Daily Archives: June 15, 2012

Jazz Word review by Ken Waxman

Kris Davis – Aeriol Piano (CF 233)
Agustí Fernández – El laberint de la memòria (Mbari Musica)
Denman Maroney – Double Zero (Porter Records)
Simon Nabatov – Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols (Leo Records)

Something In The Air: Solo Piano Strategies
Solo playing has always been the make-or-break yardstick for pianists of any genre. That’s solo playing not playing solo, an important distinction which differentiates between exhibiting showy breaks and having an overall musical plan for the mini-orchestra this is at his or her fingertips. The solo challenge is more pronounced for improvisers since even if they’re interpreting compositions, originality is the paramount concern. These challenges don’t prevent pianists from trying their hands at solo sessions. But it’s instructive to note that the memorable ones, such as the piano dates here by an American, a Canadian, a Catalan and a Russian, use different strategies to attain matchless quality.

Agustí Fernández’s El laberint de la memòria Mbari Musica MBARI 04 is the closest to what many expect from a solo recital. That’s because the Barcelona-based pianist, best-known for his improvisational work with experimenters such as bassist Barry Guy, based the 14 ruminations which make up this program on 20th Century Spanish so-called classical music. The originality results because Fernández doesn’t play any of that music but instead offers interpretations birthed from careful, repeated listening to many of those compositions. Fernández’s magisterial elucidations include such chamber music staples as subtle dynamic shifts and exposing waterfalls of carefully positioned notes, but he isn’t limited to flourishes. A kinetic piece such as “Catedral” for instance may have metronomic theme elaboration, but his touch is such that soundboard echoes continue to ring long after syncopated octaves flash and flow. More moderated tunes such as “Tonada” which melodically echo both “Hatikvah” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” use both strains to never slip into bathos while sustaining a delicate interface. Balanced precisely, L’esmoldor not only proffers a baroque-like series of gentle key strokes, but contrasts them with kalimba-like string strokes. Also for every bouncing theme exposition or instance of breezy swing, Fernández brings a tougher stance to other tracks – or as contrast on the same ones. For instance his measured, mandolin-like strums on unwound treble strings during “Pluja Sorda” are coupled with repeated key slaps, with the narrative becoming more staccato as sympathetic rattles and rumbles move past the strings and soundboard and begin reflecting the timbres from key-frame wood.

Another sophisticated piano explorer is Calgary-born Kris Davis, whose musical studies in Toronto lead to a New York career working with likes of saxophonist Tony Malaby. On Aeriol Piano Clean Feed CF 233 CD she delves into the instrument which can simultaneously express the qualities of a harp and percussion. She can do so at near-warp speed as she demonstrates on “Good Citizen” where high-frequency glissandi skip and slither across the keyboard until dynamic tremolos give way to hesitant plinks that could be recasting “Chopsticks”. She also plays at moderate tempos as on “A Different Kind of Sleep”, where tones unroll with taffy pull-like slowness as lower-pitched harmonies sympathetically ring. Mallet-teased strings dominate the exposition of “Saturn Returns”, working up to a broken-octave confrontation among internal string pops, wooden exterior slaps and stopped keyboard pulses. Her technique isn’t all reductionist though as she demonstrates on the first track which backs away from repeated flourishes and affiliated note exaggerations to reveal a balladic recasting of “All the Things You Are”.

Fernández’s and Davis’ under-the-hood, speaking-length explorations are taken to a logical extreme on Double Zero Porter Records PRCD-4063. Inspired equally by the music of Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, Henry Cowell and Thelonious Monk, New York state-resident Denman Maroney uses temporal harmony on what he calls a “hyperpiano” to produce a keyboard program in several tempos at once. The instrument’s strings are plucked, slapped and bowed after being prepared with copper bars, steel cylinders, Tibetan prayer bowls and rubber blocks. From the first literal discord heard on this nine-part suite, the crackling friction exposed insinuates harpsichord and Celtic harp quivers, as well as kalimba and guzheng reverberations plus suggestions of a metal saw. Still his subtle keyboard phrasing on tracks such as “Double Zero Part II” confirms that it’s a piano which is the major sound source. This program reaches its climax on “Double Zero Part VI” where Maroney`s arpeggio-rich continuum that’s almost impressionistic in its exposition unfolds alongside low-pitched, tremolo blows on the prepared strings abrasive enough to sound partials and extensions as well as root tones, involving the back frame, bottom board and capotes bar as much as the speaking length. Finally a series of sweeping glissandi are backed by cymbal-like reverberations for the finale. Elsewhere his staccato touch implies a duo between a portable keyboard and an all-metal double bass, although there are still enough cascades and pitch-sliding polytones audible so that the pianistic balance is never subsumed by friction-laden clips or excited string patterns.

A disparate but even more demanding approach to solo playing is displayed brilliantly on Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols Leo Records CD LR 632, Unaccompanied and only using the instrument’s excepted range and properties, Simon Nabatov creates original takes on eight compositions by under-appreciated American pianist/composer Herbie Nichols (1919-1963). Although the scholarly, sporadically-recorded Nichols was Bronx born of Trinidadian parents and never lived anywhere but New York, Nabatov’s position as an outsider allows him to bring more than technical skills to a rethink of Nichols’ tunes. Russian-born and educated, Nabatov lived in New York for a decade and now resides in Köln. Closer to the European tradition than the composer, who admired Prokofiev, Nabatov’s approach often slows down the originals, introducing his own harmonic language to the late composer’s running chords and subtle swing. Hear this on a stately elaboration of “The Third World”. Persuasively elaborating Nichols polyphony with hard syncopation and popping stops, the pianist’s take is both chromatic and creative. Similarly his jocular version of “Terrpsichore” contains enough showy glissandi to advance the juddering melody in different tempos, while the sprinkling of staccato pumps overlaid with harsh passing chords creates a recurring syncopation that builds excitement like the repeated coda on Count Basie’s “April in Paris”. The most profound example of the ingenuity implicit in Nichols writing and Nabatov’s playing occurs with “Blue Chopsticks”. Pushing the composer’s kinetic variant of the amateur pianist’s hoary chestnut even further out, Nabatov never loses the groove. Yet with staccato extrusions and discursive glissandi he’s able to simultaneously reflect the original line, Nichols’ rearrangement and his own variation on the theme.

Judging by these CDs, and how different each sounds, there appears to be as many original methods to treat solo piano playing as there are piano keys and strings.

Point of Departure review by Michael Rosenstein

Joe McPhee / Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – Brooklyn DNA (CF 244)
While Joe McPhee is a masterful ensemble player, I’ve always found his solo and duo recordings especially rewarding, particularly his strikingly strong body of work with bassists. This recording, from 2011, is his second duo release with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and from the first alto blasts it is evident that this one is a winner. Over the course of eight relatively compact improvisations, McPhee and Håker Flaten hone in on a collective sound, navigating their way through pieces which build simple themes into conversational freedom. The CD pays homage to Brooklyn, NY and its jazz history, with titles that give nods to Sonny Rollins, Dewey Redman and Don Cherry, as well as Brooklyn clubs like Putnam Central and The Blue Coronet, settings for historic sessions. These references underpin the work, providing conceptual foundation but never stylistic confinement.

For this session, McPhee leaves aside his tenor sax, switching between alto, soprano, and pocket trumpet – getting a chance to hear so much of his alto playing is a real treat. While not quite as indelibly striking as his deeper horn, his full-throated, crying tone and muscular attack set his sound apart from most alto players. Soprano and pocket trumpet provide effective timbral contrasts as the pieces interleave the three instruments. Håker Flaten is a lyrical bassist and his lithe, darting lines provide a potent countering voice. Throughout, there is a fluid feeling of give and take informed by keen listening. The two know how to prod and propel each other, and just when to drop back to let the other stretch out. The sharp-edged melodic themes carry these pieces, underscoring the two musicians’ distinctive approach to thematic freedom.

Point of Departure review by Ed Hazell

Steve Lacy – The Sun  (Emanem)
Avignon and After, Vol. 1  (Emanem)
Steve Lacy – Estilhaços, Live in Lisbon (CF 247)
A great jazz musician is always a work in progress. There are periods of equilibrium and refinement, but sometimes progress comes faster, with major changes crowding together. These three CDs cover the years 1968–1974 in Steve Lacy’s career, a six-year period of rapid development indeed. The Sun, an anthology of quintet dates and electro-acoustic sessions with synthesizer player Richard Teitelbaum, documents Lacy’s maturing vision of small bands, the first art song settings of poetry for Irene Aebi, and the emergence of a methodology for electronic and acoustic improvisers to work together. Avignon and After charts the birth and subsequent development of a solo saxophone language, certainly one of the most far-reaching of Lacy’s innovations. Estilhacos is an early quintet masterpiece, an astonishing concert performance from early 1972 that showcases the first flowering of Lacy’s first “classic” quintet.

The Sun opens with two tracks (and a short vibraphone solo introduction to “The Way”) from a short-lived quintet featuring Aebi, trumpeter Enrico Rava, vibraphonist Karl Berger, bassist Kent Carter, and drummer Aldo Romano. Recorded just after Lacy emerged from a period of playing free improvisation, the writing is not yet fully developed. “The Sun” features Aebi declaiming a poem by Buckminster Fuller in an operatic recitative style while the instrumental part is through-composed but freely interpreted and provides a contrasting backdrop. There’s little of the structural clarity that marks Lacy’s more mature writing and there’s no attempt to wed words and melody in the vocal part. “The Gap” is a graphic score and allows the band to flow through collective improvisation, and different instrumental combinations and tempos in an orderly fashion, but it feels more like a composer in search of a voice. The performances are committed and lively, especially “The Gap,” but immature nevertheless.

Teitelbaum explains in the liner notes that “Chinese Food,” recorded in New York in 1967 and released here for the first time, is “the first real project I ever did improvising with electronics.” There is a palpable air of excitement and discovery in the session and a second recorded a year later. Lacy himself sounds engaged by the challenge of playing with an electronic instrument and brings his extended sound vocabulary into the mix. Recorded as the Vietnam War escalated, it is an anti-war piece with Aebi performing the poetry of Lao Tzu in a speaking-singing voice full of nuanced inflections and outrage. Lacy and Teitlebaum are forthright and polemical as well, feeling their way into an electric-acoustic equilibrium of hard and sometimes harsh sounds.

The later session, originally issued on LP on the Roaratorio label (with lovely hand-painted covers), is worth restoring to print. Aebi delivers one of Lacy’s early, but enduring songs, “The Way” a capella in a matter of fact tone but she sometimes displays the alpine brightness of her voice that Lacy loved to exploit. As Lacy and Teitelbaum slip into their duet, it’s fascinating to hear them invent a new acoustic-electronic music, a dialogue never possible until then. Teitelbaum’s instrument is limited, at least by current standards, but he finds ways to work within the synthesizer’s capabilities. He pits sounds against each other, creating novel sonic hybrids, he bends and inflects tones, creating waves of sounds, little crackling, pointillistic fields of notes. The sound events succeed one another, but there is nothing like traditional melodic development. Lacy responds with his own growing vocabulary of soprano sax sounds, paralleling Teitelbaum’s progress, but unable to resist linear development. There are two duets and another version of “The Way,” and each has its own character, charts its own path.

The Vietnam War inspired another directly political piece, the four-part suite The Woe, performed here by what can only be described as Lacy’s first classic band, the quintet with Aebi, Steve Potts, Kent Carter, and Oliver Johnson. It’s a harrowing work, calculated to assault the senses. Its centerpiece, “The Wage,” uses the taped sounds of gunfire, exploding bombs, helicopters, and jets to make a hellish assault on the quintet. The band sounds tight in an extended collective improvisation, clinging together against the attack and wailing and lamenting like a community caught in the crossfire of battle. Potts and Lacy solo together exceptionally well, expressing outrage, horror, and suffering with shrilling and shrieking cries. Potts is featured on “The Wane,” and his grasp of how to use Lacy’s compositions in his soloing is in full display. Lacy wraps up the suite with “The Wake,” a setting of a chilling poem by French poet Eugéne Guillevic that’s an early example of how he could find the right melody, rhythm, and tempo for a poem to amplify its meaning musically. The Sun, a seemingly quirky anthology of miscellaneous sessions, ends up being a revealing and insightful collection of Lacy’s music.

Even as Lacy put together his new quintet, he was also embarking on his long odyssey as an unaccompanied soloist. Lacy as much as any saxophonist of the ‘70s, established the solo performance as an important vehicle for improvisers. He had the foresight to record his very first attempt, two 1972 concerts in a church in Avignon, which became the very first release of the indefatigable documenter of British free improvisation and American free jazz, the Emanem label. This new reissue includes four previously unreleased, but not essential, tracks from Avignon as well as an unaccompanied version of Lacy’s suite, Clangs, recorded in Berlin in 1974. It’s the first of two projected releases of early solo material, and a historically significant one.

The Avignon recording is remarkable for its level of control and focus, especially since it was Lacy’s first-ever solo concert. Lacy already could strike a masterful balance among sound, line, and silence and he could take his solos from one point to the next with a sense of inevitability that was nonetheless full of surprises. He doesn’t attempt to fill all the sonic space, he lets silence play a role in the music in a way that it can’t in a band. The music flows without having to take input from other instruments into consideration and each phrase has a natural integrity and wholeness that’s impossible in a group. “Original New Duck” is a tremendous version of a tune Lacy played quite often. He subjects each motif to a surprising variation or distortion, hitting alarming high notes and brusque low notes with absolute control of timbre. “Josephine” begins with a section of strong linear development, moves into sound manipulations, including quiet kissy noises, timid mouse squeaks, and rusty hinge creaks, and returns to melody with a spritely, dancing tune. “Weal” is a fiendishly difficult composition with an improvised section that explores different permutations of a shrill buzz and an insistent high note pattern.

Clangs is a worthy addition to the documentation of Lacy’s solo work. Lacy patiently develops the “The Owl,” playing a phrase, adding a few notes to it, then repeating it and appending a few more until the melodic thread is stretched to the breaking point. The resemblance to bird song is pronounced, with unpitched notes forming patterns and contours recognizable as melody. “Tracks” begins with a melody formed of little paw-print staccato notes that Lacy then develops into wandering trails of delicate chirps and twitters. Here, too, his mastery of the straight horn is complete, disciplined, adventurous, and original. “The New Moon” features one of his great melodic abstractions, full of melodies that avoid tonality, astringent cries, flatulent blats, and phrases of all shapes and lengths.   Performances like these remind you of how expansive Lacy’s vocabulary was and how specific to the instrument the sounds and notes were. No one had gotten more out of the soprano saxophone than him. These concerts don’t sound like experimentation, either. Lacy has control over all the material. Although he’s exploring how to assemble sounds into new forms and pathways, he’s using materials he thoroughly understands.

Recorded a year before the Avignon solo concerts, Estilhacos is another of Lacy’s early ‘70s recorded masterpieces. It features a similar band to the one on The Woe, with Noel McGhee instead of Oliver Johnson, on an especially good night in Lisbon. They open with “Station,” which features a tart, angular Lacy melody played over a shortwave radio, and a solo from Potts at his most confrontational. On “Chips/Moon/Dream,” Potts continues on a tear, with his amazing repertoire of shouts and wails punctuating a ferociously swinging solo. Lacy counters with a lean, linear solo as stark and humorous and vulnerable as Samuel Beckett’s prose. McGhee is sensitive to the contrasts between Lacy and Potts and accompanies each differently. This is especially clear on the concert’s tremendous version of “No Baby,” which also features the best Lacy solo of the night, a prolonged and closely reasoned statement of untempered notes and uncertain tonality that is both damned odd and totally logical. They go out on “The Highway,” whose abrasive theme goads the band into its most energized and abstract playing of the night. Potts infuses his solo with blues and bop and his most plangent cries, while Lacy once again sails far beyond tonality but still holds tight to melody.

These three albums outline one of the great stories of modern jazz, the story of Steve Lacy putting together his first important working band, beginning to write persuasively for voice, and building a new instrumental and compositional vocabulary to arrive at one of his peaks of artistic maturity.

Gapplegate Music review by Grego Edwards

Joe McPhee / Ingebrigt Haker Flaten – Brooklyn DNA (CF 244)
Windmaster Joe McPhee and contrabassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten team up once again to pay tribute to the borough of New York City that, both historically and in the present, has formed a vital center for jazz musicians, and undoubtedly showcases as much of the music as any location in the United States today. Appropriately Brooklyn DNA (Clean Feed 244) is the title of the CD.   It’s a wide-ranging series of duets that have plenty of freedom, structured by the logic of the artists’ approach and the melodic themes that intertwine with the improvisations in many of the segments. A freely conceived theme-and-variations approach has been an important aspect of Joe McPhee’s work over the years and it continues on here at key points.   Flaten brings up the bottom with intelligent and resourceful all-over playing. He has technique and imagination. He seems to thrive on the open freedom such a duet provides. McPhee creates his vital presence on pocket trumpet, soprano and alto.   The music comes at you with energy and a depth charge or gets contemplative. There are segments that imply a free pulse and those that phrase openly without reference to time.   By now Joe McPhee is a sort of modern avant institution. He is in a classic present. Ingebrigt Haken Flaten gives the music the thrust it needs to move forward. It’s a great combination and they are at their best.

Gapplegate Music review by Grego Edwards

Steve Lacy – Estilhacos (CF 247)
The Steve Lacy outfit that included Steve Pots on alto, Irene Aebi on cello and vocals, Kent Carter on bass and various drummers, was one of Lacy’s most productive and long-lived. They recorded many albums, gaining in the process followers and critical acclaim. I do not recall many live albums however. That does not mean there weren’t any.   Clean Feed has recently released a set of the band live in Lisbon from February 1972, Estilhuacos (Clean Feed 247). For this recording Noel McGhie is on drums, Irene does not sing, and the band runs through some of their more familiar pieces from the era along with a few that are less so.   The recording is not perfect but has general clarity, if occasional slight distortion at the peaks. There is the spontaneous freedom situated around the pieces as you would expect. Potts sounds his extroverted self, Aebi adds her color, Carter thunders and plummets, McGhie is loose and flexible and Maestro Lacy is perennially himself.   It may not be a “drop everything and go get this” sort of release, but it offers the band in a slice of time. This is how they sounded on that day. It’s different enough that it adds another take on the collective spirit of the band. It may not be THE single Lacy album to get if you don’t have any. But if you are a fan of Lacy in this period you will no doubt appreciate it.

JazzWrap review by Stephan Moore

Red Trio – Stem Red Trio (CF 249)
Like the old saying goes, “wine gets better with age,” so too does the fantastic Portuguese group, Red Trio.

A phenomenal yet minimal self-titled debut that features a wide array of improvised occurrences with stellar insights in composition went further with the follow up, Empire. Empire featured British saxophonist, John Butcher as the interpretive foil to the trio’s experimental exploits. This session seemed to awaken a challenging spirit within the band (especially on the title track). Now that inquisitive spirit has collided with the free form agility of one of my recent favourite trumpeters, Nate Wooley for the superb, Stem.

This quartet came together only a few months ago as a live collaboration but you can feel that Red Trio quickly developed a unique chemistry that makes this session even more personal and entertaining than Empire. The outstanding opener, “Flapping Flight” features jagged edges and improvised chords by the trio intersecting with short delicate notes by Wooley that rise and fall with romantic flavour. The piece expands as it moves into it’s middle movements and creates similar exchanges to that shared on the trio’s work with Butcher. Wooley and Pinheiro share a rolling battle of notes towards the end that is both captivating as it is complex.

Pinheiro’s playing is at times very straight while delightful chaos occurs around him. “Ellipse” is one of those moments. Pinheiro’s performance is almost Jarrett-esque but it is punctuated by canon of experimentalism on display by the rest of the group. Ferrandini’s drums put on a quiet Billy Higgins type display. Rhyming when necessary and floating freely when called upon. Wooley goes from a stoic and melodic tone to dark quiet breathy exchanges with the trio almost silent adding a haunting yet organic nature to piece that is revelatory.

“Weight Slice” has a frenzied pace that holds the listener in place while short burst of notes almost coalesce into one pattern but then brilliantly explode in the opposite direction. Wooley has individual dialogues with the trio throughout this piece. “Weight Slice” is probably the best example of the camaraderie this group has developed in such a short amount of time. The quiet almost ethereal departure of “Tides” is remincesent of Red Trio’s debut. A spacious conclusion with slow droning effects and low tones that make you stop and investigate each note.

Stem is the best work to date by Red Trio and the addition of new musicians over the last two outings has only made this group better, inventive and fresh – like aged wine. Stem is one of those albums that will last with you all year long. Highly Recommended.