Daily Archives: October 6, 2010

Point of departure review by Ed Hazell

Jason Robinson – The Two Faces of Janus (Cuneiform)
Jason Robinson – Cerberus Reigning (Accretions)
Jason Robinson + Anthony Davis – Cerulean Landscapes ( CF198)
It’s hard to get a handle on some musicians. Their CDs trickle out one at a time on different small labels with haphazard distribution. One or two might cross your path and catch your attention, but it takes a concentrated effort to track down a representative sample. Or the whimsical forces of the jazz “business” and artistic output can converge – as  they have for saxophonist-composer Jason Robinson this fall – and several simultaneous releases can make a clearer picture snap into view.

Three new CDs by Robinson – a wide-ranging collection of ensemble pieces, a subtle and thoughtful duet with pianist Anthony Davis, and a solo electro-acoustic album – paint an impressive picture indeed. A Californian now based at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Robinson brings a penetrating intellect and a warm expansive sound to each of these projects. He has well developed ideas specific to each setting and it’s the clear thinking behind them as much as the genuine feeling he conveys that mark him as an exceptional new voice.

Clearly he’s a composer and improviser with skill and ambition that have far outstripped the recognition he’s received. Eyes in the Back of My Head, the 2008 Cuneiform release by Cosmologic, the collaborative quartet of which he’s a member, probably garnered wider attention than other release he appeared on. His own albums, including Tandem (Accretions), a 2002 duet album with heavy hitters such as George Lewis, Davis, and Peter Kowald, and another solo album have languished in obscurity.

On The Two Faces of Janus, Robinson uses reed players Marty Ehrlich, Rudresh Mahantappa, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer George Schuller in different combinations ranging from duos to full sextet. As a composer, Robinson, who holds a Ph.D. in music from the University of California, San Diego, uses his learning in the best possible way: as a foundation for his own original creativity. The legacy of bebop lingers in the long, twisting melody of “Return to Pacasmayo” and you can sense the presence of Ellington in the sensuous voicings of “Tides of Consciousness Fading,” but ultimately what you hear is Robinson. His compositions are well constructed, with every note accounted for and every phrase in place, which gives them a lyrical economy and clarity that admirably focuses and sets up the soloists. “The Elders,” for instance, is a piece that ebbs and flows over shifting tempos and never seems to settle harmonically. Robinson and the rhythm section keep the entire performance floating in the ambiguous space defined by the composition. The focus is also evident on two brief duets with Ehrlich, “Huaca de la Luna,” which is confined primarily to exploring timbre, and “Huaca del Sol,” which is an exercise in linear counterpoint. As a soloist Robinson has a warm, friendly tone, assertive, but not aggressive, and a modest way of delivering really swinging and often brilliant ideas, sort of like a modern day Hank Mobley. On “Paper Tiger,” played with just Gress and Schuller, and “Cerberus Reigning,” with the quartet again, he doesn’t rub his solos in your face, but if you pay attention, there’s plenty to hear.

Robinson’s sense of musical architecture as a composer and soloist makes him a good match for pianist Anthony Davis, with whom he studied at the University of California, San Diego. Cerulean Landscape is a deeply engaged conversation, subtle, informed, and thoughtful without being pedantic or stuffy. The music has a satisfying balance and there’s an intimate glow in the lively interplay play of ideas between them. “Andrew,” for example, sets up two polar extremes – a Cecil Taylor like theme of wide intervals and a snaking Tristano-like line. Robinson and Davis interweave the two approaches in a variety of ways, sometimes alternating hot and cold phrases, sometimes letting passages crescendo or decrescendo, sometimes fusing the two within the same phrase. “Translucence” (which features Robinson’s sumptuous alto flute playing) and “Shimmer” draw on Ellington and Mingus as well as Debussy and Janacek, and they use the resulting harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary – sort of jazzy, sort of not – in graceful and articulate performances. Davis dusts off “Of Blues and Dreams” for a well-paced, architecturally solid exploration that skillfully blends writing and improvising.

On Cerberus Reigning, Robinson ventures into territory that’s quite different from the Cuneiform and Clean Feed discs. The second of a projected trilogy of solo performances, this disc features Robinson on tenor and soprano saxophones and alto flute, all electronically manipulated in real time. The music, as he points out, is less about the individual instruments and more about the performer who is generating and structuring sound. As he’s shown on his two other fall 2010 releases, Robinson is has a highly developed ability to structure music, either spontaneously or in writing, so each track is shaped into a pleasing whole. The electronic manipulations form structural elements, looped samples create patterns, tempos are controlled, and distorted lines make melodic contours impossible to make any other way. But tone color and texture play larger roles here than on the other two discs. Robinson uses the technology to create a huge palette of electro-acoustic sound, ranging from glassy drones to Jew’s harp twangs to watery bubbles. As Robinson writes in the liner notes, he’s a fan of Greek and Roman mythology and science fiction, and rethinks certain stories to “create new myth-science narratives.” Sometimes sounds that resemble the wind or waves or a foghorn evoke settings that reinforce the dreamlike mythic narrative that loosely guides the disc. On three tracks he performs duets with a program that generates music independent from or in response to his instrumental input. For Robinson, the technology becomes a means to extend the storytelling power of jazz, expand sonic possibilities, and build structures unique to the fusion of acoustic and electronic sound production. It’s this ability to consider and simultaneously work with so many aspects of the situations he creates for himself that mark Robinson as a composer and performer to watch.

Point of Departure review by Troy Collins

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch – What Is Known (CF192)
One could count on one hand the number of high-profile female bassists currently working in jazz and improvised music; Joëlle Léandre and Esperanza Spaulding come to mind, but very few others. Adding Lisa Mezzacappa to the short list in the near future is a good bet; the Bay Area bassist’s CV is as varied as her talents are impressive. A former student of Henry Threadgill and Myra Melford, Mezzacappa has worked with Meredith Monk and the Sun Ra Arkestra in addition to leading and co-leading a number of bands, including the chamber-esque electro-acoustic quintet Nightshade, metal jazz band Go-Go Fightmaster and the film noir trio Citta di Vitti. What Is Known is the debut recording of Bait & Switch, a reconfiguration of Go-Go Fightmaster that plays what Mezzacappa affectionately terms garage jazz.

Basing her thorny compositions on transcriptions of fragments culled from the improvisations of such seventies-era avant-garde heavyweights as Air, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch delivers a raw, unfettered dose of primal expressionism that also works as sophisticated modern jazz. The album’s only covers are a beautifully understated bass solo interpretation of Air drummer Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” and a riotous tear through Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby,” with Mezzacappa’s labyrinthine originals drawing inspiration from similarly divergent sources.

Throughout these convoluted episodes, John Finkbeiner’s grimy electric guitar salvos, Aaron Bennett’s woolly tenor saxophone eruptions and Vijay Anderson’s percussive maelstroms drive the music with a visceral blend of focus and frenzy. Eschewing conventional forms in favor of oblique narratives, Mezzacappa’s episodic tunes follow their own twisted logic, balancing the spectral impressionism of “The Cause & Effect of Emotion & Distance” with the withering volume of the title track. Encapsulating an array of expressive instrumental sonorities, the quartet’s cogent interplay is a compelling feature of this dynamic session, exemplified by the drummer-less trio interlude of “Richard’s House of Blues” and a pair of pithy duets on “Ponzi” – first between Anderson and Mezzacappa, followed by Bennett and Finkbeiner. The quartet’s headlong approach towards collective and individual improvisation is balanced by their contrapuntal precision during pre-written sections, providing dramatic contrast and expansive detail to Mezzacappa’s vibrant compositions.

Regularly overshadowed by the East Coast, the West Coast jazz scene has been responsible for fostering the careers of a number of key avant-garde innovators over the decades, from Bobby Bradford, John Carter and Horace Tapscott in the ‘60s to present-day luminaries like Nels Cline and Vinny Golia. An impressive debut, What Is Known embraces this lineage, establishing a foothold for Mezzacappa in this revered continuum; expect to hear more from her in the future.

Point of Departure review by Stuart Broomer

Urs Leimgruber + Evan Parker Twine (CF194CD)
Urs Leimgruber – Chicago Solo (Leo CD)
The Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber has been active in free improvisation for several decades and he is a master of those things usually referred to as extended techniques – circular breathing, multiphonics, the use of key pads as percussion, and fingering and tonguing so rapid that either can suggest a nervous tapping on a telegraph key. That resemblance to a telegraph key is central for it suggests both the rapidity of thought and the movement outward, lines shooting out into open spaces already colonized by the prior (now simultaneous) flocks of birds and phantom oscillators present in Leimgruber’s soundscape. Some of the techniques were first developed or combined by Evan Parker and John Butcher, two fountainheads of solo saxophone technique, but that is strangely irrelevant here. Leimgruber has assembled, developed and mastered the elements of what is increasingly a central language of saxophone improvisation and he has been deploying it for his own distinct musical ends in a series of solo recordings over the past two decades. It’s not a language or a style until a group of people possess and use it, and Urs Leimgruber has his own voice, or voices.

Chicago Solo, recorded in 2009, invokes Evan Parker’s 1995 recording  (on Okka Disk) of the same name in which Parker first applied himself at length to solo tenor saxophone. It also invokes the Chicago milieu in which Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and Anthony Braxton first gave regular voice to improvised horn solos, now a central form in improvised music. It is Leimgruber’s most developed solo statement to date. It consists of three pieces, entitled simply “One, “Two” and “Three.” “One” is an epic soprano solo, a voyage of 27’23” in which Leimgruber begins with tenuous high notes then gradually asserts his varied voices, which wander, explore, shift mood, combine, disperse and transform auditory terrain (there is an oasis of fluting bird sounds), all with a commanding interior logic.

In “Two,” a 19-minute tenor solo, Leimgruber transfers many of the same techniques to the deeper horn, though the effect of the piece is utterly different. It is as if the pieces of sound are breaking together, fragmenting into one another, thus rather than a line–a melody, even– breaking up into micro components, a phrase, a line, a sequence will suddenly arise out of the fragments and sonic wisps with which he works. This tenuous melody will launch another, more secure, arpeggiated and multiphonic line, and so on. Often the characteristic sounds of one of the saxophone’s zones will leak into the next like a sonic glance backward, a question about the meaning or even the presence of a relationship. 

The relatively brief “Three” return to soprano and an assemblage of high squeaks and quavering multiphonics. It may suggest a man testing doorbells for another dimension or a shakuhachi virtuoso summoning hypothetical birds.

Twine  comes from a duo concert recorded at The Loft in Köln in 2007 when Leimgruber and Parker were touring together. The two are extraordinary duo players as well as soloists and the music is often overwhelming in terms of the sheer complexity and rapidity of the interaction. It is frankly too dense to isolate or describe passages from either the two long tenor duos or the soprano duo that they bracket. I was reminded of the group Quartet Noir in which Leimgruber plays with Joelle Léandre, Marilyn Crispell and Fritz Hauser. One would expect, in even the subtlest hands that such a group would start to sound like the saxophone with rhythm section that it so clearly resembles visually. Instead it almost never sounds like one, because Leimgruber doesn’t assume the saxophone’s insistently foregrounded position. Instead he burrows into the music , his lines emerging through those of the bass, piano and drums, so that the result is an absolutely cohesive quartet music. He is a master conversationalist, much of which, of course, consists in getting other people to talk, or more appropriately in these situations, to go on, to elaborate, to get it all out. At times here the horns play together as a continuous outpouring of lines in which one will sympathetically echo the other, respond , cajole, cluck sympathetically. Often it’s musical dialogue played at such velocity and density that you’re never quite sure where statement ends and comment begins. Or, if it’s two soloists simply rushing on, how do they manage to be so alike, so attuned to one another’s time and lines? Twine is a very special performance (string, entwined, between, twins, the uniformity of rope).

Point of Departure review by Brian Morton

Julian Argüelles – Ground Rush (CF191)
There’s an apparent nod to Coltrane in the title of the opening “Mr MC”, but tenor saxophonist Julian Argüelles’ language is all Rollins, a nicely articulated bop line that is quickly doubled by the bass in a quick, intimate exchange or out front in a more abstract version of itself. After the propulsive opening, Argüelles tugs back on the beat, spinning out a set of nice variations on the line that seems to revolve round a single, ladder-like run down the scale. There’s another tenor saxophone homage right at the end, or at least one assumes that “Redman” is a nod to Dewey and at every sort of level this makes sense, because the other obvious source for these tersely melodic, harmonically sprung pieces is the Ornette Coleman Trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett.

Michael Formanek even manages to find something of Izenzon’s rich cantorial authority on the opening track and it is he who winds up the long ostinato mid-section that, in turn, highlights Tom Rainey’s drumming. The unexpected dance feel gives way to the quiet ‘Fife’, a sea-fogged – they call it ‘haar’ there – meditation that links a number of isolated ideas into one satisfying sequence, held together by Formanek’s bass.

Like “Know Excuses” later, and at precisely the same duration, “Filthy Rich” is a group improvisation or collective composition. It’s difficult to judge which is more likely. One thing one has learned about Argüelles is that he is capable of finding melody in almost any setting and context, whether in a big band or playing with minimum accompaniment. He doesn’t even seem to rely on Formanek for a root chord and operates confidently without obvious support.

“Blood Eagle” anticipates the Redman connection with a staccato statement and tight percussion packed in behind the saxophone. Anyone not familiar with Dewey’s Coincide with Sirone and Eddie Moore might not consider the link convincing, albeit in a gentler mode on Argüelles’s record. “From One JC To Another” is another thoughtful idea, with the saxophonist – who plays tenor throughout; no baritone this time – working up in the higher register for significant parts of the way. It’s obvious what “Bulerias” draws from flamenco, an Iberian tinge and some limber, balls-of-the-feet playing, but the form is quickly enough dispensed with. It reveals another aspect of Argüelles’s complex musical inheritance, though, and it’s never been more confidently integrated with his other interests.

This is a second outing for the trio, following Partita on the Basho label. It unmistakably represents a step forward, not just in the integration of voices but also in Argüelles’s ability to deliver thoughtful, open-ended themes that are just as satisfying as “songs” as they are as bases for improvisations. There’s good reason to wonder whether close personal contact with the Rae family – Cathie is his partner – has opened him up to musical sources he might previously have overlooked. One hesitates to call them “folkish”, but there is something of that simple but subtly inflected narration to the writing and playing. With this, Argüelles stakes a claim to the front rank in British and European jazz, except he’s already a confidently cosmopolitan figure.

JazzMag review by Philippe Méziat