Daily Archives: September 9, 2008

Bagatellen review by Clifford Allen

Mauger – The Beautiful Enabler (CF 114)
Mauger brings together the trio of drummer Gerry Hemingway, bassist Mark Dresser and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (for his first Clean Feed session) for eight original compositions. Mahanthappa is noted for his highly “structuralist” work, some of it through-composed, with figures like pianist Vijay Iyer and altoist Steve Lehman. Naturally, bringing him into a situation with Hemingway and Dresser loosens things up considerably; though of a different stripe, they are also rigorous improvising composers. The Beautiful Enabler runs the gamut from rousing free bop to pensive textural explorations, and like many sessions with this instrumentation, it allows a particularly naked view of the range of the horn player’s approach.

The opening “Acuppa” is tart, rousing heave-ho swing, opening with gentle purrs and tonal exploration before the three settle into a jounce, Mahanthappa picking apart rows of notes in between the tune’s down-home rondo. The way the altoist approaches the material, stretching out on particulates and harping upon fragments with measured intensity until they’re exhausted is reminiscent of Braxton soloing on “Ramblin’.” The album’s lone collective improvisation, “Bearings,” allows even more introspection on Mahanthappa—as much as he obsesses on phrases or series of notes, he doesn’t overuse this tactic. Rather, he moves with near objectivity through different motives, exploring their nuances yet not exhausting them. It’s a different sort of detail and precision than one would find in peers like Lehman, and contrasts heavily with the earthy mass of Dresser’s ponticello bowing and Hemingway’s own dissections of time and phrase.

On “Intone,” Mahanthappa’s bent notes and circular breathing allow him to channel a South Asian double-reed instrument and a hint of Lee Konitz at the same time, as though the latter were charming his way through tonal molasses at an easy lope. All this is not to say that Mauger are entirely a heady brew; quite the opposite, it’s a gas to listen to Mahanthappa’s instantaneous mazes and simultaneously be carried along by the knotty waves of Dresser and Hemingway. The Beautiful Enabler is an extremely rewarding listen, and alongside a number of alto-bass-drums trios released this year by Clean Feed, Mauger shows how varied a single approach to instrumentation can be.

Bagatellen review by Clifford Allen

Conference Call – Poetry In Motion (CF 118)
Pianist-composer Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist-composer Joe Fonda have been working together for nearly two decades in various aggregations; two of the most regular have been the Fonda/Stevens Group and Conference Call. The latter ensemble, active for the past ten years, joins the pair with German reedman Gebhard Ullmann and drummer George Schuller (other occupants of that chair have included Gerry Hemingway, Han Bennink and Matt Wilson). It’s an appropriate name for a group with two New Yorkers, another from Tennessee, and one from Berlin, though at this point they’re hardly the only regularly active band with an interstate or intercontinental cast. Featuring seven titles, Poetry In Motion is their fifth release and first for Clean Feed.

Fonda’s arco glisses pierce the martial pounding of Ullmann’s “The Shining Star,” Stevens’ left hand weighted and right arcing outward as Schuller hangs in midair. Ullmann’s an alternately throaty and disarmingly clean player, weaving with cloudy precision through his self-penned dusk and bounce. Even as he yelps and pesters with chewed phrases, there’s quick and almost scholarly fluidity around fire-music tenor phrasing, culminating in a brief cornering with Fonda before the tune dissipates. The title piece, penned by Stevens, finds the composer and Ullmann’s bass clarinet exploring filmic East-European corners and slinking their way around in woody darts, Fonda and Stevens subtly hacking at those very same curves. As the quartet opens up, Stevens’ runs become fractured and pointillist, stop-start jabs beside a litany of post-Out To Lunch reed squawk. Schuller’s “Back To School” recalls Burton Greene’s recent re-explorations of Bartok (as well as some of Carla Bley’s Liberation Music writing), and perhaps not coincidentally, Schuller has recorded with Greene for CIMP. The theme seems built for Ullmann, whose brightened edges match Stevens’ poise, and it isn’t until his solo spot two minutes in that dirt gets under the fingernails. It is here that the saxophonist seems the most unbridled, blowing without a hint of slickness. The rhythm section is extraordinarily lyrical, Stevens positively lush in his solo as he’s fleshed out by bells and surly pluck. When four musician-composers with this level of technique and creativity get together, it’s sure to bring quality playing, but the most interesting moments on Poetry In Motion occur when the quartet forgets what they know and just do.

Brain Dead Eternity review by Massimo Ricci

ANTHONY BRAXTON / JOE MORRIS – Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 
The current picture of the world of improvisation shows multitudes of different perspectives, several stimulating currents, an abundant batch of cardsharpers in the foreground and those who inevitably get classified among the holy cows, although not always due to effective artistic merits. Yet Anthony Braxton – either a name that puts in awe due to his mercurial mind and forward-looking musical thought, or a “too difficult” musician to be “avoided at any cost” – manages to escape expectations, except one: everything he does unloads in fact a burden of consequence on the audience’s shoulders, like it (aesthetically) or not. This can’t possibly be denied, if not by utter ignorance.

When Braxton decided to publish the entire session that he and guitarist Joe Morris recorded on July 30 and 31st in the Crowell Auditorium of the Wesleyan University, both artists were positively conscious of the historic importance of this issue. The saxophonist has expressed a wish for utilizing this music “as a way of talking about composition in time and mutable space” to his students in the future. That says a lot of this duo’s character, its main feature evidently being a stunning stability, a blend of liberated opinion and structured development of concepts that the discerning listener can unmistakably compare to fresh water springing from under a mountain rock bottled in beautiful crystal profiles. This is purity of intents, also known as “creativity at the uppermost level”, allowing unpredictable events to be instantly digested, reshaped and exposed without the gloss of a formula, or the ennui born from typical “jazz progressions”.

Morris himself ranks among the guitarists – let’s just say “players”, mental and corporeal boundaries extending well over the sheer mechanics of the six strings – destined to puzzle many addressees, principally those used to standard reckoning (pun intended). In those hands the instrument becomes the proverbial means to an end, not necessarily a method to portray virtuosity (which, in this context, would be all the more futile despite the obviously superior technical expertise of the participants). There are parts of the improvisations in which we seem to hear Braxton’s now graceful, then raucous flurries accompanied by African mbira patterns rather than guitar arpeggios; elsewhere, clustered chords and scarcely malleable phrases are bound to the sense of frustration that a number of non-sympathetic listeners will surely experience (“What’s that? No diminished 7th? Where’s the augmented 5th?”). The man, supposedly, doesn’t care a iota. No need to refurbish chops and licks when all’s needed is chainless imagination and a correct brain architecture.

The reciprocal respect between the principals is palpable, regardless of a noticeable dissimilarity: Braxton utilizes seven saxophones (for the archivists: Eb sopranino, Bb soprano, alto, C melody, baritone, bass and contrabass) versus Morris’ solitary axe. The former’s insightful cleverness and, for want of a better word, culture is manifestly perceptible from the manner in which he wraps, cuddles and caresses the latter’s lexicon, the existent difference in terms of dynamics notwithstanding; a bass sax is enough to make a living room’s silverware jingle quite a bit, you know. But this is not a one-way transaction of course: both suggest and listen to the echoing modification of their very proposition, mutual skill and responsiveness intertwined in a prolonged conversation whose fecundity is treasured from the first note to the last. Four hours streaming without problems, many highlights to relish all over the four discs: as a hypothetical symbol, the quiet dialogue starting around minute 15 of the second could be perfect. “Lyrically inquisitive” is probably an appropriate description. Don’t think for a minute that it’s all flowers, though: when the going gets tough, roses morph into corrosive thistles. Still gorgeous, acutely stinging, ever treacherous for the uninformed, ballad-only “late-coming aficionado”.

Maybe the most pertinent observation – especially when thinking of personal communication being at an all-time low nowadays, in the face of myriads of instruments helpful to the contrary – came from my wife, who synthesized the whole with the following words: “these guys are definitely talking”. Indeed they are, yet detecting the substance of what’s being expressed falls exclusively on us.