more often referenced or interpreted than understood, Ellington has long been a central locus of Shipp’s vocabulary, the Strayhorn chestnut “Take the A Train” being a particularly frequent visitor to the pianist’s sets. Here, and following a Mingus-riffed bass solo on “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” Shipp wryly returns in crystalline fragments to the “A Train” core, then spiraling out into clattering stomps abetted by Dickey’s allover cymbal filaments and Bisio’s woody tug, and while Shipp has very little Cecil Taylor in his playing normally, Taylor-ian romance is in full bloom alongside the drummer’s Sunny Murray-like dry, swinging impulsions. As open and multivalent as Shipp’s own music is, it’s easy to dive headlong into the complexity of his spiritual and physical path, forgetting how much the song plays into this work, gooey and broken apart in “Mood Indigo” but still undeniably present. Even in “Dickey Duke” (predominately a drum investigation) and “Tone Poem for Duke,” there is a healthy dose of lyricism and familiar gems of harmonic progression amid piano-string tweaks and rhythmic shuffle. An unaccompanied “Prelude to a Kiss” is gorgeous, at first glance played with reverent exactitude, until one notices the ringing forms leaved through the composer’s full, halting rejoinders, occasionally rendered with strident, Monkish stomps. “Satin Doll” is given a kaleidoscopic push-pull of saccharine and steely while Shipp’s own “Sparks” is a rough-and-tumble contemporary analog to some of the tensions heard on Money Jungle (1962). Given to orchestral mass and sinewy microcosms, as a vehicle for Ellington, Strayhorn, Bigard and Shipp this trio is an incomparable unit.

I’ve Been To Many Places is the latest solo disc on Thirsty Ear, following 2012’s Piano Sutras, and offers a program of seventeen short renditions of originals and standards, all of which draw from previous Shipp recordings and groups. It’s not really a career summation since each interpretation is new, but there is a sense that he’s revisiting themes that deserve attention and expansion. “Summertime” is granted a ringing architecture, resonant clusters and pointillist variations on the tune’s familiar gospel-influenced center both reverential and expansive, with the last minute sculpted into quivering masses (for a real surprise, check the version of the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where is the Love”). “Brain Stem Grammar” is a flinty jaunt through Monkish near-ragtime which, splintered into voluminous chords and scumbled recapitulations, nevertheless is at the core of both tune and invention. “Tenderly” – a favorite of David S. Ware – is a halting abstraction, wrapped in a swirl of low-end fields that might recall Ware’s glinting tenor pillows, while “Brain Shatter” chases itself down harmonic rabbit holes while flexing its robust trunk and ensuring that the trails’ actions continually relate to a main path. Most of these short pieces would emerge over the course of several suites in a live setting, as Shipp’s concerts tend to feature two or three long improvisations that weave in familiar works – a crystalline “Naima,” the skating, sly references to Bill Evans in “Waltz,” or the stark, dusky romanticism of a tune like “Symbolic Access” might be compositional bulbs that work their way into (or out of) a longer suite. Hearing them as isolated vignettes that are part of a common, threaded whole is a rather different experience. The recording quality is also superb, with the instrument and player’s physicality front and center – it’s rare to really hear the wood and keys of a piano, especially outside the realm of audiophile classical recordings, and here these elements are in service of Shipp’s extraordinary compositions and interpretations.

At Oto presents three soli and one duo between Shipp and British saxophonist John Butcher, recorded at the venerable London concert space in 2010 and issued on the Fataka imprint. This was their first meeting, although such a collaboration shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Shipp has also worked in duet with vanguard saxophonists Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Darius Jones and Rob Brown, all of whom reshape the instrument’s vocabulary. Butcher isolates and extends approaches hinted at by Parker, and his harmonic wellspring is a natural foil for Shipp’s area of expertise. Of course the saxophone and piano are different instruments and unearthing harmonic corners within their mechanics requires different methods – facial muscles, breath and valves in one and the use of body, key pressure and foot pedals on the other – but if the processes differ, their execution grants striking parallels. Both Shipp and Butcher utilize relatively unadorned statements to begin with, subtly altering their shape to allow entry into a broad range of areas, manipulating narrower sounds to create complex structure. One wouldn’t think that it’s possible to bend notes on the piano the way that Butcher does on the soprano or create the same sort of breathy resonance that the saxophonist does with the tenor, but Shipp is a different sort of pianist. His solo “Fundamental Field” picks up where soprano leaves off on “Mud/Hiss” and twists lithe progressions against fluttering right-hand stabs and voluminous refrains. The duo, “Generative Grammar,” is nearly thirty minutes in length and while offering comparative architecture, only begins truly reveling in play midway through – jovially sparring in a wry match, or in comely turnarounds that brush and ricochet. Hopefully this galvanizing partnership is just getting off the ground.

No Sugar on Anything
(Circulasione Totale)

The first Tipple record was released on FMR as Tipples in 2009 and credited to the members of the trio, Norwegian reedist Frode Gjerstad, percussionist Kevin Norton, and guitarist David Watson. Tipple seems to have stuck as a name and their latest, No Sugar on Anything, presents nine relatively short (under ten-minute) improvisations. Norton, who utilizes an array of mallet instruments, gongs and drums, is a fixture in the Gjerstad-helmed Circulasione Totale Orchestra, and his controlled, muscular rattle often creates an exacting spar for the reedist’s warbles and brays. Watson, who like Norton is based in the New York area, is originally from New Zealand and through a language of glitches and purrs he acts as a muted referee and buttresses pillowy abstraction against clangs and high-pitched cries. On “Additives,” he approaches a low level of particulate scumble against bowed metal and clarinet harmonics that sounds more like a tenor guitar, moving into shoveled sludge that support alto brays and resonant, sectional gongs on the following “Or Manipulated” (spelled out, the titles of the nine cuts read “No sugar on anything and no additives or manipulated ingredients make you feel alive and ready to play”). As balanced, active interplay, the music of Tipple is certainly lively and worth repeated spins.

Unnatural Ways
(New Atlantis)

To say nothing of how long it can take for a record to get reviewed (ahem), the presentation of an artist’s work on disc is a tough gambit. Even in today’s climate of being able to put music up online for hearing almost as soon as it’s recorded, not to mention the plethora of tapes and CDs, many self-released, available to the intrepid consumer, it’s still challenging just to get proper documentation of one’s work out there. By the time guitarist-composer and vocalist Ava Mendoza was able to find a home for the music of Unnatural Ways, her working trio, she’d relocated from the Bay Area to Brooklyn and completely changed the ensemble from one featuring keyboardist Dominque Leone and drummer Nick Tamburo to current collaborators bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Nick Podgurski. But the West Coast version of the band is still a valid representation of Mendoza’s music and Ohio label New Atlantis has done a fine job presenting it. Through seven tracks (the download version contains nine) the trio keeps up a choppy, thick whorl of progressive choogle, her flinty, warped shards and dry vocal delivery well matched by Tambora’s delicate precision and Leone’s syrupy whine. Mendoza’s jazz chops are juiced with tasty fuzz on a rather fetching psychedelic version of “Goodnight Irene” (here titled “They’ll Get You In Their Dreams Irene”), though one would be hard-pressed to call her a ‘jazz guitarist’ – rather, she melds linguistic shreds of Frith and Kaiser to a natural core of bluesy, scummy R&B, even on the Monkish title-track-of-sorts “Quit Your Unnatural Ways.” If the setting has changed a couple of years down the road, Mendoza continues to mine this realm and hopefully living in New York won’t overly try her natural, unhurried quirks.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Farewell to Guitarist Garrison Fewell (October 14, 1953-July 5, 2015)

Photo of Garrison Fewell copyright Luciano Rossetti

Boston-based guitarist, improvising composer, writer and educator Garrison Fewell made his exit from Earth on July 5, 2015 at the young age of 61; he’d been battling cancer for quite some time, yet despite the challenges of severe illness he self-published a book of interviews with improvisers, recorded and released a clutch of new discs, and performed as often as he could. I never met Fewell personally but we did share a number of exchanges via email and social media, and I was able to catch him in a striking duet performance with saxophonist John Tchicai (1936-2012) at the Cornelia Street Café several years ago. A professor at Berklee College of Music, Fewell – whose own education traversed the realms of blues, jazz, free music and traditional non-Western musics – was a restlessly inquisitive, generous and humble man who cited Buddhist teachings and things he learned from fellow players well ahead of any self-created pedagogy.

Fewell had written texts on guitar improvisation, but his most recent published work is a collection of musician-to-musician interviews titled Outside Music, Inside Voices, and is something like a spiritually-centered version of Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones. Fewell rarely cites his own views on a certain artist, preferring to reflect on meaningful experiences of their work and engaging their music and personhood with profound empathy, while still being able to get into the nitty-gritty of artistic process. Fewell interviews some of his collaborators including Tchicai, trumpeter/flutist Roy Campbell, Jr. (1952-2014), violinist Rosi Hertlein and trombonist Steve Swell, as well as a range of modern musicians such as bassists William Parker and Joëlle Léandre, poet Steve Dalachinsky, pianist Matthew Shipp, reedist Henry Threadgill, and percussionist Han Bennink. 

Though Fewell’s line of query is not entirely fixed, he does ask each musician what the importance of spirituality is in their work, and the answers differ drastically – some players encounter the music from a secular standpoint, others with deep religiosity, yet the telepathic dialogue and connectedness that improvisers participate in is seemingly universal even when couched in material transcendence or a unification with God. While some interviewees are not particularly inclined to use the word “spiritual” for their practice, owing to the term’s many weighty trappings, pianist Dave Burrell’s answer to the question of a relationship between spirituality and improvisation is perfectly simple: “There is a truthfulness that binds improvisation to spirituality. The improviser strives for oneness. The masters of improvisation have practiced until they have achieved clarity that brings a more beautiful tone. Repetition generates energy, boosting spirituality’s intensity. I have been told that John Coltrane achieved his high level of spirituality from intense study.”

Spirituality is non-denominational; to read of musicians describing it, being spiritual may ask for intense self-reflection and critical study, but the results of such efforts (some call it “practice”) bring clarity of vision and a healthy connection between creative mind and athletic skill. Fewell acknowledges in discussing the subject with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee that “some musicians wrestle with the word ‘spirituality.’ It’s possible that misunderstandings have developed around the word that have unfairly earned it a poor reputation. Or some might prefer to leave such things unspoken, to be expressed in musical ways. For me, the root of spirituality is ‘spirit,’ which I believe can be thought of and lived in different ways with individual interpretations at the very heart and soul of creative music.” Like a number of musicians in Outside Music, Inside Voices, McPhee’s response to this quandary is deceptively simple: “when you mention ‘spirit,’ I think of that not so much in a religious context but more like the center, the soul of the music. Where it comes from, I don’t know. I haven’t found it yet – it’s somewhere around there.” 

While much conversation is devoted to biography and practice, starting each dialogue on the subject of spirituality, whether it’s viewed as the eternal now or a methodical, rigorous practice, gives a lens through which one can engage the work of a diverse sector of contemporary improvisers. In a testament to Fewell’s generosity and egoless approach, in which he’d rather talk about favorite works by his subjects than his own playing strategies, Fewell often asked musicians about their peers – Tchicai comes up often, as do saxophonists David S. Ware and Marion Brown, bassists Johnny Dyani and Wilber Morris, and other departed figures who this text insists not be forgotten. It’s likely that a number of musicians in the future will bring up Garrison Fewell the same way.

The most recently-released chapter of Fewell’s recorded presence is Evolving Strategies with the Variable Density Sound Orchestra, waxed in January 2012 but not released until 2014 (NotTwo MW 911-2), and joining Fewell, Tchicai, Campbell, Swell, bassist Dmitry Ishenko and drummer Reggie Nicholson on seven compositions: Swell’s “Mystical Realities” in two versions, four from the guitarist’s book and two from Tchicai’s. Fewell’s bent, bluesy comping and non-linear interjections are full but querying and present a certain wholeness that can be both powerful and non-specific. These fuzzy cells and craggy shards have a tendency to goad his partners into passages of centered density and splayed incision, as on Swell’s opening slinky hymn, and provide a blanket of muted clamber in areas of spidery collectivity. 

Fewell was raised in Philadelphia and studied with Philly guitarist Pat Martino (whose own trajectory encompassed greasy organ trios, Indo-jazz and free improvisation), as well as in the college music department he eventually called home, and even in the context of free music, his playing is remarkably rooted. “Thoughts for Dixon” moves through duet, trio and quartet sections, thematically recalling Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton through condensed pirouettes before Tchicai, Fewell and Ishenko enter into the choppy waves of invention, followed by brass and percussion in a section of pinched boisterousness, while “Return and Breathe” shifts from cottony string harmonics and delicate breath to punchy collective improvisation over a rubbery vamp. It’s odd to think that half of the musicians on this very fresh-sounding, ebullient and husky slice of contemporary improvisation have now departed, but at the same time, this disc is a testament to the art form’s continuing gifts, presented with copious substance and little flash. Chicago pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams titled a 1975 Delmark LP Things to Come from Those Now Gone and the sentiment that we still have many nuts to crack from Fewell’s offered hand doesn’t go unnoticed.

Visit Garrison Fewell's website here.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ni Kantu Presents: Slipp/Manski Duo, Cooper-Moore + Newman Taylor Baker, Ben Stapp

On May 9, New Revolution Arts, Jazz Right Now and Ni Kantu are proud to present an evening of creative music in Bushwick!

New Revolution Arts is located at 7 Stanhope Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn off the J stop at Kosciuszko Street.

Music will start promptly at 8 PM.
Cost for the evening: $15
*all proceeds go to the musicians*

8:00 PM | Set 1

Ben Stapp, tuba

Improvising composer and conductor Ben Stapp has become familiar to New Yorkers through his orchestral works with the Zozimos Collective, featuring many top-tier local improvisers and operating in song cycles that act as a missing link between Tom Waits and the Bley/Mantler Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. He’s also led a crack trio with drummer Satoshi Takeishi and saxophonist Tony Malaby, as well as performing and recording with such creative music luminaries as trumpeters Stephen Haynes and Herb Robertson, Portuguese saxophonist Alipio C. Neto, bassists William Parker and Ken Filiano, and contemporary ensembles TILT and the ICE. Enjoy a rare opportunity to hear his unaccompanied music.

9:00 PM | Set 2

Cooper-Moore, homemade and invented instruments, with Newman Taylor Baker, washboard

Cooper-Moore has been a fixture in free music since the early 1970s, working initially with reedist Alan Michael Braufman and in a cooperative unit with saxophonist David S. Ware and drummer Marc D. Edwards called Apogee, and later in William Parker’s In Order To Survive and co-leading the trios Triptych Myth and Digital Primitives. Known for his tough, incisive approach to the keyboard, Cooper-Moore has also spent decades crafting his own instruments from discarded and found materials, including the diddley-bow (bass monochord), twanger (fretless dichord), horizontal hoe-handled harp, ashimba (marimba), banjo and drumset. Also a storyteller and vocalist, Cooper-Moore is joined here by veteran percussionist Newman Taylor Baker, known worldwide as a virtuoso of the washboard. This will be a meeting between two masters of creative music that reaches back to the historical roots of improvisation and heads forth in new, unheard directions. 

10:00 PM | Set 3

Kristin Slipp, voice and Dov Manski, Wurlitzer keyboard

The Brooklyn-via-Maine duo of Slipp and Manski co-created one of the most fascinating discs in recent memory, A Thousand Julys, released on Sunnyside in 2013. Their interpretations of the standard repertoire are fresh and beguiling, Slipp’s enunciation shifting between near-Sprechstimme and coy indie-pop delivery. Manski’s approach to the keyboard is both airy and chunky, a perfect match for Slipp’s vocal approach and together they launch familiar repertory into uncharted waters. Slipp has been active in diverse settings like Cuddle Magic, Twins of El Dorado and The Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, and Dov Manski has shared stages and studios with many notable musicians including George Garzone, Bill McHenry, Bob Moses, and Scott Robinson. Both artists studied at the New England Conservatory and call to mind the ethos of such musician-teachers as Ran Blake, George Russell, Steve Lacy, Joe Maneri and Joe Morris. As a final set for the evening, Slipp and Manski will close with more open ends than tied knots.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Live in Brooklyn: Yoni Kretzmer's New Dilemma (Jan. 22, 2015)

Israeli tenor saxophonist and composer Yoni Kretzmer has been incredibly busy since arriving in New York just shy of five years ago. Most musicians seem to land on their feet by playing a hell of a lot of sessions and making gigs with just about everybody – and that’s one way to perfect one’s craft and connections. Kretzmer appears a little more patient, though he leads or co-leads several different ensembles, runs a label (OutNow Recordings) and has curated grassroots series at a few Brooklyn bars – series that, importantly, didn’t always feature his own music. One could hear that patient yet powerful drive in his latest work, a suite of three compositions for chamber sextet (excerpt below) premiered at Williamsburg’s Firehouse Space on January 22 – an warm space in a former firehouse that features excellent acoustics and one of the better pianos in the area.

New Dilemma began in Tel Aviv with similar instrumentation – as Kretzmer put it in an email, “I was always listening to classical music and was drawn to chamber music, first of all due to the timeless string sound. Yet I was never into playing classical music or wholly written music of any kind. Thus the idea of incorporating the ‘chamber sound’ into improvised or directed settings seemed very appealing.” In this concert revamping of New Dilemma, Kretzmer brought into the fold a multinational (though all New York-based) crew of musicians, including reedist Josh Sinton, cellist Leila Bordrueil, violist Franz Loriot, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and drummer Flinn Van Hemmen. The three pieces were each given arbitrary dates as titles – in Kretzmer’s words, these were placeholders that just denoted their copy date – and spotlighted each individual player’s heft while cohesively organizing both dramatic flair and electric detail.

Kretzmer’s playing and writing are clearly from the same mind – his saxophone gestures are considered, soft and throaty, reminiscent of someone like John Tchicai but without the same level of acerbity. He’s an interesting contrast with Sinton, for when he ventures into gritty screams, they’re “cool” at heart, while the latter’s economical bass clarinet phrasing actually presents hot and wooly. Personality is the key behind each of these compositions, and not just that of Kretzmer’s forceful pillows – Loriot’s skittering, keening viola and expert control of harmonic filaments was often front and center, or darting in tandem with the robust, supple pizzicato of Niggenkemper’s bass (eschewing his yen for curious preparations) and the dry, floating gestures from Van Hemmen’s kit. Only Bordrueil was difficult to hear – and I was right in front of her – which is a shame because her small-group improvising and sound art work is certainly a valuable part of the contemporary music climate. About the pieces themselves, Kretzmer may favor dirge-like movements and the obsessive springs of repeating harmonic glissandi, but the music was arranged in clear sections that favored small group improvisation.

The opening composition, “October 12,” began with pizzicato viola scrabble, low cello moans and the rattle and ping of gongs and small percussion instruments, before reeds began long, lowing waves atop Niggenkemper’s furious arco. Each reedist took extensive, deep solos that were both commanding and focused, though these extemporizations were partly textural and rooted in contrast, against the strings that swooped over Van Hemmen’s tinny, precise motion. Originally from Holland, Van Hemmen approaches classical precision with a decidedly roguish and unfussy physicality, so his playing feels both utterly spontaneous and quite poised. Programatically, Loriot and Kretzmer dovetailed in duo before engaging in high-pitched, explosive knots; as with the bulk of the New Dilemma book, there is a tendency to focus on duos and trios (Sinton and strings followed), while at the same time allowing relationships between these small group areas to define a truly massive whole. Rather than emphasizing how “big” the sextet could sound, this music felt quite spare and localized. Traditional jazz (or even free-jazz) rhythm seemed to be less of a concern, though at times the music did open into an off-kilter, dissonant stride as horns and rhythm would egg one another on in pulsative commentary – Niggenkemper being a good choice to carry the sextet in deft, hairy precision.

Surrounded by like minds who brought their own experiences and interests to the table, it will be interesting to see how Kretzmer’s music continues to evolve. Though recently redefined with a new cast of players, New Dilemma felt ready for prime time – predominantly loose and with a colorful, varied approach. Surely more evolution is likely in Kretzmer's world, both in chamber ensembles and in other work, but this music is surely some of the saxophonist’s most fully realized to date.