A week or so ago, my friend Anthony Mariani was spielin’ on the FW Weekly’s blog thingy about how listening to jazz makes you hip. Quoth the Italian kid: “Most of Coltrane’s free compositions and moments really exploited the notion that jazz…could sensibly and artfully reflect the rhythms of life: sometimes falling in perfect sync, sometimes just bouncing all around or into one another, and all the while leaving in their wakes contrails of color and mood. AS WITH LIFE, you have to slow down and pay CLOSE attention to what [jazz musicians] are doing to have the best experience possible.”
Now, I happen to agree with his point about jazz reflecting life’s riddims and requiring your full attention to fully appreciate it. (As far as hipness goes, I’m with Tower of Power: “Hipness is what it is; sometimes, hipness is what it ain’t” — how’s that for obliqueness?) My fave musical artiste Of All Time is probably Charles Mingus, whose best album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, features exactly the kind of ebb and flow Mariani describes, a musical environment that changes and shifts from moment to moment like a busy cityscape; in the past, I’ve bought any recording I could find from Mingus’ 1964 European tour to hear the way the musicians transformed the set, which was essentially static, from one night to the next.
But you need time and attention to pick up on such subtlety, and lately I’ve been kinda busy between work, trying to book shows for a couple of bands, and just the normal (and some not-so-normal) stuff you have to do to get through life. All of which is by way of explaining why I’m just now getting around to reviewing this superb CD, which bassist Aaron Gonzalez gave me when I saw him play at Lola’s with Yells At Eels back in August.
I first met Aaron’s father, trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, 30 years ago when I tagged along while a guitarist friend of mine went over to jam at his house. Dennis had just released his first album Air Light (Sleep Sailor), and he and his wife Carol were very gracious. Dennis went on to perform and record with a veritable “who’s who” of the jazz avant-garde, from AACM veterans to European upstarts, but in 1994 he retired from music, except for what playing he did as a teacher20in Dallas public schools.
It was his sons that brought Dennis back to playing in 1999. After playing with their dad in an accordion-led trio playing traditional Mexican music, bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan — who also perform together as the grindcore duo Akkolyte — invited him to join them in a new venture: a trio playing jazz and improvised music. Since then, they’ve released three CDs (one a double) and toured North America and Europe several times. While a Yells At Eels lineup that included tenorman Rodrigo Amado toured Portugal last year, he and the brothers recorded the Humanization 4tet CD under the leadership of guitarist Luis Lopes.
As a guitarist who teethed on Hendrix and Buddy Guy and reveres masters of the simple like Ron Asheton and Eddie Hazel, I’ll admit to having a bias against most jazz guitarists. While I definitely admire what they do and certainly am not up to their technical level (I once tried to jam with Keith Wingate and felt like a five-year-old attempting to converse with an adult), what they do doesn’t always move me. There’s something about the dryness of most jazz players’ tones and the precision of their attack; I want somebody that leaves more blood on the strings, like Sonny Sharrock or Pete Cosey.
That said, I quite enjoy Luis Lopes’ playing on this, his first recording as a leader. His fretwork has some of the hallmarks of guys I dig like Bern Nix from Ornette’s original Prime Time band (his tone and some note choices on lead-off track “Cristadingo”), Extrapolation-era John McLaughlin and early John Abercrombie (particularly Lopes’ tasteful use of effects). His staccato solo on that opening cut is a good example of his style: Lopes isn’t flaunting technique for its own sake, he’s milking it for its expressive potential. His compositions (which include dedications to an Italian film director, a British scientist, an American musician and a Mexican painter) provide open-ended frameworks for exploration.
Saxophonist Amado’s a fully-formed and expressive improviser, part of the reason why the late Dewey Redman told me (when I interviewed him for the Weekly back in 2003) that American musicians can’t command top dollar in Europe anymore: “They’ve got their own set of musicians now.” Amado’s burry tone and thematic ideas recall Sonny Rollins; the unison lines he plays with leader Lopes on some of the tunes recall both the late-period Pharaoh Sanders on Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages and John Surman on McLaughlin’s Extrapolation, as well as Rollins when he employed Jim Hall.
Aaron Gonzalez has the same dark sound and highly physical approach to the bass as Ornette’s longtime accompanist Charlie Haden. I once had the privilege of standing next to him onstage when we played together with a noisy rock-based improv ou tfit called Kamandi. At the end of the night, Aaron showed me his left hand: there was skin hanging off every finger. His lengthy pizzicato intro to “Long March (For Frida Kahlo)” is somberly lyrical. Elsewhere he drives the band hard, swinging with forceful abandon.
The Great Tyrant’s Jon Teague, who’s subbed for Stefan Gonzalez on a Yells At Eels gig in Dallas, once speculated aloud what it must have been like “growing up in that house,” where role models and exemplars like Alvin Fielder, Andrew Cyrille, or Famoudou Don Moye were frequently present. Stefan’s his own guy, though, behind the traps, an explosively aggressive player who can also be very delicate. On “4 Small Steps,” there are moments when his cymbal-and-snare work is reminiscent of the Elvin Jones “erupting volcano” effect from Trane’s Meditations. And these guys are just getting started.
Humanization 4tet is the kind of record that rewards repeated listenings — like a good book or a fine painting, you can always find something there that escaped your notice before. And if that ain’t hip, I don’t know what is.