Darren Johnston – The Edge of the Forest (CF 133)
Darren Johnston is a Bay-area trumpeter who has studied at Mills College and has worked and recorded with some distinguished company, including Adam Lane and OrchestRova. He has previously recorded a single CD as leader, Reasons for Moving (NotTwo) with a quintet that included Fred Frith and Larry Ochs. While that recording placed an emphasis on improvisation, there’s a greater concentration on Johnston’s compositions here, executed here by his regular quintet – Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Sheldon Brown, bass clarinet and tenor; Devin Hoff, bass; and Smith Dobson V, drums.
As both composer and trumpeter Johnston seems to come from some of the best places, Don Cherry and Booker Little, though the latter influence may be transmuted through Kenny Wheeler and Dave Douglas. Perhaps because of the quality of those forebears, Johnston already has his own sound and sense of form. The sound is tart, at times to the point of acidic, and it contributes to the intensity and focus of his lines, which are consistently probing, always reaching towards form. He can use mutes to touch on the timbres of early jazz as well as using extended techniques to stretch momentarily towards multiphonics. There’s a certain Klezmer-like quality to his compositions, often rooted in minor keys and emphasized by the sound of Goldberg’s dry clarinet. Added to that there’s a certain spikiness and jerkiness, a mix of the pensive and kinetic that can suggest both post-bop and the music of Hanns Eisler. There are frequent collisions in Johnston’s conflicting rhythms and figures, but that too is relieved by moments of lightly consonant swing.
Given the amount of thought that Johnston is clearly putting into his work, it’s a relief that it rarely sounds studied. The compositions act as triggers for consistently taut improvisation, from the rhythmic dance between horn and rhythm to improvised solo against composed ensembles to some stunning collective improvisations that—aided by Goldberg’s slithering clarinet–are joyous enough to suggest a free jazz take on New Orleans polyphony. Few musicians could get as much out of a small ensemble: the opening “Be the Frog” is filled with timbral contrasts, including the unison figures that rise to meet Johnston’s trumpet solo; “Foggy,” with the addition of Rob Reich’s accordion, effectively alternates lead voices against ensemble punctuations in a way that’s genuinely orchestral. Micro-groupings also figure in Johnson’s strategies, from an unaccompanied segment of clarinet and tenor to a pensive interlude of bass clarinet and string bass. Johnston even takes the unusual step of having the final “Sippin’ with Lou” end with the ensemble fading into silence until Brown’s wistful tenor is left starkly alone. It’s as beautiful as it is unlikely.
Trio Viriditas – Live At Vision Festival VI (CF 115)
The band’s fruition began in 2000 during German native and multi-reedman Alfred Harth’s residence in New York City, when he aligned with bassist Wilber Morris and drummer/vibraphonist Kevin Norton. Sadly, in 2002 Morris passed away. But, the trio’s performance and recording endeavors sparked a great deal of interest and excitement within the global jazz community. It’s a facet that continues thanks to this 2008 release, culled from the group’s 2001 gig at New York City’s Vision Festival and serves as a glowing reminder of the musicians’ astonishing synergy and seemingly endless flow of ideas. Here, depth and cunning use of space signify just two components of their resonating developments within the free-form and progressive-jazz realms.
Enhanced by the superb live audio transfer to disc, the trio is a multitasking machine, anchored by Morris and Norton’s polytonal rhythmic underpinnings. And it’s a democratic engagement where Harth’s clarinet and sax lines profess a variety of probing storylines amid his band-mates’ oscillating pulses and call/response mechanisms. In effect, the musicians cast a horde of emotive aspects, whether its Harth’s gruff and edgy tonalities or when Norton paints quaint little portraitures via his deft vibes work.
They merge a somber tone with a bluesy gait, accelerated by Harth’s plaintive cries on the aptly titled “Melancholy.” However, the trio adds another dimension to the program, largely due to Harth’s concise pocket trumpet excursions atop a staggered beat, evidenced within the smack and jab parameters of “Viriditas Waltz.” Moreover, the artists engage in furious improvisational exercises, complete with abrupt spikes and melodically tinged movements. Sure enough, the unit moves forward with the grace of a deer navigating through a forest while also depicting the knockout punch of a heavyweight champ defending his title. There’s lots for the mind’s eye to ponder throughout this irrefutably, persuasive outing.
JOE MORRIS / BARRE PHILLIPS – Elm City Duets (CF 130)
What transpires from Elm City Duets after repeated dutiful listens is an impression of mutual regard, a quality which should be at the basis of cognisant interplay in every juncture. All the more complicated is fulfilling such an ambition in a guitar/double bass duo, a situation that only on the odd occasion warrants really good results – especially in terms of dynamics. Morris manifests a fan-like mindset in the liner notes, where he recalls his first meetings with Phillips many years following his “melting” the B side of Archie Shepp’s New Thing At Newport. The actual music in the CD doesn’t reveal any sort of excessive veneration, though, thus we can effortlessly appreciate the consideration given by the artists to the infinitesimal detail as opposed to prefabricated incidents. A sparkling chord occurs because it was meant to be there at that moment, yet no one knew in advance; a touching arcoed lament appears out of nowhere to project our own inner tremor in the area of unintentional thankfulness. In essence, we’re talking about a fairly untreated acoustic interface between two distinguished improvisers who give birth to frequent moments of superb artistic purity, either slightly encrusted by the strident features of the instruments or defined by an extremely efficient juxtaposition of smart clusters, percussive clattering, minimal patterns and strenuous contrapuntal digressions. In times of abundant eruptions of psycho-babbling vacuum, here’s a rare chance for the appreciation of a rather complex, yet kind-hearted expression of zealous musicianship by creative entities who have turned their will to remain unadulterated in a world of dubious circumstances into a distinct trait of tightly established earnestness, the sort of skill where even a minor blemish becomes an attribute to approve and learn from.
Peter Van Huffel / Sophie Tassignon – Hufflignon (CF 126)
Hufflignon is the result produced by a group led by Canadian saxophonist Peter Van Huffel and Belgian vocalist Sophie Tassignon flanked by trombonist Samuel Blaser and bassist Michael Bates. Van Huffel, in this instance on alto and soprano, is the owner of a sophisticated technique and a suavely faultless tone that Tassignon is all too eager to stimulate in scores including problematic dissonant lines that the couple approaches either in unison or in intertwining keenness. She doesn’t possess what one might define an immediately identifiable timbre, but is technically unyielding and, what’s best, tending to set the vocal parts at the service of the compositions instead of doing what the large part of jazz singers do, namely looking for sunny spots where worn out bebop trickery rapidly drowns the listener in thick tediousness. Blaser’s stout phrasing, in addition to his purposeful soloism, shifts the axis of the pieces towards more eccentric environments at times, while Bates’ bass is genuinely reactive to the changes in the general perspective, certifying the functionality of the quartet under any condition (never overly extreme, though). Except for a rendition of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Cum Dederit” which smells a bit of filling material (let me admit it – he’s not a composer I particularly love), the record reveals interesting manners for voice and reeds to work side by side in such a kind of framework. In spite of a not excessive degree of audacity in devising truly pioneering strategies, it constitutes a pretty convincing option against the abundance of rather irrelevant voice-based jazz recordings.
Angelica Sanchez – Life Between (CF 128 )
Life Between marks my very first meeting with the music of Angelica Sanchez, a pianist (doubling on Wurlitzer), composer and the consort of saxophonist Tony Malaby, the latter’s tasteful approach to a clever type of erudite interplay also featured here. The quintet is completed by guitarist Marc Ducret, double bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Sanchez’s writing tends to harmonic indeterminacy, permanent tonal centres practically absent or extremely blurred. Her itineraries on the keyboard, at all times informed by a sense of moderation that prevents the essential idea from going off course, are by some means redolent of certain moods of improvised jazz-rock of the 70’s (I’m especially thinking of an album called Jaco on the IAI label, a free quartet with then-puppies Pastorius and Pat Metheny aided by Bruce Ditmas and Paul Bley). Despite several touches of apparent contrapuntal turmoil themes are indubitably present, often stubbornly affirmed in between series of hardly committable-to-memory transitions, but the overall wisdom is explicated through self-directed restraint by the partakers, regardless of Ducret’s attempts to spice the whole with a few intrusions whose discordantly unkind temperament sounds perfectly complementary to the complex cuteness of the leader’s tunes. Gress and Rainey are evidently at ease in the generally not-too-nervous vibe, repeatedly taking centre stage almost unobserved to deliver the playing from any residue of schematic pachyderm-ism. To all intents and purposes, this is a well-designed record which definitely elicits gratification, although not really an innovative statement. But that’s not always a must.