Michael Dessen Trio – Forget the Pixel (CF 222)
Michael Dessen is a California-based trombonist, a former member of/composer for the memorable band Cosmologic and a frequent colleague of bassist Mark Dresser. At one time a student of George Lewis, Dessen appropriately combines brilliant trombone skills with interests in electronics and novel compositional strategies. His trio includes bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer Dan Weiss and he describes Forget the Pixel as an “hour-long cycle of music designed for this trio to perform in a single, continuous set. ”The end result is a remarkable achievement. If the timbral possibilities of a trombone-bass-drum band might seem limited, Dessen varies things with electronics and the trio maintains constant interest through a multi-leveled interaction of compositional methodologies, collective improvisation and polyrhythmic exploration. There are multiple senses of movement and development going on at once in this music, as it makes its way from the furious swing, jazzy bluster and electronics of the opening “Fossils and Flows” to the serene conclusion of “The Utopian Sense of Green”, in which the players summon up all the calm and grace of a Japanese garden. Along the way, the music repeatedly finds original dimensions, as in the elongated dialogue of “Three Sepals”, a piece that is born in Dessen’s sweetly traditional legato trombone then gradually opens into a field in which first Tordini, then the others seem to beetching the barest rhythmic and melodic materials on silence. A similarly broad canvas on the title track becomes a series of micro-explosions and dislocations: Dessen’s opening vocalic explosion gradually accumulates an electronic self-commentary; there are passages of pointillist scattershot bass and a long trio sequence in which Weiss’ snare drum seems to tie together the group’s multiple rhythms in a compact bundle. It’s fascinating work by an exceptional group of musicians, at times combining the cheery openness of song with a sense of underlying tectonic mystery.
Bobby Bradford/Mark Dresser/Glen Ferris – Live in LA (CF 241)
While often compared to the Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry quartets of the early ‘60s, the work of reedman John Carter (1929-91) and cornetist Bobby Bradford (1934) in Los Angeles from the late ‘60s through the mid ‘80s is anything but Coleman-esque. Chief among the reasons why and how their music differed was its chamber sensibility, fueled by sparse, moody reservation and parallelism amid multi-part arrangements. That’s not to say the Carter-Bradford Quartet wasn’t equally full of bebop energy or bluesy swagger, but those elements were approached as part of a vast aesthetic reach. At the heart of the quartet was the interplay between trumpet and woodwinds and their powerful swing didn’t necessarily require a bassist and drummer to get things done. Bradford has carried his incisive, round tone and attack to a number of extraordinary recordings in the post-Carter era, one of which is an unforgettable trio date with bassist Mark Dresser and trombonist Glenn Ferris. The program is a mixture of group improvisations and compositions by the trio’s members, though only one is a Bradford original (the oft-recorded “Comin’ On”). Ferris is probably the least well known of the group – while he’s recorded with Steve Lacy and Don Ellis, his Parisian expatriate lifestyle has kept him from being a household name. That’s too bad, because he’s one of the most fascinatingly expressive trombonists this side of Roswell Rudd and Albert Mangelsdorff. His vocal chortles, whines and guffaws are built into a measured language that displays a range of emotions, from pathos to bemusement, with a few ‘bugle flicks’. Bradford’s brawny elegance is in an almost ‘straight man’ role compared to Ferris, ebulliently swinging through even the most abstract of situations. The closing “Ready to Go” is an aptly-titled dirge composed by the trombonist, in which a stately Bill Harris-worthy hymn is declaimed atop Dresser’s low-slung pizzicato, gradually picking up the trumpeter’s sure-yet-brittle commentary. The bassist’s “For Bradford” opens the set, its theme likely drawn from fragments of the trumpeter’s compositions. Its dedicatee crackles through thick, gobbed phrases, making deep statements that are airily emphatic as he stretches, crumples and punctuates in a way that quickly unifies the group’s collectivity. Bradford is always a player to sit up and pay attention to, but Live in LA provides an especially powerful setting that should be required listening.
Marty Ehrlich’s Rites Quartet – Frog Leg Logic (CF 242)
The first thing you notice about Marty Ehrlich is the sound of his alto saxophone. It’s one of the great alto tones, round and full and summoning up great traditions, touching on presences like Benny Carter and Cannonball Adderley in its richness and yet with an expressive edge that speaks of the blues and that free alto tradition – one that runs through Ornette Coleman and Julius Hemphill, Ehrlich’s immediate mentor. Those historical resonances, embedded in his sound, extend through the compositions here and also through the way he’s put together his band. Ehrlich’s pieces move from the sprightly freebop of the opening title track to the resilient beauty of “Ballade“ and “My Song“ to the oddly cerebral funk of “You Can Beat the Slanted Card“ and “The Gravedigger’s Respite“. There’s a consistent feeling of the classic about Frog Leg Logic in the way the compositions are mated to the members of this edition of the Rites Quartet. JamesZollar is a trumpeter of great subtlety, whether burnishing the melody of “Ballade“ or using mutes to summon up and transform ancient traditions. Cellist Hank Roberts frequently contributes a high-pitched equivalent of a walking bass, but he’s just as adept at adding a distinctive bowed voice to the ensembles or solos of genuine emotional resonance, including the Asian touches that decorate the slightly eerie “WalkAlong the Way“. Drummer Michael Sarin is equally masterful at filling out Ehrlich’s thematic inspirations, from ironic back-beats to the drive of the title track. There’s tremendous freedom here as well, as each soloist rewrites the mood and direction of the pieces. Ehrlich has crafted a setting in which he can soar and every solo testifies to it, lighting up the music with free flights in which bop and blues materials are transmuted into an intense personal lyricism.
Joe McPhee / Ingebrigt Haker Flaten – Brooklyn DNA (CF 244)
Veteran multi-reedman, trumpeter and consummate improviser Joe McPhee—along with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten—serenades Brooklyn, NY, with allusions to tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins’ historic practice sessions under the Brooklyn Bridge and other inferences from the days of yore, on Brooklyn DNA. In recent years, the borough has enjoyed a bit of momentum with its chic restaurants and music venues, while serving as the residential area of choice for many artists. This duo’s intimacy and like-minded communion of musical spirits offer an upbeat and rather complex chain of musical events articulated with lyrically rich song forms and journeys into the freer realm.
The duo’s semi-structured approach draws upon abstracts but is not dominated by an avant-garde perspective. Nonetheless, McPhee is a dazzling, multifaceted improviser who joggles the psyche. In this program, the two communicate a loose game plan assembled with tangible harmonic applications and wily improvisational jaunts. Therefore, “Putnam Central” (named for a Brooklyn social club attended by Charlie Parker and others) is a piece that toggles between earnestness and mutable dynamics.
McPhee’s breathy, rhythmic, and darting pocket trumpet notes ride above Flaten’s nimbly executed countermeasures, where a semblance of camaraderie is occasionally dissected with moments of angst. Paralleling a social club, the duo executes a surfeit of dips, spikes and mutant themes. Perhaps mimicking the noise of a congenial get-together, the musicians mingle an abundance of emotive aspects without veering off into a cosmic void. Here, art prolifically mimics life.
Elliott Sharp Trio – Aggregat (CF 250)
Long revered for his innovative approach to the electric guitar, composer Elliott Sharp’s laudable but lesser known skills as a saxophonist finally come to the fore on Aggregat. Accompanied by bassist Brad Jones and drummer Ches Smith, Sharp performs on soprano and tenor saxophones, in addition to his main axe. In light of Sharp’s oeuvre, this atypically straightforward trio setting intriguingly frames his progressive aesthetic within the context of a cross-generational ensemble.
Jones came to prominence performing with the Jazz Passengers and Marc Ribot in the Downtown NYC scene, a decade after luminaries like Sharp and John Zorn had established a creative foothold. Smith’s resume bridges the gap between generations, with memberships in the bands of veterans such as Ribot and Tim Berne, as well as in those of younger peers like Mary Halvorson and Trevor Dunn. Transcending differences in age and experience, the trio revels in freewheeling avant-garde accord, infusing every twist, turn and detour of Sharp’s idiosyncratic interpretations of the jazz tradition with vim and vigor.
Although Sharp’s solo guitar recording Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! (Clean Feed, 2006) confirmed his interest in more conventional aspects of the jazz canon, little in his discography (other than some soundtrack work) will prepare listeners for the thorny saxophone driven bop that dominates this session. The buoyant opener, “Nucular,” is dedicated to Sonny Rollins and exudes the sort of pliant rhythmic sensibility and bracing melodic invention that the honoree is renowned for, albeit intensified with an expressionistic, Ayler-esque flair. More abstract fare, like the spiky “Mal Du Droit” and the roiling “Estuary,” emphasize Sharp’s most outré sensibilities; his glottal avian refrains and warbling trills negotiate all manner of vertiginous angles and dissonant intervals, oblique structural facets that Jones and Smith keenly underscore with an elastic sense of time and wide range of textural dynamics.
Half the tunes highlight Sharp’s singular saxophone prowess, while the remainder feature his kaleidoscopic fretwork, which is as distinctive as his highly personalized reed technique. From the reverb-drenched surrealism of Spaghetti Western-inspired fanfares (“Satan Sandwich”) and wily deconstructed blues (“Hard Landing”), to blistering free bop (“The Grip”), futuristic cyber-punk (“Positronics”) and phantasmagoric tone poems (“Refractory”), Sharp’s peerless six-string wizardry surpasses stylistic limitations as readily as genre clichés.
Though sonically adventurous, Aggregat is ultimately far more accessible than Sharp’s usual releases, revealing a diverse array of multihued charms upon repeated spins.
Joe McPhee & Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten – Brooklyn DNA (CF 244)
Two years ago, Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten released “Blue Chicago Blues”. Like the previous album, everything is likeable and high enjoyable, yet nothing is exceptional either, in the line of what you can expect.
The DNA refers to the jazz genes or sound molecules in Brooklyn’s past with the titles of the songs referring to the musicians Sonny Rollins and Dewey Redman who lived there, or jazz clubs like Putnam Central and the Blue Coronet. Both musicians use these genes to reconstruct/improvise highly modern new jazz, with McPhee on sax and pocket trumpet.
On a more personal note, some of my DNA is now also living in Brooklyn in the shape of my son. And on another personal note, the song title “Enoragt Maeckt Haght” is described as Brooklyn’s motto coming from the Dutch. It is actually “Eendraght Maeckt Maght”, and it indeed means “unity makes strength” in the old spelling and it is the motto of my home country Belgium, a country that is anything but united.
To come back to the music: it’s free form, rhythmic, bluesy at times, fun or melancholy, with lots of references to the jazz tradition, and played by two musicians who move alike, often in perfect sync in terms of pacing and coloring, despite the fact that everything is improvised. Enjoy!