Daily Archives: July 28, 2010

Free Jazz review by Stef Gissels

Stephen Gauci, Kris Davis, Michael Bisio – Three (CF 189)
In the past years, I praised saxophonist Stephen Gauci’s to the stars, I praised pianist Kris Davis for her innovative musical creativity, and I praised bassist Michael Bisio for his inventive and emotional playing. Then you get them as a trio, and it’s a guarantee that sparks will fly.

The playing is unconventional, so is the structure of the compositions, and so are the order of the pieces, starting with “The End Must Always Come”, starting heads-on with heavy piano chords and a frantic right hand, with Bisio’s bass trying to keep up with Davis’s stream of consciousness. Gauci joins with short staccato bursts, then starting with wild phrases with the piano circling around the same tonal center, gradually increasing the wild intensity, yet gradually the piano limits itself to repetitive phrasing over a single note bass, and beautiful soloing by the sax, full of resignation for the inevitable, giving up all struggle, leaving the floor to the polyrhythmic repetitive piano.In short, a kind of strangely evolving piece, yet full of depth, introducing the listener into a real wonderland.

“Like A Dream, A Phantom” starts with solo sax, with a piano response in an almost post-boppish way – I almost expected Davis to start grunting along like Jarrett, shifting from slow romanticism to more intensity, with Gauci organically joining in with repetitions of the same note, the piano dropping away, and Gauci’s heartrending playing tenderly supported by the warmth of the bass, mirroring the growth of intensity by the piano earlier in the piece.

The most expressive piece is without a doubt “Something From Nothing”, with the piano, sax and bass playing muted percussive sounds, like a mad and relentless rhythm section, with the occasional voiced note arising out of the agitation, now a piano key, then a single sax tone, or a string plucked. The piece’s magnificent restraint creates an equal level of tension, that is gradually, ever so slowly released, not in a tune, but in a rhythmic playing with the same notes, around which the three instruments start adding tiny expansions, maintaining all the while the relentless tempo they set from the start.

I will not review each track. You get the picture: each piece is a carefully and inventively structured piece, capturing the soul of music, changing the familiar upside-down without changing it completely, offering new perspectives on interaction, making the unexpected essential in each piece, treating the listener to fantastic ear-candy and to some fun too: on “Groovin’ For The Hell Of It”, a quite free development suddenly hits the wall of a halted piano rhythm, going totally against the established groove, sounding like the sax is taken by surprise, but smoothing things out as they proceed. The same playfulness in the interaction can also be heard on the last track.

And despite all the wide explorations of the possibilities of the instruments, it stays relatively accessible, even Bisio’s fantastic “Now”, a bass solo beyond the conventional, with a few piano strings plucked in the middle part.

The album’s highlight is “No Reason To Or Not To”, a slow minimalist yet wonderfully lyrical piece, on which the trio sets down a mood and atmosphere with sparse sounds, not built around solos, but around a few cautious phrases.

An absolute delight, this album. You can keep listening to it: joy and new pleasures guaranteed with each listen. Without a doubt, these three musicians understand music in a very profound way and manage to create music that is also utterly creative and deep. Don’t miss it. 

Pitchfork review by Joe Tangari

Dual Identity – Dual Identity (CF 172)
Exploring jazz is contagious. You hear one record, and it leads to your listening to five others because of who’s on them. There are entry points and major landmarks that everyone ought to hear. A lot of curious listeners who start out in rock do this– it’s fun and relatively easy. Finding your way into modern jazz is much tougher. For one thing, there are dozens of strains, and a lot of the good stuff in the progressive vein isn’t built around familiar, singable tunes like “Autumn Leaves” or “My Favorite Things”. Jazz has had its cerebral qualities since the 1920s, but super-heady composition and playing have become central to forward-looking jazz, partly as a reaction to its becoming less a mainstream music and more of a world populated by enthusiasts. So where do you start? How about right here? Dual Identity is the result of a quintet session led by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Lehman, and it embodies a lot of the exciting, bracing playing and ideas coursing through progressive jazz circles.

Mahanthappa and Lehman are, to put it bluntly, two of the finest saxophonists going. They’ve each built styles from a patchwork of inspirational sources, including each other. Mahanthappa, an American, has blended his Indian heritage into his unique style through his studies with Kadri Gopalnath, a player who managed to adapt the sax into the Carnatic tradition of Indian classical music. Lehman played in Anthony Braxton’s band at 22 and studied with Jackie McLean, and his style broadly bridges bop and free-jazz sensibilities. Together on this record, they are a force to be reckoned with, leading a dual attack that’s often jaw-dropping, as their rhythm section of guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Damion Reid sympathetically bends itself to their will.

The two eschew unison playing and straight harmonizing in favor of a double lead style that lets their distinct voices on the instrument sing at once– it’s amazing that they never clash. “Circus” opens with a quiet but jagged groove, and both saxophonists launch in at once, playing an intricate, rhythmically varied counterpoint that gradually unspools into an improvised duet. It’s like a conversation in a Woody Allen movie, where everyone has the perfect rejoinder or seems to know the next word out of someone else’s mouth. But it’s not just a two-way conversation. Reid and Brewer talk their way through beats that alternately swing and flay, while Ellman is an accomplished and idiosyncratic soloist in his own right, and he gets his chances to shine here as well. His solo on “SMS” is brilliantly weird, as the rest of the band drops out and he takes a circuitous route through the various tonalities represented in the composition.

So yes, Dual Identity is a great entry into progressive jazz. It’s not an easy listen, but its intensity and invention go some distance to open the record up to listeners who aren’t up on the genre. Fans of progressive jazz will find a trove of riches to dive into here as well. We won’t get a history of contemporary jazz for some time, and the era of jazz stars known outside the jazz world is mostly over, but Mahanthappa and Lehman seem likely to find themselves well-ensconced in that future history, and this record shows why.