Double Tandem – Cement (PNL)
Hairybones – Snakelust (to Kenji Nakagami) (CF 252)
Over the past decade Paal Nilssen-Love has become the percussionist of choice for a range of free jazz and improvising musicians from his home country of Norway to the rest of northern Europe and beyond. Many of those roles call on the sheer force of his drumming, but Nilssen-Love has far more to offer than that. He’s a resourceful percussionist, able at will to call on the jazz traditions as well as adroitly exploring texture and sound. Double Tandem is Nilssen-Love joined by the two saxophonist/clarinetists Ken Vandermark and AbBaars, whose styles might seem initially incompatible. The heated blowing one immediately associates with Vandermark and Nilssen-Love is only one dimension of Cement though and the distinctive qualities that link the three musicians lie elsewhere. Baars and Vandermark share affinities as traditional tenor players and beyond that there’s their empathy as clarinetists, connoisseurs of the instrument’s quirky woodiness. Much of what characterizes Cement is a subtle exploratory quality and Nilssen-Love’s ability to fit in, reducing his work to the clearest rhythmic impetus, often armed with brushes rather than sticks.
Peter Brötzmann’s name may not be in front of Hairy Bones, but there’s no question who is the leader. Snakelust is an enduring testimony to the galvanizing power of his work. The band is a direct outgrowth of the earlier Die Like a Dog quartet, retaining Toshinori Kondo on trumpet and electronics but with the amplified and machine-like team of Nilssen-Love and electric bassist Massimo Pupillo replacing Hamid Drake and William Parker. Kondo is an ideal foil for Brötzmann, his trumpet lines often minimal blasts and sputters that swirl off into space whereas Brötzmann is as expressive as any tenor saxophonist has ever been. The intensity never flags but it does shift direction frequently, including sustained three-way inventions between Pupillo’s pulsing bass, Kondo’s soaring electronics and Nilssen-Love’s shifting rhythmic patterns, all three reaching toward clarity in the midst of the very sonic maelstrom that they create.
Steve Swell Nation of We – The Business of Here… (Cadence Jazz)
Platform 1 – Takes Off (CF 255)
Steve Swell is a hard one to put a finger on. His playing is so pure it’s hard to see him in it – what a trombone would want to be if it didn’t need human assistance. Such clarity of vision isn’t easily sustained in a band two-dozen strong, at least not while keeping the flame of the Downtown jazz scene Swell has been associated with for close to 40 years. But on The Businessof Here… Live at Roulette he lets the big band unleashits power at times while retaining a delicate control over much of the proceedings. The result is an uncompromising 70 minutes that breaks into some lovely moments, including a violin duo (Rosi Hertlein and Jason Kao Hwang) that dissolves into a sax-with-strings in miniature upon the entrance of Giuseppe Logan. From that point, about 20 minutes in, Swell deftly rebuilds the band, slowly bringing in players and earning the momentum of a free jazz explosion but not before a convincing beat invocation by bassist/poet Albey Balgochian. It’s a fun ride all around and shows the freedom to be found in discipline.
Platform 1’s Takes Off is a smaller ensemble, which similarly benefits from judicious restraint and given the players it’s no surprise. The quintet is fronted by Swell, Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and Bb clarinet), whose dedication to jazz discipline has extended to numerous homages and dedications, and trumpeter Magnus Broo, who has played with Vandermark before- notably in the exceptional 4 Corners – and is a part of the vital Swedish jazz scene. Backing them is the wonderfully on-point drummer Michael Vatcher and the fine Swedish-by-way-of-Canada bassist Joe Williamson. All but Vatcher contribute compositions to this fine collection and all show a respect for the proceedings. It’s that sort of stoking flames, rather than dumping lighter fluid on them, which makes fiery jazz like these two records so exciting.
Michaël Attias – Spun Tree (CF 261)
Very often the term “composer” is amended to a musician’s name, meaning simply they write their own material. But in some cases, it is a defining classification. So it is with saxophonist Michaël Attias, who always maintains his aesthetic construction – often appealingly impenetrable – no matter the group, whether it be for his Credo sextet, the cooperative trio Renku, his Twines of Colesion quintet or now his new group Spun Tree. And the more one listens to Attias the player, the more it seems that his musicianship is, contrary to usual practice, informed by his composing. Spun Tree brings together new and old recording associations, the former represented by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tom Rainey, the latter bassist Sean Conly, the equivalent of a teddy bear for the first summer at sleep-away camp. With repeated listens to the group’s debut, a recollection forms: the first time this reviewer heard Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. Spun Tree may be a tenor sax or bass clarinet short of that monumental recording but there is the same easy density and oblique movement. The players don’t stack upon one another but instead nestlein each other’s folds, making for remarkably organic improvisations within the compositional structure, itself deceptively open-sounding. The eight pieces range from the long exploratory opener “Bad Lucid” and martial ballad “No’s No” to slow-burning-then-exploding “Calendar Song” and Elfin dance “Ghost Practice” (lovely miniature “Arc-En-Ciel” was co-written with pianist Russ Lossing from Twines of Colesion). Attias’ voice is rarely the first (or second or third) one heard, demonstrating the intense faith he has in the music he has conceived and the players he has chosen to deliver it.
Hugo Carvalhais – Particula (CF 253)
Portuguese label Clean Feed releases a few essential discs every year because they are adept at finding and supporting great talent, much of it European. In bassist Hugo Carvalhais, they have uncovered a wonderful player and composer close to their home base of Lisbon. Carvalhais is a subtle composer with a gift for exploiting his bandmates’ strengths. On Particula, the group of Carvalhais, Emile Parisien (sax), Mario Costa (drums), Gabriel Pinto (piano), and Dominique Pifarely (violin) sound something like a cross between Rob Mazurek’s smaller groups and legendary composer/arranger George Russell’s Space Age compositions. Inventive, lyrical, bracing, and highly recommended.
Michael Attias – Spun Tree (CF 261)
Saxophonist Michael Attias seldom rests on his laurels. Always aligning with a superlative support structure, each of his solo outings offer a fluctuating refresher course on routes previously navigated. With nouveau ideologies in place, Attias’ expansive cache of weaponry once again comes to the forefront. The band skirts between introspection, aggression, and fiercely driven free bop atop the ever-present avant-garde contingent. No particular slant or proposition dominates on Spun Tree, and the musicians’ intrinsic synergy cannot be understated.
On “Ghost Practice,” Matt Mitchell’s semi-classical piano intro seeds the hornists’ circular thematic statements amid punchy accents and a cyclonic mode of attack. Mesmeric and forceful, they swerve into a free form breakdown led by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who imparts a flirtatious dialogue with Mitchell, followed by temperate reconstruction processes
Attias’ brisk, yet calming tone launches a quietly rumbling bridge section. But he methodically surges into the red zone via precipitous squalls and serves as the antagonist, ultimately steering his cohorts full circle, where off-center melodies serve as a point of return for the soloists. Drummer Tom Rainey works on top and behind the groove as the quintet sports a shadowy presence and then bangs out the core melody for the finale.
Simply put, Attias is at the top of his game.
Ran Blake / Sara Serpa – Aurora (CF 264)
At the risk of moving into the competitive turf of The Fuse’s jazz critics, I would recommend for the holiday stocking of any music lover the hauntingly beautiful (and brave) album Aurora (Clean Feed), which features pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Sara Serpa. The pair’s second recording together is philosophical in temper—meditative, playful, sad, emotionally complex. The overall tone is of a kind of multi-layered melancholy that’s interrupted by unpredictable spurts of delight (check out the mischevous “Moonride”). Throughout the album, Serpa’s tone swings, on a psychological dime, from bright innocence to dark despair. The tunes are an eclectic gathering, including Blake compositions “Mahler Noir” and “Dr. Mabuse,” “The Band Played On,” and “Strange Fruit,” which Serpa takes on unaccompanied.
Sara Serpa & Ran Blake – Aurora (CF 264)
O’s Notes: Aurora is the second recording featuring the mentor and protégée pair Serpa and Blake. They met at the New England Conservatory and share adventurous style with impeccable technique. Sara’s youthful mezzo-soprano is glorious and she keeps pace with Blake, a veteran pianist who defies categorization. They combine pop ballads like “Saturday” and “Moonride” with more creative improvisation masterpieces like “Dr. Mabuse”. In each case we find the duo well matched. The performance is crisp, precise and enjoyable.