Monthly Archives: August 2008

All About Jazz review by Elliott Simon

Scott Fields Ensemble – Beckett (CF 069)

Henning Sieverts – Symmetry (Pirouet 2007)
Both of these releases have prose as their muse and include drummer John Hollenbeck as a sideman. This is not surprising as Hollenbeck is a meticulous musician who has a proclivity for precision and a propensity for delicate phrasing. Electric guitarist Scott Fields fronts a quartet that employs free improvisation to depict more the form and feel than the storyline of five plays by Samuel Beckett while German bassist Henning Sieverts and his quintet cleverly construct a program of palindromic playfulness with 14 cuts based upon both literary and musical symmetry.

Beckett is best known as a minimalist who highlighted the conundrum of humanity’s despair in conjunction with the will to go on; Fields however has given him a surprisingly upbeat interpretation. Cellist Scott Roller and saxophonist Matthias Schubert are the two additional performers who round out this interesting quartet and they fit very well into what alternates between engaging dialogue and freeform soliloquy. Hollenbeck propels more with staccato jabs than by laying down a discernible rhythm track to set the overall prosody, setting the stage for creative interpretations. “Breath” maintains the original brevity of the stage-work but restages birth-cry to whimper while riffing off of the “birth-life-death” theme. The extended compositions pick up on bits and pieces of the originals: a pause, a single structure, the gestalt to develop a lively musical discussion of the dramatic material.

Sieverts has chosen to title each of his compositions on Symmetry with single phrases that can be read the same forward as backward. As such, “Top Spot” turns into a cool take on the hackneyed exercise used to warm up school concert bands and choirs, whereas “Sun is in Us” is a warm forum for stretching out. Tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed imparts his beautiful tone and interesting improv to these word games. Trombonist Johannes Lauer and pianist Achim Kaufmann blend with Speed for full-throated voicings on compositions like the swinging “Deep Speed.” Sieverts, in addition to maintaining the bottom and displaying some lovely arco work, has cleverly imbedded his own musical palindromes into each piece. This allows the more theoretically inclined to uncover the symmetrical A-B-A-B-A form of the gentle “We Few” or the symmetrical augmented triads in the free-formish “Emit Time.” Hollenbeck is his usual perfectionist self, adding the ideal coloration through a multitude of sounds that include bells, pops, dings and taps or providing spot-on rhythm for the more traditional swingers.

Free Jazz review by Stef

Mauger – The Beautiful Enabler (CF 114)

Mauger is a new trio of three musicians who no longer need any introduction: Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Mark Dresser on bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums. Mahanthappa is known for his collaborations with fellow Indian Vijay Iyer, in which complex rhythmic and melodic structures define the often thundering nature of his music. In this trio he shows another side of his playing, more minimalistic, more subdued, calmer and it suits him well. This is of course also the result of the fact that the music is truly a collective creation, with Dresser and Hemingway playing an equally important role, also in the time they get the frontline, which leads to very open music, with lots of space that is not filled in, a big contrast with Mahanthappa’s and Iyer’s music, which can be quite dense. Each musician composed two tracks and one is a collective effort, yet the focus is clearly on the improvisation itself and the interaction between the musicians, who manage to find each other brilliantly in the music. It is relatively accessible, in the sense that there isn’t much dissonance or overblowing, yet the music is adventurous. The title song, “Beautiful Enabler”, for instance is typical: a beautiful melody, almost classical in its concept, gets confronted with moments of real musical distress, where arco bass and a crying sax shift moods and then come back in the same effortless movement back to the core theme. “I’ll See You When I Get There” is a typical Mahanthappa composition, a little more dark and menacing, with sudden tempo changes and great intensity. “Meddle Music” is the most avant piece, starting with just sounds created by the three instruments, reacting to one another like wild life at the break of day in the jungle, and out of these sounds, about half-way through the piece, grows a hesitating melody, that generates some great polyrhythmic drums support and powerful bursts on the bowed bass. Again a wonderfully rich album, with lots of musical ideas, mood changes, and powerful expressiveness. Highly recommended.

All About Jazz review by Glenn Astarita

Adam Lane / Lou Grassi / Mark Whitecage – Drunk Butterfly (CF 116)
Connotations of a Drunk Butterfly might sound like a humorous proposition, especially when depicted in a cartoon. But art doesn’t necessarily imitate art within this 2008 trio release. Sure, the trio embarks upon a few off-kilter flight patterns. However, the musical aspects present numerous examples steeped within the bop, or free-bop scheme of things. And with three highly revered New York area artists spinning a web of excitement, the music and overall effect convey a democratic engagement that occasionally projects a spiraling trajectory.

Rising-star bassist/composer Adam Lane and veteran drummer Lou Grassi establish a fluent musical bed for alto saxophonist/clarinetist Mark Whitecage, where the trio transparently merges modern mainstream with free expression. In effect, everyone gets his or her day in the sun throughout this irrefutably buoyant jamboree. Listen to Whitecage’s bopping and bouncy clarinet lines on the medium-tempo cooker titled “Chichi Rides the Tiger,” which is a theme that sports a sublime, underlying melody. Yet Lane tosses a surprise into this vibrant piece by turning the tide via his frantic, bowed-bass passages that elicit gobs of tension and an air of uncertainty. To that end, the musicians convey more than just a few, aggressively initiated deviations.

Ever the accelerant and agitator, Grassi generates a fervent backbone on the predominance of these up-tempo works. While Lane leverages this rhythmic component with élan and fervor. In various regions of this album, Whitecage integrates North African modalities and staggered swing vamps to contrast his lithely engineered solo spots. Hence, the band covers a lot of musical ground by tempering the various flows and using depth as an asset.

It’s partly about controlled firepower coupled with the artists shrewd injections of dynamics that helps keep this train rolling. Each track provides a distinct flavor amid several thought-provoking musical propositions, as the trio astutely balances highly complex improvisational exercises with many conventional implications.

Free Jazz review by Stef

Adam Lane, Lou Grassi , Mark Whitecage,- Drunk Butterfly (CF 116)
I’ve just come back from a festival where I saw performances by Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran, Dré Pallemaerts with Bill Carrothers, Pharoah Sanders quartet (actually four musicians playing consecutively, tune after tune!), and I also saw Han Bennink doing an entertaining solo performance for the kids at the festival. Bennink was the most entertaining of all, the rest was mediocre to poor, so in order to get rid of my musical frustration, when I came home I put on this record, which I already heard several times in the past week and which was certain to warm my heart and my bones after the disappointing (and chilly) concert. This is a new trio of three musicians who got lots of releases on the CIMP label and now they play together for the first time on Clean Feed: Lane on bass, Grassi on drums, Whitecage on sax. And it is a winner: warm, melodic and rhythmic. Every tune is composed with a clear theme, but the improvisations can be quite free, and the three Adam Lane tunes are very bluesy. His “Sanctum” is an example in case, with a beautiful tune, vaguely reminiscent of French bass player Henri Texier’s take at composition. Mark Whitecage adds three compositions, starting with “Like Nothing Else” and again it is typical for the release, half of his tune consists of arco bass and drums, the sax only joining for the last part. Typical because these musicians play for one another, and for the music in the first place. The album is a delight for its variation and coherence. Variation because the tunes can evoke heartbreaking agony, intense menace, or bring some joyful lightly dancing tunes, even within the same piece, as on “Chichi Rides The Tiger”, on which the whole middle piece consists of dark free form, with the main theme lightly touched upon, and then it arises out of the chaos like a beautiful flower. The Grassi compositions are the more boppish, the Lane compositions more bluesy or with world influences, the Whitecage compositions the most abstract, but each track is more than worth listening to, if only for the strong collective performance, the coherence and the emotional expressiveness. Heart-warming and bone-warming music. The jazz of today is often better than the jazz of yesterday. I wish all concert organizers would start understanding that. For those of you living in New York, this band opens the Clean Feed festival starting on September 19. Don’t miss it. It will certainly be better than the one I just came from.

All About Jazz review by Troy Collins

Mauger – The Beautiful Enabler (CF 114)

The Beautiful Enabler is the debut recording of the collective trio Mauger, which features the enviable talents of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway. According to Hemingway, “the group gets its name from a letter scramble of the first two letters of each of our names and is a preposition defined, “in opposition to, notwithstanding” which seems appropriate to creating art in our time.”

Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway share a working relationship that dates back to 1975, with a stint together in the early eighties as members of composer Anthony Braxton’s classic quartet. Their finely tuned rapport borders on the telepathic on these loosely structured tunes, as they hone in on the other’s next move with the skill of seasoned chess players.

New to this veteran partnership is Rudresh Mahanthappa, widely known for his longstanding association with progressive pianist Vijay Iyer. While Dresser and Hemingway are adept interpreters of the most esoteric compositional concepts (Braxton’s, for example), Mahanthappa and Iyer have made such intricate methodology their calling card, as demonstrated on the recent Tragicomic (Sunnyside, 2008). Hearing the saxophonist let loose in this unfettered setting is surprising and poignant; it is easily his most exploratory playing on record.

Consisting of two tunes from each member and one collectively composed improvisation, the album’s seven skeletal frameworks inspire selfless interaction from the trio, who demonstrate careful listening skills and a magnanimous approach to soloing.

Dresser’s contrabass is notoriously resonant. His kaleidoscopic arco work offers breathtaking harmonies that invoke the sonic density of a small string section, generously supported by Hemingway’s nuanced cymbal work and subtle accents. Hemingway uses well-placed silences for dramatic effect, contrasting them with rousing polyrhythms and churning free-form interludes.

Mahanthappa’s tart alto careens through this percussive mosaic with circuitous glee. Inspired by his cohorts’ advanced techniques, he draws from an expansive sonic palette of false fingerings, oscillating multiphonics and acerbic overblown notes that he seamlessly incorporates into oblique, intervallic cadences.

Lyrically accessible, Dresser’s tunes, “Flac” and the title track, recall the plangent euphony of fellow associate Marty Ehrlich with their bittersweet melodies. Hemingway’s opener “Acuppa” is equally vibrant, setting the stage for a vigorous solo from Mahanthappa, whose own tunes veer from the mournful ballad “Intone” to the escalating turbulence of “I’ll See You When I Get There.” “Bearings” and “Meddle Music” reveal the trio at their most adventurous, uncoiling splintery shards in carefully delegated collective improvisations.

A snapshot of three masterful improvisers at the top of their game, Dresser, Hemingway and Mahanthappa demonstrate true clarity of expression on The Beautiful Enabler. Competent jazz albums are commonplace, but a session this good should not be overlooked.

Jazzword review by Ken Waxman

Joe Fielder Trio – The Crab (CF 092)
Slippery and slurpy, the nine tracks on this CD show that trombonist Joe Fielder has the chops to carry off a session backed by only bass and drums. The Crab is so memorable because it’s also no show-off’s technical exercise. The New York-based bone man invests each one of his bustling original compositions with emotion, humor and excitement.

A veteran of Latin as well as straight jazz bands, Fielder even brings Hispanic tinges to lines such as the title track and “A Frankfurter in Caracas”, which also pays homage to his mentor, German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff. At the same time, like the older brass man, his solos on these and the other tunes while lyrical, encompass bitten-off notes, double tonguing, low-pitched growls and snorts. Using a collection of mutes and multiphonics his solo on “The Crab” is particularly outstanding, since he doubles entire passages with both mouthpiece and his own mouth, while elsewhere articulating staccato runs as effortlessly as J J. Johnson.

Not to be outdone, bassist John Hebert and drummer Michael Sarin sympathetically stride alongside. Tower of strength, the bassist, who on “New Rugs” gets an opportunity to scurrying up and down his strings, elsewhere exhibits weightlifter strength walking, slapping and reverberating. Sarin, who has backed other individualistic improvisers like bassist Mark Helias, is so subtle in his flowing accompaniment that he frequency beats time on drum tops with his palms or provides rhythm with just drum sticks.

Whether chromatically tonguing notes as if playing a valve instrument or sounding as if reverberating tones appear are being be squeezing through a grater, the trombonist is always in control. Concluding the recital diminuendo, backed by drum pitter patter and bass thumps, he cycles through guttural slurs and ripples from an a capella intro that combines “Reveille” and rubato pumping.

All About Jazz review by Troy Collins

Conference Call – Poetry in Motion (CF 118)
Poetry in Motion is the fifth album from the collective, Conference Call, and their first studio recording since their debut, Final Answer (Soul Note, 2002). The longstanding quartet, together since 1998, features German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda and recent drummer George Schuller (former drummers include Han Bennink and Matt Wilson).

Throughout the last decade, Conference Call has straddled the tenuous line between free jazz and post bop, drawing on the distinctive writing styles of its members to chart unexplored paths. Each composer’s singular voice is identifiable within the confines of the group’s sound, yet each tune is subtly transformed by the quartet, yielding a thematically cohesive session.

The group’s longevity enriches their highly intuitive rapport. A ten year working relationship between the principal members, Stevens and Fonda share an additional partnership that dates back to 1993, when they formed the ever evolving Fonda/Stevens group.

Ullmann, the group’s sole horn player, is a vivacious and dynamic stylist who invests serene ballads with the same heartfelt conviction as tempestuous free-form workouts. His sinuous soprano cadences, brawny tenor testimonials, and intervallic bass clarinet leaps offer a range of emotion.

Over the course of seven distinctive tunes, the quartet’s inside/outside approach invokes the halcyon days of the ’60s New Thing. Fonda’s inclusions demonstrate the quartet’s dynamic range; “The Path” is a restrained ballad of mellifluous tenderness, while “Next Step” is the inverse. Born in darkness, the tune gains brisk momentum with Fonda and Schuller’s roiling palpitations, which fuel a swirling vortex of sound courtesy of Ullmann’s caterwauling bass clarinet and Stevens’ spiky piano clusters.

Much of the quartet’s brio can be attributed to Ullmann, whose tunes open and close the album, each offering a rugged lyrical quality. “The Shining Star” sets the stage with an air of fervent expressionism, as Ullmann and Stevens invoke the seminal collaborations of Archie Shepp and Dave Burrell. The closing “Desert… Bleue… East” was prominently featured on Ullmann’s recent New Basement Research (Soul Note, 2007). An episodic deconstructed blues, the sublime polyphony of the aforementioned three-horn version is recast as a cinematic tone poem.

The title track and “Quirky Waltz” are Stevens’ contributions—harmonically astute explorations bolstered by unorthodox structures and edgy lyricism—the latter being a showcase for his effervescent pianism. Culled from Schuller’s recent Keith Jarrett tribute, Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape, 2008), the drummer’s sole offering is the sonorous “Back to School,” a deceptively simple folk melody that blossoms into a plangent feature for Ullmann’s expressive tenor.

Marking the tenth anniversary of this venerable ensemble, this session offers a marked departure from their usual live sets with brilliant studio sound that captures every nuance of their expansive abilities. A remarkably varied and rewarding listen, Poetry in Motion is one of Conference Call’s finest offerings.

Free Jazz review by Stef

Conference Call – Poetry In Motion (CF 118)
This is Conference Call’s second studio release out of a total of five CDs, and it also celebrates the quartet’s 10th anniversary, if you allow for the changes in drummers (from Matt Wilson over Han Bennink to George Schuller), and especially “Spirals : The Berlin Concert” is easy to recommend. The band consists of Gebhard Ullmann on reeds, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums, four musicians who’ve played in numerous bands and line-ups, and who clearly feel extremely comfortable together, both as performers and as composers. This CD has two compositions by each band member, except for one by Schuller, and still the music has an incredible unity in its variation. This is free jazz, for sure, but when I first listened to it, I was amazed by their daring mainstream influences (and yes, I find that’s courageous at times, it requires openness of mind). “The Path” and “Back To School” for instance start off in a clear mainstream mood, melody and structure, but the musicians’ sensitivities and breadth of scope are such that these are just the backbones for wonderful improvisations, which clearly go beyond the mainstream without losing the harmonic basis of the tune. Especially Schuller’s “Back To School” brings some fantastic interplay and wonderful free soloing by Ullmann, for a melody which is extremely joyful in an overall sad environment, quite a compositional feat. It is followed by Jefry Stevens’ dark and beautiful “Quirky Waltz”, on which all four musicians push their instrumental skills to the limits : the bass clarinet is deep and low, alternated with light dancing, the piano haunting, the bass eery, and the percussion functional and sounding at times as glasses and bottles being collected in a bar. And you may expect anything from this band, on the last track “Desert … Bleue … East”, a calm and free composition moves into the most energetic free environment and then back into bluesy piano notes with a flute sounding from a great distance in the background, and despite all the changes, it still is undoubtebly the same piece. It just illustrates that these four musicians know what music is about : powerful emotional expressiveness combined with musical inventiveness and group interplay. But the centerpiece of the album is Joe Fonda’s “Next Step”, which brings a repetitive hypnotic African rhythm for bass and drums, offering a great dialogue between piano and sax, that evolves quite brilliantly together with the rhythmic part, ending in an energetic bass solo. Highly recommended.

Point of Departure review by Stuart Broomer

Anthony Braxton / Joe Morris – Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (CF 100)
The formula behind this recording is daunting. Two musicians who have not played before meet to improvise. They reserve a hall and engage a recording engineer. Over two successive days they play and record four performances, each wholly improvised, each an hour in length. The results—the complete works of the Braxton/Morris–duo are released here.

The process is similar to that underlying the two CDs of Hour Glass (on Emanem) in which Tony Bianco described the decision to record hour-long improvisations with Paul Dunmall: “It’s not that we were trying to run a marathon, just that when you play for that amount of time sometimes you run into certain musical episodes that are amazing. It’s like you have to somehow be in contact with the whole piece from the beginning ’til the end and try to make it stand together without losing the spirit.” The same process is at work here. On each piece Morris plays guitar virtually continuously while Braxton gradually shifts through the spectrum of his saxophones, arrayed from E flat sopranino through B flat soprano, alto, C melody, Baritone, bass and contrabass.

There is very little cat-and-mouse or follow-the-leader or lose-the-pursuer improvisation here. Often Braxton will establish an initial direction, sometimes tentatively; the two begin to shape a mood and the music (not just a dialogue—usually they’re playing the music continuously, not apparently “talking” about it or “discussing” where it might be) proceeds from there. Each is a master of phantom bopping, playing close to standard changes or a cycle of fourths to establish a transient coherence until one pattern lapses, disappears or give way to another. 

While Braxton achieves a multiplicity of voices in part through the sheer number of his seven saxophones and a host of attendant techniques, Morris does an extraordinary job of finding different sounds and relationships within a lightly amplified archtop guitar, spinning out lightning runs of resonant harmonics or muffled boppish or serial-sounding lines, all finding certain accord in Braxton’s own developing parts. Form is both given and taken, but it’s established spontaneously.  There’s mercurial musical intelligence almost always evident here and it consists not in an epic of mimesis but in the assured sense of each musician working a shared ground in which concordances might arise both inevitably as well as deliberately. It hardly matters if it’s the rapid bass sax sputter midway through “Improvisation III” against what sounds like a small orchestra of mbiras (there’s a lot of Africa in Morris’s guitar vocabulary), or the host of Indian and Japanese sonorities that Morris seems to command from his guitar. Braxton long ago codified the languages of his music and the saxophone (from wide intervals to pointillism and long tones), and he’s a master of creating large scale contrast between transient harmonic systems, and contrasting emphases between linear and sonic/timbral approaches. He can circular breathe and talk through a saxophone at the same time, while Morris finds a percussion instrument to bounce across his strings. Braxton can also use his bass horns to create layers of texture over which Morris’s guitar lines can dance. The result and maybe the surprise is the extent to which the two create continuously listenable music because they’re continuously listening to the larger patterns and not just the simultaneous instants of one another’s craft. It’s music for the long haul (the hour glass) just as it’s music for the instant. It’s also wonderful to hear how Morris can develop a texture out of the remains of a duo passage, gradually arching it into a new terrain before Braxton joins in, in another range, again.

It’s an admirable way for Clean Feed to mark its hundredth release and a rare achievement by two major musicians.

Touching Extremes review by Massimo Ricci

JASON STEIN’S LOCKSMITH ISIDORE – A calculus of loss (CF 104)
This trio’s peculiar denomination comes from Isidore Stein, Jason’s paternal grandfather who used to be a master locksmith in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan for over 30 years and didn’t trust the banks, keeping earnings stuffed in a sofa (he was right, by the way). Also rather uncommon is the group’s instrumentation which comprises the leader’s bass clarinet, Kevin Davis’ cello and Mike Pride’s percussion. Another intriguing factor is Jason Stein’s beginning as a rock-blues guitarist, subsequently shifting his love onto his current instrument after having met Eric Dolphy’s music, a great influence on his artistic vision. Locksmith Isidore can appear as based in some tradition one moment, swing and jazzy phrasing emerging from the cauldron of decontextualization, then switch to ferruginous EAI protuberances in the next (“Caroline and Sam” could very well be one of those slippery incidental meetings of scrape-and-scratch stillness and minimal melodic fragmentation). The playing is attentive, responsive on all fronts, never transcending to that semi-fetishist rigour that often prevents even gifted instrumentalists to express their timbral qualities in the name of a growingly abused concept of quietness. The conversational openings constantly remain under the sign of democracy, exacerbations of attitude and egotism not allowed; confrontations do happen, but are instantly directed towards a common goal, typically coincident with a non-deterioration of the musical virtues of the improvisations. Immediacy is not this ensemble’s forte: the almost reclusive character of the large part of the material (let’s exclude the short finale “J.H. 01”, a thoroughly lyrical signature if there was ever one) recalls Isidore’s obstinate tendency to hide money in the couch. In this record, the richness of particulars is equally ably disguised.