Daily Archives: February 8, 2010

Audiophile Audition review by Doug Simpson

Samuel Blaser Quartet – Pieces of Old Sky (CF 151)
Space – a sense of isolation, independence and personal investigation into interior and exterior elements – pervades Pieces of Old Sky, trombonist Samuel Blaser’s fourth release as leader. Blaser, returning collaborator Thomas Morgan (bass) and new members Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Todd Neufeld (guitar), traverse along ambient/free jazz terrain that has a depth of vision and clarity revealing musical maturity beyond Blaser’s nearly three decades of life (he was born in 1981).

This 56-minute, 7-track outing has a scope and sound similar to some artists associated with the ECM label as well as modern creative composers like Henry Threadgill and Grachan Moncur III. In other words, Blaser’s work combines reflective ambience with material that looks to the past (Mingus’ and Monk’s influence can be heard at times) as well as the future (there is much innovation and a quest for discovery that is felt throughout) while building art that has a desolate refinement.

Pieces of Old Sky commences with the 17-minute title track, an epic opus that exemplifies the quartet’s meditative mannerism. Neufeld sketches soundscapes on guitar while Blaser contributes understated hues that give a spectral solicitation to the slowly revolving improvisation. This is a tune that requires patience, since there is no sure resolution. The rhythm section provides soft measured bass and percussion punctuation, at times just a plucked note or a brushed cymbal. About ten minutes in, the song takes on a bluesy configuration, Blaser offering an absorbing trombone solo as Sorey and Morgan render a brisker stride. The piece concludes as it starts with a contemplative poise filled with instinctive pauses.

The band’s pensive personality is also mirrored during two twinned interludes, “Choral I” and “Choral II,” both under three minutes. The first condensed cut is a dulcet duet between Blaser and Neufeld. The moderate sounds seem to accentuate the vast silences and muted colors of the slipcase artwork: the empty slate of sky, the drab gray-brown of the urban buildings, the watered mistiness of low-lying clouds and the absence of life. The same lingering melody runs through the second brief bestowal. The album-ender, “Choral II,” though, includes all four players, who underscore the impression of half-invisible ghosts that trail among the gentle, watchful notes.

“Red Hook” is an explicit stimulant where the four musicians bump up the tempo and demonstrate they can maneuver through a complex arrangement with virtuosity while maintaining a group cohesiveness. Blaser blazes on his horn, his animated tone giving structure to the free-flowing, eight-minute cut while also assisting in adjusting the tune so it never seems too straightforward. Blaser’s approach to phrasing is outstanding, displaying his complete and decisive control. Sorey helps furnish “Red Hook” a restlessness as he continually shifts moods with deftness and dispatch. The composition eventually modifies into a free-jazz section that features avid improvisation that includes a distorted Neufeld effort and also has Sorey in a near fervor on his toms and cymbals.

“Speed Game” is comparable. The song is not the noisy nugget the title implies but it does have a vivid impact. There is dynamic dialogue between Blaser, Sorey and Neufeld. Blaser confirms his command of multiphonics and his ability to utilize prolonged, low tones akin to a tuba or bass trombone. As the foursome works their way via the knotty arrangement they exhibit an incendiary discipline and an understanding that attains an almost extrasensory level of communication.

“Mystical Circle” is another elongated enterprise tinged with a sensation of secluded pathos. Each player responds to the somber disposition with sympathy. Neufeld presents a bell-like style, his strings echoing in the background as Blaser inserts clusters of trombone chords into the arrangement. Sorey’s bass courses with determination while Sorey illustrates the importance of allowing music to breathe at a slow tempo and that a percussionist can be charismatic without resorting to busy beats.

“Mandala” is a further memorable venture. The 11-minute piece has a shaded characteristic. The distilled and sparse arrangement finds the quartet performing a contoured blues motif. Blaser expresses an ebbing inclination that inches forward until he and the others generate a faster setting. The wiry form never disappears but Blaser and Neufeld do add fragments of rumble and torque. Here, Neufeld uses chordal choices and intonations divorced of any transparent influences, although Ralph Towner’s impressionistic focus comes to mind. Morgan’s bass carries a similar poise and providence.

Joe Marciano does a superb supporting role as audio engineer/mixer. From the all but inaudible opening to the last ending note, Marciano and producer Blaser sustain a polished depth. Each impeccably tapped percussive element, every nuance of phrasing stands out purposeful and complete. Marciano ably captures the album’s shrouded ambience, where shading and texture are important. This attention to detail is a hallmark of other Clean Feed projects and bodes well for the label and the jazz experts connected with the company.

Jazz Review review by Glenn Astarita

Michael Attias – Renku in Coimbra (CF 162)
A renku is a form of Japanese poetry that originated over one thousand years ago.  Here, superfine and somewhat under-recognized saxophonist Michael Attias uses the renku as an interactive jazz frontier with his crack rhythm section.  The musicians have performed on and off since 2003.  Unsurprisingly, their intuition and synergy looms rather prolifically throughout.  Thus, Attias is one of the best in the biz, and this 2009 endeavor reemphasizes that notion in glimmering fashion.

The trio attains a translucent balance, where sheer-might, eloquence and capacious movements ride atop buoyant, asymmetrical pulses.  Attias is a fluent technician who injects variable amounts of gusto, soul and warmth into the grand scheme, while possessing a fluent attack.  On sax great Lee Konitz’ “Thingin,” the musicians gel to a carefree setting, sparked by Satoshi Takeishi’s dance-like brush patterns across the snare drum.  Moreover, Attias’ conjures up a wistful mindset as the band gradually instills tension, which is an element that carries forth on the following and somewhat scrappy free-form piece, “Do & the Birds.”

It’s no secret that Takeishi is a multitasking performer.  With this outing, he integrates small percussion implements and tiny cymbal hits to add texture and rhythmic color.  And Attias is a master at understating a primary melody line, akin to the intent of an author unfolding a plot.  The trio effectively mixes it up during late saxophonist Jimmy Lyons’ composition “Sorry,” as they render a scorching bump and grind motif, spotted with variable flows and the leader’s sizzling flurries.  They close out the program with a reprise of the first piece “Creep,” via extended unison notes and Attias’ harmonious alignment with bassist John Hebert.  Sure enough, Attias and his associates are at the very top of their game throughout this irrefutably compelling musical statement.

All About Jazz feature on Harris Eisenstadt by Clifford Allen

One normally thinks of the drummer-bandleader chair in this music as easily given to a mentality that embraces “more is more.” Whether bombastic or just plain full, drummers’ bands often focus on mass, rhythm and time. In the post-free arena, leaders like Gerry Hemingway, John Hollenbeck and Harris Eisenstadt have learned not only that every instrument can be a drum, but that the drum can be every instrument and that the drummer’s role in creative music is as guide, follower, accent and architect.

Eisenstadt was born in Toronto in 1975 and though the drums were early on a part of his life (his dad was an amateur rock drummer), his main interest as a teenager was athletics. “As a five-year-old listening to my dad playing along to cassettes in the basement, I thought that this was what I wanted to do. I started with snare drum and I became a classical percussionist in junior high school. I went to Maine to play baseball at Colby College, quit that and played in a rock band doing gigs around the East Coast. That’s what I did throughout my entire undergrad until 1998 and after hearing Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, I began distancing myself from rock music.”

In 1999, Eisenstadt was “at the right place at the right time” and met two key people who would help further his work: Adam Rudolph and Wadada Leo Smith. Through Rudolph, “I learned that Leo Smith had set up a program at CalArts and, as it was in its infancy, Leo was able to set up scholarship money and I ended up getting a two-year tuition waiver.” Eisenstadt stayed in Southern California until moving back to New York in 2006, but his experiences there were extremely influential to his concept. “I think that the greatest asset from Leo Smith as a composition teacher [from 1999-2001] was the moment when I brought him material every week that he’d chop up and say ‘okay, here’s what you’ve got left.’ He had an incredible knack for stripping away what’s unnecessary in his own and others’ work and what is left is a polished diamond.”

Eisenstadt was also fortunate to have the experience of spending significant time exploring drum culture in West Africa. “Adam Rudolph introduced me to Foday Musa Suso, a kora player. In Gambia, I stayed with him and his family and he organized traditional drumming teachers for me. I showed up at the airport in Banjul in the middle of December 2002 and the next day I was taken to the drummers’ compound and every day for the next two months I studied traditional drumming. I went to all the traditional events that they played for—weddings, baby namings, life cycle changes, manhood and womanhood training and things like that.” For six weeks in the spring of 2007, Eisenstadt went to Senegal on a grant, ostensibly to teach film music though “it paid my ticket and living expenses and I had enough money left over to study traditional Senegalese drumming. I spent my time shuttling between my teachers’ compound and going to hear Mbalax, which is the modern Senegalese music you hear in nightclubs.”

Eisenstadt has dedicated two records to the experience of studying in parts of Africa—Jalolu (CIMP, 2003) and Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008). The latter is a combination of very particulate arrangements of Mbalax songs inside structures based on Sabar rhythms. Sputtering, split-toned trumpets carry the high, while the acute skim of Eisenstadt’s cymbals and Mark Taylor’s French horn take up the middle range. Any thickness is obtained through sections of closely-valued hues and the added bonus of baritone saxophone (there is no bass, nor a chordal instrument).

Though busy with an extraordinary number of projects, not to mention a young family, two working ensembles are the nonet Woodblock Prints and the quintet Canada Day, which released its self-titled disc on Clean Feed late in 2009. Woodblock Prints is the third in a series of recordings for midsized ensemble (Fight or Flight, Newsonic, 2002 and The All-Seeing Eye + Octets, Poo-Bah, 2006) that draws on jazz as well as chamber music influences in both compositional approach and instrumentation. As with any of his projects, Eisenstadt gives Canada Day a clear definition. “If there’s any kind of archetype for that group, it would be my love letter to the Miles quintet filtered through a ’60s Blue Note thing with vibraphone replacing piano. It’s not a large group and not a small group; it has a perfect combination of sparseness and richness in terms of orchestration.

“The music of Canada Day is based on forms—even if they’re very open, they’re still songs. The band lineup was solidified on July 1, 2007, which is Canada Day. It just seemed like a good name and it was appropriately titled. Canada is a big part of who I am. It’s where I grew up. The record is all about dedication—that’s important in how I title my work.” With regular collaborators in trumpeter Nate Wooley and vibraphonist Chris Dingman, the group also features Norwegian-born bassist Eivind Opsvik and tenor man Matt Bauder. With Bauder called in to sub for the Broadway musical Fela in February, cellist Chris Hoffman will replace him on a series of new quintet pieces, separating the lineup from any Wayne Shorter/Joe Chambers outfit of yore.

“I spent a lot of my decade as a bandleader-composer taking Wadada Leo Smith’s advice. He said ‘if you’re going to get something together, think about unusual instrumentation and sonorities and think about challenging yourself from an orchestration or arranging concept.’ So a lot of my groups have been about having a somewhat unconventional instrumentation.” The upset of structural complacency, coupled with an approach to writing that centers on paring down, is what gives Harris Eisenstadt’s music a feel far from the expectations of a percussionist’s band.

Selected Discography:
Harris Eisenstadt Quintet, Jalolu (CIMP, 2003)
Harris Eisenstadt, The Soul and Gone (482 Music, 2004)
Harris Eisenstadt, Ahimsa Orchestra (Nine Winds, 2004-5)
Harris Eisenstadt, The All Seeing Eye + Octets (Poo-Bah, 2006)
Harris Eisenstadt, Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008)
Harris Eisenstadt, Canada Day (Clean Feed, 2009)