Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Monash Art Ensemble - Hexis (Jazzhead, 2014) *****

By Stefan Wood

In 2013 the musician, composer and professor George Lewis collaborated with the Monash Art Ensemble at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music of Monash University. The album Hexis was the result, released by Jazzhead in 2014. Comprised of only four tracks, Hexis is an outstanding album, a mixture of jazz and classical, composed and improvised. The sixteen piece ensemble, led by pianist Paul Grabowsky, sounds larger than their numbers suggest; the music feels massive and powerful. Lewis himself joins the group, working on electronics but also returning to his original primary instrument, the trombone.

The album is littered with staccato rhythms and circular phrases; the tracks "Fractals" and "Triangle" at the beginning and the end of the album feature these ideas. "Fractals" starts with a tense, swirling wave of notes from the horns, that rises and falls like a choppy tide. "Triangle" is the repetitive striking of a triangle that is imaginatively echoed and improvised upon by the ensemble, a rollicking exploration of rhythm and sound created by a deceptively simple and timid percussive instrument. The highlight track is "Angry Bird," a fifteen minute heavyweight work that, frankly, I thought referenced Charlie Parker and the popular smart phone app, but apparently is a tribute to clarinetist David Rothenberg, who authored the book Why Birds Sing (later made into a BBC documentary). It does have furious moments of saxophone interplay, but also amusing electronic bird calls, like cartoon vultures. But it also demonstrates skillful improvisation within a framed structure, moments that are allowed to develop, then pull back, cleanly and with great attention to detail. And that is what is most striking throughout, a high level of intellect that does not feel heavy handed. Compositions that are well structured, but allows for spontaneity. And it is fun to listen. Also of note is that the Ensemble is comprised of mostly students, but one would never guess, given the level of execution.

Hexis is a masterful album, and gets my highest recommendation.

Henry Threadgill Zooid – In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi Recordings, 2015) ****

By Chris Haines

I have always found Henry Threadgill’s music very well orchestrated, well thought through from a compositional sense, and yet containing the immediacy and excitement of first class jazz improvisation. Although having a jazz pedigree (AACM & Air among his past accomplishments) Threadgill’s music contains a compositional rigorousness and discipline that can be found in much classical avant-garde music. That’s not to say that Threadgill writes in a similar style to composers from this genre or that the pieces he writes should be considered to be in this twentieth century compositional style, although at times there are similarities. However, the music on this album is clearly jazz, and you can hear it quite distinctly in the rhythmic interplay, the swung beats, the phrasing, the articulation of notes and most importantly in the group improvisation that is at the very heart of Threadgill’s compositional approach.

Utilising different combinations of instruments is something that clearly interests Threadgill as a band leader and throughout his solo career he has put together some intriguing ensembles, a good example of this being Very Very Circus with it’s platform of two tubas and two guitars. However, Zooid seems to be his band of choice at present and has been for well over ten years, the line-up consisting of Liberty Ellman – guitar, Jose Davila – trombone & tuba, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Elliott Kavee – drums, and Henry Threadgill – flute & saxophone. With the use of acoustic guitar, cello, and tuba this creates a chamber ensemble type feel to the group, which in turn lends an intimacy to the pieces on offer.

As a double disc there are six pieces on In For A Penny, In For A Pound with four of them having a highlighted soloist, so there’s one for drums and percussion, one for cello, another for tuba & trombone, and one for guitar. To stretch the link with classical avant-garde chamber music further it seems that each track could be likened to a concerto for each of the solo instruments mentioned, although there are other soloists within each of the pieces as well. These pieces are quite long, with clearly defined sections, and last between fifteen to twenty minutes each. There are also two shorter tracks, which open each of the discs. The album starts with the title track, whilst the drums and tuba provide the trace of a funky rhythm section the rest of the ensemble provides a multi-coloured carpet of sound which is made up of individual fragments from each instrument that blend into a coherent whole. This sets the tone for the whole album where abstract grooves rub shoulders with more arhythmic sections, particularly where the drums break from providing the momentum and pointillistic textures give way to more static and sparser sections within the music. In fact, it is this movement between the jazzier syncopated rhythms and the more avant-garde chamber music sections which provides much of the structural contrasts for the works included on In For A Penny, In For A Pound.

This is a quality product from one of the best jazz composers creating relevant and intriguing music in the world today. With over an hour and a quarter’s worth of music on this release it would seem that the album is also aptly titled.

Friday, May 22, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 2005-2015

This is the last installment of the AACM retrospective - a highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, the years between 2005 to 2015.

Note: a big thank you everyone who made this happen, it takes a collective! Thanks to Stef and Matthew for the inspiration to celebrate the occasion of the AACM's 50th anniversary, and to Colin and Martin, who gave us a great (re)introduction to The AACM (thanks for letting me tag along - PA).

By Colin GreenMartin SchrayMatthew GriggPaul AcquaroStef Gijssels

Fred Anderson - Blue Winter (Eremite, 2005)

Fred Anderson was one of the key figures in free jazz in Chicago for the past decades and a founding member of AACM. Many albums by him can be recommended, yet this one is quite exceptional, not only because of Anderson's playing, but also because of the phenomenal and very inspired rhythm section of William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. The "lone prophet of the prairie" as Anderson was called demonstrates his great narrative skills on tenor for a full two disc set, for a little less than two hours of music - for just four tracks. Anderson can just keep going, with his strong rhythmic and fluid phrasing, his wonderful tone and great sense of melodic inventiveness and focus. And then this in the company of Parker and Drake : this is sheer magic! And all three musicians have as much fun as the listeners. (SG)

Frequency - Frequency (Thrill Jockey, 2006)

Given the increasing disparate nature of the AACM, that Frequency is comprised of an all member band five decades in speaks volumes for the Association's continued importance and contribution. Moving through soulful grooves to heated free blowing, Edward Wilkerson, Nicole Mitchell, Harrison Bankhead and Avreeayl Ra all double on a variety of instruments which ensures a rich sonic palette, and inevitably gives rise to Art Ensemble comparisons. However, at their most cohesive they present a meditative and spiritual approach not dissimilar in intent to the early 70's work of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. (MG)

George E Lewis - Sequel (for Lester Bowie) (Intakt, 2006)

An early exponent of computer music and electronics, particularly as pertaining to 'creative music', here Lewis leads an electro-acoustic octet through one lengthy composed piece and three shorter improvisations. The multinational ensemble comprised of Guillermo E. Brown, Ulrich Muller, Siegfried Rossert, Miya Masaoka, Kaffe Matthews, DJ Mutamassik and Jeff Parker realise the former brilliantly, an intricately woven tapestry of kaleidoscopic sounds, expertly dovetailed, delivered with a poise deserving of the composition's beauty. The following freely improvised pieces demonstrate just how simpatico the ensemble are without a compositional framework to guide them, time and again finding cohesion within the most oblique sound strategies. (MG)

Roscoe Mitchell - Composition/Improvisation Nos 1, 2 & 3 (ECM, 2007)

In a career full of what are now regarded as 'classic recordings' and 'master works', the majesty of Roscoe Mitchell's later output is in danger of being overlooked as commentators (rightly) heap praise on earlier recordings. Here with his Transatlantic Art Ensemble, on paper and in practice, a 14 piece improvising dream team of Evan Parker, Anders Svanoe, John Rangecroft, Neil Metcalfe, Corey Wilkes, Nils Bultmann, Philipp Wachsmann, Marcio Mattos, Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Barry Guy, Tani Tabbal and Paul Lytton, Mitchell's scored improvisations yield a recording full of deep beauty and rich harmonic complexity which numbers amongst the finest examples of genuine 'third stream' music, an approach central to the AACM's early aesthetic. Ranging from chamber like solemnity, through deftly swung passages, what could so easily become crowded is full of space and poise, tension and silence, a recording that bares all the hallmarks of Mitchell's approach as far back as Sound, and is richly deserving of the same reverence. (MG)

Matana Roberts - Chicago Project (Central Control International, 2007)

Roberts' current Coin Coin project is such a significant body of work it may almost certainly eclipse fine recordings she has released by smaller group aggregations, notably on the two LPs issued with trio Sicks And Stones, and here - a quartet date with Jeff Parker, Joshua Abrams and Frank Rosaly. Joined by Fred Anderson on 3 of the 9 tracks (all of which are spiralling horn duets), the Chicago Project bristles from the off with beautiful lines, smart interplay and energetic group investigation. Chicago's musical heritage is referenced throughout in the thematic material, marked by repeated stylistic and musical shifts which serve to both reference the city's lineage, and demonstrate the breadth of scope of Roberts' creative drive.  (MG)

Mike Reed's People, Places, Things - About Us (482 Music, 2009)

The second installment of People, Places Things finds the quartet of Reed, Greg Ward, Tim Haldeman and Jason Roebke joined by David Boykin, Jeb Bishop and Jeff Parker on one track apiece, each musician contributing compositions to the recording. Knowingly backward looking (the project was devised to shine light on critically under-appreciated inspirations of Reed's from late '50's Chicago), whilst the recording is clearly in thrall to the past it is never in deference to the limitations of established conventions, and continually seeks to expand on the potential of past ideas. Bop(s), of all kinds, are re-imagined with lessons learn after the fact, resulting in something both grounded in the past yet thoroughly modern, the kind of smart thinking record that Jazz at Lincoln Centre could easily produce we they not beholden to the restrictive yoke of past greatness. (MG)

Douglas R. Ewart  & Inventions- Velvet Fire (Aarawak, 2010)

Dedicated to (Baba) Fred Anderson, much like its dedicatee, first generation AACM member Ewart is sadly under documented on recordings. Captured live at the Velvet Lounge, what Velvet Fire lacks in fidelity is more than compensated by the joyous and effervescent performance. A star studded/AACM member filled line-up of Mwata Bowden, Edward Wilkerson, LeRoy Wallace McMillan, Wadada Leo Smith, Jeff Parker, Mankwe Ndosi, Duriel Harris, Dee Alexander, Tatsu Aoki, Darius Savage, Dushun Mosley, Vincent Davis and Hamid Drake move through a diverse range of material, vocal numbers punctuating blues, insistent driving hard-bop and more experimental full band investigations, the latter providing the album's high points. Depending on personal taste this could be something of a mixed bag, but it is never less than solid - at times excellent and enlightening snapshot of the AACM at 45. (MG)

Nicole Mitchell - Awakening (Delmark Records, 2011)

The AACM's first female president, Mitchell is first rate in every setting but on this quartet date the instrumental balance allows her flute the space often denied it in more congested groupings. Leading an all AACM band featuring Jeff Parker, Harrison Bankhead and Avreeayl Ra, they move seamlessly from harmonically galvanized group work, through the musical margins into wispy fragments of sound, with a consummate ease demonstrative of top rate musicians with a deep faith and understanding of one another. Melodic sophistication and textural detail permeate a recording of robust group invention and daring, sophisticated fragility.  (MG)

Chicago Trio - Velvet Songs - To Baba Fred Anderson (RogueArt, 2011)

The Chicago Trio is Ernest Dawkins on sax, Harrison Bankhead on bass and cello, and Hamid Drake on drums and frame drum. The double CD presents a live gig performed a year before Fred Anderson passed away, yet even then, the performance was already a tribute to him. Both Bankhead and Drake played a lot with the legendary Chicagoan and owner of the Velvet Lounge, and although Dawkins and Anderson also performed together, to my knowledge none of that is available on record.

In any event, this album is really excellent: a deep dive into jazz history by one of the best sax trios you can find, with Drake offering all kinds of rhythmic playfulness, ranging from a funky "When The Saints Go Marchin' In" with Dawkins on two saxes, reggae on "Jah Music", to weird modern work-outs on "Galaxies Beyond". As I told Drake once, his playing sounds like dancing in paradise, and that's also the case on this album. Bankhead is phenomenal too, also on cello on what is possibly the best track of the album, the long "Moi Trè Gran Garçon". The precision of his tone, including bowed, is fantastic, as are his improvisations.

Dawkins is an ensemble man, and it must be said that he give the trio lots of space, yet he is also a great front man, very lyrical and melodic, also in his improvisations, with jazz and blues traditions never far away, yet sufficiently free in his approach to make this album an easy one to recommend for readers of this blog, moving listeners from joy to sadness to spirituality to world empathy and back. The kind of free jazz Baba Fred Anderson would have enjoyed. A great tribute to a great musician. (SG)

Matana Roberts: COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres / COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile / COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee (Constellation, 2011 - 2015)

Although the AACM members have always released very good albums it seemed that the organization has more recently lost some of its musical and socio-cultural importance (especially compared to the 1960s and 70s). And then Matana Roberts started her Coin Coin project and put the AACM back in the spotlight again! Coin Coin was announced as a conceptual project in twelve chapters, including notation and free improvisation, historical storytelling, theatrical elements, Roberts’ grandfather’s poetry, field recordings and samples with which she would explore African-American history, culture and life as well as family history during the last 300 years. (The series’ protagonist is Marie Thérèse Metoyer – also known as Coin Coin – a freed slave, doctor, planter and business woman.) The first three chapters range from music for up to 15 musicians (Chapter 1), to a quintet plus opera singer (Chapter 2) and a solo recording (Chapter 3). Coin Coin is an ambitious, almost monstrous endeavor that could have failed terribly – but the results so far belong to the most interesting and exciting jazz albums of the last ten years. (MS)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 1995-2004

The AACM retrospective week continues today with our highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, we present the years between 1995 and 2004.

By Colin GreenMartin SchrayMatthew GriggPaul AcquaroStef Gijssels

Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble -- Chicago Now - Thirty Years Of Great Black Music Vols.1 & 2 (Silkheart , 1995)

Ernest Dawkins was a neighbour of Anthony Braxton as a youth and remembers hearing him practise. Having survived that, perhaps unsurprisingly he first took up bass and drums before eventually deciding on the saxophone in 1973. He studied with members of the AACM, and replaced Ed Wilkerson in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (Papa’s Bounce (CIMP, 1998) is toe-tappingly good).

In 1979 Dawkins formed his own New Horizons Ensemble which played extensively for a number of years, and it shows. This pair of albums celebrated thirty years of the AACM back in 1995, but since good music doesn’t date they deserve a place in this half-century batch of reviews.

As one would expect, there are some infectious rhythms but with plenty of fluid playing on top, In true AACM style however, Dawkins refuses to be pigeon-holed. There are three improvisations – of which Improvisation #3 is the longest, and best – and Flowers for the Soul contains a coruscating free jazz solo from Dawkins, accompanied by Jeff Parker’s spiky guitar.

The highlights however, are two tributes. Dream for Rahsaan (presumably, Roland Kirk) a languorous tune – beautifully voiced by the Ensemble -- with crafted solos from Ameen Muhammad on trumpet, Dawkins and Parker Any doubt about the subject of Many Favors is removed by the bass introduction and an occasional Art Ensemble feel, including hand bells and whistles. Again, a theme of aching beauty treated with sensitivity by the whole Ensemble.

To hear more of Dawkins in a free jazz vein, there’s no better way to spend a couple of hours than soaking up the Chicago Trio’s Velvet Songs to Baba Fred Anderson (Rogueart, 2011) (CG)

Fred Anderson, Marilyn Crispell, Hamid Drake – Destiny (Okka Disk, 1996)

Anderson played on some early AACM albums, but due to other commitments recordings didn’t appear until the late 1970s, and then relatively few until the last twenty years or so of his life. There are even fewer recordings of him with a piano. In this performance, the established duo of Anderson (tenor saxophone) and Drake (drums, percussion) joined Marilyn Crispell (piano) – on her request – at the Women of New Music Festival held in Chicago in 1994.

Anderson believed strongly in preserving a tradition, keeping a musical culture alive, and regarded his music as an extension of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, the saxophonists of his youth and “the AACM of their time”. It can be heard in the warmth of his tone and the supremely articulate nature of his playing – free jazz, not random. He had a repertoire of short tunes – he thought of them more as phrases – which tended to form the basis of his improvisations and in this performance, one of his most memorable provides the theme on which each of the Destiny variations is based: sprightly and tender by turns. We get Crispell’s familiar staccato clusters and darting runs in Destiny 1, but Anderson brings out the melodic invention that’s always characterised her playing. Destiny 3 is pure ballad, and in Destiny 5 we reach the emotional core of the performance when the theme takes on a Coltrane-esque grandeur, with Anderson’s tenor suspended over Crispell’s tremolos. Time stands still. After rapturous applause, he shows he can deconstruct a tune along with the best.

Drake as always, ensures that everything flows as smoothly as possible, a standout moment being his tabla accompaniment when Crispell reaches inside the piano. The only downside is that the piano’s seen better days.

If you like Fred and a piano, also try the first CD of Muhal Richard Abrams’ SoundAspects (Pi Recordings, 2011): two co-founders of the AACM spurring each other on to ever greater heights. It’s inspirational. (CG)

Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music (Atlantic, 1999)

I recall buying this one when I was on a brass band kick back in the late 90s. At the time I knew nothing about Lester Bowie or the AACM but I did know about the Spice Girls and when I heard Bowie's formidable arrangement of '2 becomes 1' on WBGO, I think I nearly cried. Just how, I thought, has he found the song that I just heard in that sliver of processed cheese? So, I went to the local record store (yes, the good ol' days) and picked up the CD and proceeded to really enjoy the rest of it as well - from the smokey  'Birth of the Blues' to the percussive menace of Marilyn Manson's 'Beautiful People'. Aside from some of the period production, two tracks with dated sounding rap, and those occasional bar chimes, it's still a bright spot in my collection. Bowie's music transcended - hell it elevated - the source material, even 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' had some decent moments.  (PA)

Kahil El' Zabar's Ritual Trio - Africa N’Da Blues (Delmark, 2000)

It is difficult to make a selection of all the dozen albums that Kahil El'Zabar released with his Ritual Trio or with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Usually his music is pretty straight-forward with a core theme, long improvisations, lots of African rhythmic elements, and a deep sense of soul. "Africa N'Da Blues" might be a good introduction for readers not yet familiar with the master drummer. The "trio" is for once extended with some guests : El'Zabar is on drums and percussion, Malachi Favors on bass and Ari Brown on sax and piano. The guests are Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Susana Sandoval on vocals, on the beautiful "Africanos Latinos" only.

The nice thing about El'Zabar's music is that it never shocks, it is never wild or ferocious, yet it does color outside of the lines. There is even some place for "Autumn Leaves" on this album, yet "Ka-Real" and "Pharaoh's Song" are more in line with the Trio's other albums : a hypnotic rhythmic foundation for African chants and saxes to sing, dance and jubilate with the soul of life.  (SG)

Wadada Leo Smith - Golden Quartet (Tzadik, 2000)

Apart from almost systematically receiving 5-star ratings from me, the only common denominator in Wadada Leo Smith's music is his phenomenal trumpet-playing. He has many different approaches to music, with his "bitches brew style" Yo Miles! band, his more contemplative solo and duo works, his more ambitious recent works with strings. Here we have his Golden Quartet in its original line-up with Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Anthony Davis on keyboards, Maghostut Malachi Favors on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, with all four musicians member of AACM or closely related in the case of DeJohnette. The instrumental quality of the four musicians allows for technical and compositional complexity, which will become the trademark of the quartet for all their output, but luckily they keep their distance from fusion-like pyrotechnics: it's all about the music, which has an amazing tension between nervous agitation and zen-like calm, with lots of other paradoxes such as a strong jazzy feel, yet avant-garde dynamics and sonic colors, such as a strong compositional structure with an overall sense of freedom in the execution. (SG)

Matana Roberts, Josh Abrams & Chad Taylor - Sticks & Stones (482 Music, 2002)

This is one of the first albums - if not the first - on which altoist Matana Roberts has the lead voice, with Josh Abrams on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. It is a very gentle and welcoming trio album, one which already has the sound of Roberts' later music : warm and buttery on the horn, full of respect for the musical tradition, yet sufficiently liberated and with sufficient character to push things a little bit further.
Roberts had been classically trained as a clarinettist, joined AACM and was (is?) a member of Burnt Sugar, the jazz-funk-soul-rock band. On this album, and on "Shed Grace", its sequel from 2006, we hear something completely different : melodious music, very jazzy, rhythmically superb and very unassuming. It does not have the ambition of Roberts' "Coin Coin" series, it is all about the music, and not about the message, which gets my preference. Many will contradict me here, but so be it. If you like Roberts and Abrams and Taylor, it's really worth looking up this trio album.  (SG)

Fred Anderson - Back at the Velvet Lounge (Delmark, 2003)

An AACM member from the outset, it took time before Anderson received anything like the exposure of his colleagues. He went largely under/un-documented until his later years, subsequently every recording he features on feels like a gift. On Back at the Velvet Lounge, recorded at the club he ran for several decades, he is joined by Maurice Brown, Jeff Parker, Harrison Bankhead, Tatsu Aoki and Chad Taylor as they navigate five blues-tinged Anderson originals. With a tone simultaneously suggestive of both sides of the '59 divide, Anderson inhabits a space which is seemingly both well defined but boundless in potential, shaped by bop conventions and freed by the avant-garde.  (MG)

Jeff Parker, Kevin Drumm, Michael Zerang - Out Trios Volume Two (Atavistic, 2003)

In a recent article the Chicago Tribune made the case for the AACM having influenced the city's avant-rock community. Out Trios Volume Two provides a compelling argument in favour of this position, and demonstrates the feedback between disciplines. (Associate) AACM member Jeff Parker, positioned firmly in both camps, reprises his relationship with Michael Zerang (Vega Trio) and is joined by electro-acoustic texturalist Kevin Drumm. The resultant recording is filled with post-AMM clatter, gritty timbres and extended techniques, the lines between contributors quite literally blurred and distorted. Whilst insular and focused, the album demonstrates the open exchange of sounds and approaches which exist in the margins of differing 'Avant' musical communities. (MG)

Ernest Dawkins - Mean Ameen (Delmark, 2004) 

Despite saxophonist Ernest Dawkins' long experience as a jazz musician, he has not released that many albums under his own name. He is former president of Chicago's AACM and member of several bands including Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Yet most of his records are of interest, and this one, "Mean Ameen" is one I keep putting back in my CD-player very regularly. It's more free bop than free jazz, all pieces have a clear compositional structure and fixed themes. But all that's irrelevant. What is relevant is the music itself. And it's awesome. Blues-drenched, heart-rending, swinging highly rhythmic music with fantastic improvizations by the whole band, which consists of Maurice Brown on trumpet, Steve Berry on trombone, Darius Savage on bass and Isaiah Spencer on drums. The album is a tribute to former "New Horizons Ensemble" trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, also known as "King Ameen", who died in 2003.

Now, the great thing about this album is it's hard to equal heart-energy-music continuum. The raw emotions and the unbridled energy resulting in this great rhytmic and musical feast, sad and joyful at the same time, have rarely been equalled. Every track on the album is great, but the absolute highlight is the last one, "Buster And The Search For The Human Genome", which is a 16-minute long rhythmic monster of a song, starting slowly and bluesy but gradually the tempo is speeding up to some break-neck velocity, with staccato unisono blowing by the horns, fierce soloing, with abrupt and sudden breaks, nothing more than a pause for breathing, when the whole monster gets back on top-speed, dragging the listener along to musical areas where everything is possible. Impossible to remain indifferent. This is not a record which will change the history of jazz, but it is the result of it : authentic, creative, rooted in tradition yet free as a bird. As the liner notes say : "King Ameen is smiling from up high". (SG)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 1985-1994

The AACM retrospective week continues with our highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, the years between 1985 and 1994.

By Colin Green, Martin Schray, Matthew Grigg, Paul Acquaro, Stef Gijssels

Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (ECM, 1985)

Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy’s debut album is a deliberate provocation. The band, a nonet consisting of four trumpets, two trombones, a French horn, tuba and drums, displays Bowie’s love for pop music while clearly being in the jazz tradition. And on top of it all the album is released on ECM, a label that is famous for its clean, glacial, some even say soulless sound. The result could have been a disaster – but it is just the opposite. The band is extremely cool and tight (especially Bob Stewart on tuba, Steve Turre on trombone and Philip Wilson on drums), the sound is full of emotional depth and the selection of the tracks – from The Flamingo’s doo wop classic “I Only Have Eyes For You” to Bob Stewart’s majestic and uplifting “Nonet” – take the concept of Ancient to the Future to the next level because in spite of the pop approach the music breathes the spirit of gospel and blues. If you need just one example listen to Lester Bowie’s “Coming Back, Jamaica”, one of the best reggae tracks ever, which is dominated by the mother of all tuba solos. One of my all-time-favorite albums! (MS)

Kahil El' Zabar - The Ritual (Sound Aspects, 1986)

This is actually the first CD by Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio, although not yet named as such. In essence this trio consists for two thirds of members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago : Lester Bowie (trumpet) and Malachi Favors (bass), who play one of their own songs, Magg Zelma (from Full Force, 1980) on this album. This is just one song, but still close to 42 minutes long. This music has deep SOUL, sensitive, solemn, intense, open, authentic, respectful. One of the most beautiful and compelling trumpet-bass-drums trios ever.

The artwork of this album should not be confused with the album "Sacred Love", released two years later and with Raphael Garrett on clarinet.  (SG)

 Anthony Braxton - Six Monk's Compositions (1987)

Thelonious Monk's unique compositions have been the inspiration for many composers and players and so while it is little surprise that Braxton would be drawn to his music, it was a surprise to me how irreverently (but respectfully) interpreted they are on this album. Though Braxton speeds them up, fleshes them out, and deepens them harmonically - you still hear all the those wonderfully Monkish melodies. However, where you heard the puzzling juxtapositions in Monk's versions, laid out like bare bold puzzles, here they seem like the blueprints for what Braxton builds on top of them. Monk's stride playing is still present in pianist Mal Waldron's solo on 'Four in One' and one can only marvel at Braxton's inspiring playing on the opening 'Brilliant Corners' and, really, throughout the recording. Rounding out the group here is bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Bill Osborne.  (PA)

Henry Threadgill - Easily Slip Into Another World (1987)

On Easily Slip into Another World, saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill arranges a sextet recording that is a mix of styles both mainstream and avant-garde. It was one of his three albums on the Novus label - a late 1980’s production, which you can tell simply from the fonts on the album cover. Threadgill is joined here by trumpeter Rasul Saddik, trombonist Frank Lacy, cellist Diedre Murray, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummers Pheeroan Aklaff and Reggie Nicholson. The vocals on the track 'My Rock', which is well sung, but not my cup of tea, is by Ahsa Puthli. The album opens with 'I Can't Wait Till I Get Home' a blues by former bandmate Olu Dara. On the surface, it seems straight ahead at first, but closer listening reveals subversions of the expected. Even the seemingly mainstream calypso ‘Black Hands Bejewelled’ has unexpected harmonies and slippery rhythmic patterns. It’s this mixing of the expected with the surprises that keeps things really rewarding. Even on the aforementioned 'The Rock', Threadgill introduces some rather unexpected passages behind the vocals that work so well. 'Hall' features a quirky beginning with the bass and cello agitating until the horns kick in the door. It's my favorite track on this album, and the one that really showcases how well Threadgill intertwines the composed, the improvised, and the unusual. (PA)

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble - Ancestral Song - Live In Stockholm (Silkheart, 1988)

Like with all other Kahil El'Zabar bands and music, rhythm is the basis for lengthy improvisations which are less focused on the solos themselves than on the overall hypnotic, almost trance-inducing sound which is deeply rooted in African soil. The great thing about this album is its simplicity. Kahil El'Zabar plays his trap drum, thumb piano and other small percussion, Edward Wilkerson plays sax and Joseph Bowie trombone and marimba. The album starts with "Papa's Bounce", a classic in the El'Zabar repertoire, followed by "Loose Pocket", a piece that starts slowly, full of blues influences and with El'Zabar singing, but then the pace picks up, the theme sets in and we're back in uptempo free music. The title song is the trio at its best, with great rhythms, a nice theme, and sparse free soloing, all very intimate as if you're in the room with them, but then also very expansive, narrating about free movement and ancient sentiments and universal dances and common feelings and about what is more than just words and sounds. Simple and majestic. (SG)

Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra - Blu Blu Blu (Black Saint/Soul Note, 1989)

From the magnificent depths of the Black Saint/Soul-Note back catalog, Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra's recording 'Blu Blu Blu' is a real stand out. On this big band recording, the pianist is joined by four saxophonists, a five-piece rhythm section, trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, and whistle. In fact there is track called 'Song For the Whistler', which in a sense, harkens back to the AACM's embrace of the small instruments. The opening 'Plus Equals Minus Balance' is an uptempo chart, prominently featuring the brass and some tasty harmonies from the saxophones. The follow up 'Cycles5' is an abstract tune that makes space for the slide whistle, as well as the vibraphone - it's a beautiful piece that incorporates an AACM aesthetic. The title track is a straight ahead blues homage to Chicagoan Muddy Waters featuring the fretless guitar work of David Fiuczynski. Quite a bit of fun is 'Bloodline', which employs a recognizable descending bass line and seems to indicate, through both the title and the arrangement, a connection with the big bands and arrangements of Duke Ellington.  See the full line up here. (PA)

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Dreaming of the Masters Vol. 2 (feat. Cecil Taylor) (DIW, 1991)

Colin called this album the Art Ensemble’s swan song – and although the band has released several albums after that, he is right: It is their last relevant recording. Joseph Jarman was about to leave the band in 1993 and in 1999 and 2004 Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors died. But this one is also a summary of their philosophy. Dreaming of the Masters Vol. 2 reflects on the works of Thelonious Monk and features free jazz titan Cecil Taylor on piano, voice, and percussion – a musician who is also a master to the AEoC. However, it seems hard to imagine how Taylor’s unique notion of music and the AEoC’s idea of a homage to Monk come together. But Taylor does simply not take part in the two Monk covers (“Round Midnight” and “Nutty”). Instead he joins the ensemble to recite his encrypted poetry (which matches perfectly with AEoC’s love for absurd theatrical elements) and contributes his musical sense of language to the improvisations (“Intro to Fifteen”).  Or he throws in his typical clusters, polyharmonic entities and volcanic sound waves very precisely to the Art Ensemble’s spontaneous compositions.  The result is a real convergence of sound wizards. (MS)

Anthony Braxton Quartet – (Victoriaville) 1992 (Les Disques Victo, 1993)

One of the truly great quartets of jazz, in a recording that catches them at their peak: Braxton (reeds), Marilyn Crispell (piano), Mark Dresser (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion).

The quartet had toured extensively since the previous year, and were familiar with Braxton’s unique notation and building of layers, individually and in tandem, to exploit his fascination with simultaneities. They knew what worked, but were confident enough to take risks.

From the outset, there’s a glittering mosaic of motifs and cross-references tossed around the quartet like a high-class juggling act – music of wit and élan in the face of which the often-made criticism that Braxton’s music is overly formalistic, simply evaporates. As a reviewer said of their performance on Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 (hat ART, 1997): “To listen and think this quickly is not mere communication – it is telepathy.”

There’s no doubt that Crispell was the catalyst, a virtuosic and compelling musical personality who ignited some of Braxton’s most creative playing, much as Evan Parker did at the London Jazz Festival the following year: Duo (London) 1993 (Leo Records, 1993) and Trio (London) 1993 (Leo Records, 1994).

The performance is intelligently paced, balancing ensemble complexity with equally effective solos and duos, such as the ravishing dialogue between Braxton’s bass clarinet and Hemingway’s tuned percussion. And to top it all, the encore’s a hell-for-leather rendition of Coltrane’s Impressions. The performance as a whole can stand the inevitable comparison. (CG)

Eight Bold Souls - Sideshow (Arabesque, 1992)

8 Bold Souls is the band lead by Ed Wilkerson, and which is characterized by the deep sound of the horn section and the fascinating mix between heavily orchestrated and structured pieces, combined with very free improvizations. The emotional and musical power of this 8-strong ensemble is relatively unique and very recognizable. The band consists of Ed Wilkerson Jr on tenor, alto and bass saxophone, clarinet and alto clarinet, Mwata Bowden on clarinet, baritone, and tenor,  Robert Griffin on trumpet and flugelhorn,  Isaiah Jackson on trombone, Aaron Dodd on tuba, Naomi Millender on cello; Harrison Bankhead on bass, and Dushun Mosley on drums and percussion. Some snapshots : "Black Herman" presents the dark, deep-toned menace of the horn section, supported initially by a very sparse bass-line and ditto drums, changing the tempo after about five minutes, and then the band starts in full swing, with great solo pieces from all the musicians, including cello and bass. This album brings us also one of the best versions of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman", starting with a long, heart-breaking and piercing duet between arco bass and cello, wonderfully emphasizing the absolute sadness of a crushing loneliness, even more fully accentuated when the horns start with the well-known theme. This track by itself justifies the purchase of this album. This music is not changing music history, but it brings a great synthesis of orchestra music, free jazz and bop. Creative and very expressive. A true AACM album! (SG)

Wadada Leo Smith Kulture Jazz (ECM, 1993) *****

This album is a little solo gem by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who also plays flugelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notch flute, percussion, as well as sings on some tracks. The music is intimate, going back into the roots of music, from Africa, blues, folk, jazz and then taking this tradition up in his own 'creative music' approach. At the same time, it is a tribute album to all his influences : Albert Ayler, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, to his mother, family and friends (names mentioned for each track), and on top a tribute to life and humanity. The music is gentle, intimate, personal, deeply emotional, expansive, uplifting and spiritual. It has roots deep in the soil of the Mississippi Delta yet with eyes and a heart reaching as far out across the sky as possible. (SG)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 1975-1984

The AACM retrospective week continues today with our highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, the years between 1975 and 1984.

By Colin Green, Martin Schray, Matthew Grigg, Paul Acquaro, Stef Gijssels

Air – Air Song (Whynot/Trio Records, 1975)

This trio set new standards in musicianship and integration. Henry Threadgill (reeds, flute), Fred Hopkins (bass) and Steve McCall (drums) came together in New York – to where many AACM musicians had moved by the mid-70s –  to perform ragtime music in a play but this, their first album, was recorded in their native Chicago.

“I got into writing for people rather than just writing music,” said Threadgill, “it kills accompaniment and puts everything on an equal footing”. This can be heard throughout the album: Threadgill skilfully unpacks the themes, moving seamlessly from refined to acerbic. Hopkins, as adept at playing arco as pizzicato, weaves his sonorous bass lines through the trio, and McCall’s drums provide a counterpoint equal to the other instruments. This is genuine chamber music – there aren’t so much solos as passages where the others stop playing – but it’s not through-composed; there’s plenty of room for improvisation, of which all three were masters, shifting in and out of time at will. Dance of the Beast is free jazz at its tumultuous best – it could have been recorded last week, not forty years ago.

Air went on to record a number of other albums and stretched out more – particularly live – as they pushed this kind of playing even further. Another favourite is Open Air Suit (Arista Novus, 1978), the first I heard, picked up in the second hand section of a record store. Those were the days.

It’s a mark of Air’s stature that Trio X, one of the leading saxophone trios since, named their ninth CD “Air: Above & Beyond” (CIMPoL, 2007). You’d think twice before claiming that. (CG)

Creative Construction Company - CCC 1 & 2 (Muse, 1975)

If there is one true AACM band, it's the Creative Construction Company, which consists of all its most prominent members,: Anthony Braxton on alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, contrabass clarinet and chimes, Leroy Jenkins on violin, viola, recorder, toy xylophone, harmonica and bicycle horn, Leo Smith on trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn, seal horn and percussion, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, cello and clarinet, Richard Davis on bass, and Steve McCall on drums and percussion.

Even if the records are from 1975, the recording is five years older, and it is a landmark recording for the kind of music that would find more traction later, a music which favored group improvisation as an ensemble, developing a common sound and sonic flow instead of successive solos by the various band members. There is no rhythm, no themes, no imposed structure, no compositional elements, just six instruments and more co-creating a mindblowing musical spectacular, of the kind that few would have heard before. And it works, it even works beautifully, because these artists have played and rehearsed together often, but also because they have the fantastic discipline to listen and move as one, without putting their own instrument in the forefront. This is not a free-for-all blowfest, but a major musical achievement.

I prefer the first volume, but both are really good. As a listener, you just have to go with the flow and listen to the myriad of things happening in this often dense forward moving stream of sonic threads, with calmer moments and avalanches, crazy outbursts and magnificent exuberance.

Eugene Chadbourne reviewed Vol. 2 too - for Allmusic - writing, "Braxton and company were going somewhere else of great interest by not relying constantly on jazz chops or a standard rhythm section sound, and the guests on this date seem to be blocking the road". I guess this is one of the most ridiculous comments have I've ever read. (SG)

Roscoe Mitchell: Old Quartet (Nessa, 1975)

Roscoe Mitchell’s Old/Quartet was released in 1975, however, the album is a private recording from 1967. The band actually captures the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (which would later become the core of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) only with Philip Wilson on drums and percussion – and according to John B. Litweiler it was one of the greatest bands in jazz although it lasted only for six months. The quartet proves Mitchell’s outstanding qualities as a bandleader who controls the improvisation from behind the scenes just by changing sound colors, interspersing short motives or switching dynamics. Moreover, Old/Quartet presents where Mitchell’s music comes from (the opening track “Old” is a classic, slightly varied New Orleans blues with an ostinato bass), the current state of the art (the central tracks “Quartet 1 and 2” are free improvisations) and where he was headed to (the closing track “Solo” presents Mitchell in a solo performance). With this band the seed was sown, there was a recourse to tradition, freedom to improvise, the so-called “little instruments”, room for quiet passages, as well as silence contributing to the overall structure. And above all there are Lester Bowie’s distinctive lines and Malachi Favors’intense bass. (MS)

Anthony Braxton With Muhal Richard Abrams – Duets 1976 (Arista, 1976)

This may sound odd but I first heard Duets '76 on the radio a couple years ago. Mind you, WKCR out of NYC is not your typical radio station and it just so happened they were in the middle of a Braxton marathon. As for the song, it was 'Composition 40p'  and the unbelievably fun and rich tone of the contrabass clarinet in contrast with Muhal Richard Abram's piano work captivated me. I finally found a copy of the LP and have enjoyed it throughly since.

Braxton plays his assortment of woodwinds, including the Eb clarinet, clarinet, the sopranino sax, alto sax, contrabass sax and the aforementioned contrabass clarinet. The opener, Eric Dolphy's 'Miss Ann' is rollicking, and the closer 'Nickie', credited to both Braxton and Abrams, is a lovely ballad. In between, the music the duo makes is expansive. From the push and pull of 'Composition 62' which builds excitement through its extended abruptness to the duo's  joyful, and slightly askew, rendition of 'Maple Leaf Rag' which seems out-of-place, yet, perfectly logical. The latter providing a connection between early jazz and the forward thinking music that was coming from the members of AACM. Throughout, the improvisation and interactions are impressive, but really, it's that syncopated riff on the contrabass clarinet that makes me smile every time. (PA)

Revolutionary Ensemble: Revolutionary Ensemble (Inner City Records/Enja, 1977)

If it is true that the 1970s avant-garde had a lighter touch to free jazz than the sometimes aggressive, loud and iconoclastic 1960s version, then the Revolutionary Ensemble is the personification of this thesis. With their chamber music approach and their unusual instrumental combination they opened up new opportunities.  Here was a band with a dominant violin out front, given plenty of room by bass and drums, which wanted to “reveal to the seer and listener the music of nature” (Sirone). Additionally, on this live 1977 date, each of the members doubles or triples up on other instruments so there are a variety of textures and timbres, including kalimba, flutes (in the opening track “Clear Spring”), and piano. But mostly it’s Leroy Jenkins’ elegant violin improvisations, his expressive use of pitch and Sirone’s free spirit, his lightness and handiness with the bow, that predominate. Once again it became obvious how important more quiet parts were as a counterbalance to sound for many musicians of the AACM context. (MS)

Roscoe Mitchell: Nonaah (Nessa, 1977)

If I had had to choose only one AACM album I wanted to review, it would have been Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah. When I came across it first and listened to the opening lines of the title track it made my jaw drop. The story behind the track, which was recorded in Willisau in 1976, is that the people waited for Anthony Braxton but he couldn’t make it on time. So the promoter announced (in the nicest Swiss German accent, by the way) that they had to improvise (!) and that Roscoe Mitchell would fill in for Braxton. You can hear how disappointed, even angry some of the people were. And then Mitchell hits the stage and plays the eight-tone-phrase over and over again as if he was driving a huge stake in the ground (it lasts nine minutes!) – and the reaction of the audience is everything from puzzlement to uproar to pure rapture. “Nonaah” is a mixture between a fanfare (indeed the line first actually was created for the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Fanfare for the Warriors”), heavy metal, serial music and free jazz, it bookends the album (at the end Mitchell plays it in a quartet with Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan and Henry Threadgill, which is also great). Additionally, the album includes great duos and trios – but it’s the title track that is worth buying it alone.  It is confrontation, satanic ritual and ferocity in one. A real must have! (MS)

Lester Bowie - African Children (Horo, 1978)

On a double vinyl album, trumpeter Lester Bowie is in a band with fellow AACM members Amina Claudine Meyers on piano, organ and vocals, Malachi Favors on bass, Phillip Wilson on drums and non-AACM Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone. It's a typical Lester Bowie album, one that is as broad in scope as it is lacking in musical unity, yet somehow all tracks are by themselves of very high quality. The first side, "Amina", is determined by an open post-boppish expansive and flowing spiritual theme, with the piano taking a lead role, as well as Meyers' wordless singing, and Bowie and Blythe adding phrases and beautiful soloing. The second side starts with a ten-minute solo trumpet piece, a real in-the-moment avant-garde effort, closer to European improv than jazz, and is followed by the boppisch "Tricky Slicky", with walking bass and all, a great rhythmic foundation, even if Wilson's drums is insufficiently picked up by the mikes. Luckily he can start with the intro on side 3, again a twenty-minute piece, called "Chili Macdonald", a joyous Afro-Carribean piece, yet full of echoing theme phrases and frenetic free soloing, that completely explodes into free jazz, ending with sad bluesy trumpet. The last side is a tribute to Fela Kuti, and digs deep in the Nigerian's soul funk approach, with Amina Claudine Meyers doing some fantastic work on the organ, and Malachi Favors doing funky bass work as we've seldom heard him, yet this would not be Bowie if the whole thing was not completely deconstructed in the meantime, with rhythms that disappear, horns that go haywire, with a bluesy theme suddenly re-emerging and back to Fela.

This is Lester Bowie's music, taking the entire African musical tradition on board, full of joy, fun, yet at the same time taking it further, into realms these sounds have never seen, re-arranging it all for more modern times, and beautifully so. Great band and great album. (SG)

Leo Smith, Peter Kowald, Günter Sommer – Touch the Earth - Break the Shells (1979/1981, FMP)

This CD merges two previous vinyl releases. In terms of nationalities, the trio merged America, with West and East Germany, but musically – and most importantly – it was a merger of three musicians keen to extend the boundaries of free jazz, incorporating the rest of the world. Before World Music became a distinct genre, Smith (trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, thumb piano), Kowald (double bass) and Sommer (drums, percussion) integrated rhythms, textures and tonal colouring from a variety of cultures and idioms, producing something that is nowhere in particular and everywhere in general.

One of the features of their music is its highly focussed, sometimes abbreviated manner. Smith tends to favour aphoristic phrases interspersed with pauses, where silence becomes a positive. Sommer alternates between keeping time and subverting it, juggling with an array of skins, sticks and styles, but always with an ear for group sound and the bigger picture. Kowald searches for sympathetic or contrasting timbres, making quicksilver changes between plucked runs, thick glissandi, bowing below the bridge, and even using his bass as a percussion instrument. It’s music in a continual state of metamorphosis.

It can also evoke different moods. Radepur Im Februar, reflects the title: slightly bleak, with Smith sketching phrases in outline before his muted trumpet picks up pace. In Unlost Time Sommer’s pounding drums give the piece a ritualistic quality.

This kind of improvisation is now common currency, but one should not underestimate the effort required to loosen the shackles of the familiar, run with the unexpected, and avoid pastiche. (CG)

 Art Ensemble of Chicago - Nice Guys (ECM, 1979)

This is again one of these strange multi-faceted albums, full of quirky genre shifts, alternating Afro-Carribean dance ("Ja") with absolute avant-garde adventures ("597-59") and ending with the long and majestically bluesy annex blowfest "Dreaming Of The Master", yet it is of interest because it's AEoC's first release on the prestigious German ECM label, giving them sudden visibility and audibility to much wider audiences, and the album currently has even twelve issues in various forms and formats.

The band is Lester Bowie on trumpet, celeste and bass drum, Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass, percussion instruments and melodica, Joseph Jarman on saxophones, clarinets, percussion instruments and vocals, Roscoe Mitchell on saxophones, clarinets, flute and percussion instruments, and Don Moye on drums, percussion an vocal. And somebody plays their trademark bicycle horn, but that remains uncredited.

"Nice Guys" is a great introduction to the strange world of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It's relatively accessible, it's wonderfully produced, showing us around in the theatrical playground of African music in all its aspects, brought by a band of nice mavericks, whose personal skills and musical inclinations merge beautifully in this sonic melting pot. (SG)

 George Lewis: Homage to Charles Parker (Black Saint, 1979)

Looking at the title of this album you might expect a modern version of Charlie Parker’s bebop classics, maybe even new interpretations of his compositions. But then you are on the wrong track. George Lewis said that the approach of Homage to Charles Parker was influenced by Miles Davis’ quotation in which he had answered “criticism about not playing Duke Ellington’s music on an Ellington tribute concert by saying that performing at the highest level was the best homage one could give.” Lewis (tb) assembled an excellent band (Douglas Ewart on bass clarinet, Anthony Davis on piano and Richard Teitelbaum on electronics) and based his compositions on Charlie Parker’s life and afterlife. The music on Homage to Charles Parker includes deep and dark drones, electronics and free improvisation. Especially Teitelbaum’s electronics build exuberant textures which make the music appear as if a deeply relaxed John Coltrane was jamming with Tangerine Dream. You might call this spiritual ambient jazz, but Homage to Charles Parker is just a surprisingly accessible album proving the influence modern classical music had on AACM musicians. The Penguin Guide to Jazz awarded this album with five stars and called it one of the “Essential Jazz Records.” (MS)

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Three Gentlemen from Chikago (Moers Music, 1981)

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s first album highlights two crucial aspects of the AACM which have to do with their African heritage – Great Black Music and Ancient to the Future. Both concepts are based on historical awareness, spirituality and African polyrhythms. So it is not surprising that the leader of this band is a percussionist:  Kahil El’Zabar – who is joined by saxophonists/clarinetists Ed Wilkerson and “Light” Henry Huff.  From the very beginning the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has explored traditional sound colors and instrumentation and combined it with smooth, funky jazz grooves and a certain soulfulness on the one hand and free improvisation on the other. Tracks like “Brother Malcolm” with its addictive ostinato saxophone riff or “Moving of Seasons”, which is constructed from the sombre contrast of saxophone, bass clarinet and El’Zabar’s bamboo flute, are perfect examples of that. Today, the Ensemble still exists and it presents El’Zabar as a great folk soul singer in the tradition of Terry Callier. (MS)

Monday, May 18, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 1965-1974

The AACM retrospective week begins with our highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, the years between 1965 - 1974.

By Colin Green, Martin Schray, Matthew Grigg, Paul Acquaro, Stef Gijssels

Muhal Richard Abrams - Levels and Degrees of Light (1968)

As mentioned in the introduction, the AACM grew out of Abrams’ Experimental Band, a workshop that never performed in public in which he encouraged musicians to explore not just contemporary developments in jazz, but classical music and non-western traditions. From this, there emerged a focus on ensemble sound – texture and counterpoint rather than soloist led virtuosity – forms dictated by motifs, scales and timbres, and the use of instruments and sonorities unfamiliar to jazz. “I try and incorporate everything I hear,” Abrams said later, “I really try and transcend any style”.

As the name of the title piece suggests, this is music of subtle gradations. It’s scored for vibraphone and cymbal – tempoless and shimmering textures over which float Penelope Taylor’s wordless soprano followed by Abrams’ clarinet. There’s a change of pace in My Thoughts are My Future - Now and Forever. Abrams’ piano provides a toccata-like introduction, whose momentum is continued by solos from the horns and bass, which play with the tiny motif – barely a tune – which forms the melodic material of the piece. It concludes with Taylor’s soaring soprano and vibes lifting the music into the stratosphere.

After a short poem, the opening and closing of The Bird Song consists of overlapping arpeggios and extended bowing techniques from Leroy Jenkins on violin and two double basses, together with a bird whistle and cymbals, producing a microtonal aviary: a texture surely inspired by the works of Penderecki and Ligeti. Between, the “jazz band” plays at full pelt in a dense thicket of sound. As with the sections that frame it, this is music with no foreground or background, only surface.

From our current perspective, parts of the early AACM albums might seem a little dry and predictable in their attempts at cross-pollination – there’s still a touch of the workshop about them – but we should recognise that these musicians were to a large extent walking into empty space and areas that have proven to be vaster than anyone could ever have thought. For that, we owe them a debt. (CG)

Roscoe Mitchell - Sound (1966)

Generally regarded as the first AACM album, recorded in August 1966 – the year before Levels – it planted seeds that were to prove lasting and fruitful.

Mitchell (alto saxophone, clarinet, recorder) had previously played in an Ornette Coleman style quartet (recordings from 1965 were unearthed recently: Before There Was Sound (Nessa Records, 2011)) and although he’d moved on to other things, Coleman’s music still remained important. Mitchell’s Ornette is topped and tailed with a typical fast-slow blues tune. Between, there’s what superficially resembles the spontaneous energy music of New York’s “new thing”, but it’s actually more concerned with instrumental character and contrast than self-expression. The fact that the alternate take on the CD reissue, recorded a few weeks earlier, is very similar and of almost identical duration suggests that more planning went into the piece than at first appears.  

One Little Suite sounds cute, but it refuses to behave. It starts with a succession of short, disparate tunes each scored very differently, much like a normal suite: hometown blues on harmonica and recorder, a bebop tune on trumpet, a snatch of a woodwind theme, and a parade day march. There’s then a series of jump cuts, the tunes interrupt each other, vie for attention, and the piece dissolves into a tantrum: an anarchic free for all where you can still hear the original fragments, strewn in all directions. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Carl Stalling’s music for the Looney Tunes cartoons, years before John Zorn started to make whole albums this way.

Perhaps the most remarkable pieces are Sound 1 and Sound 2, two takes that were edited together for side 2 of the original LP but which are provided in their entirety on the CD. They have the same general form: after a soft melody by the sextet there’s silence, followed by multiphonic saxophone squawks, trumpet smears, trombone whimpers, odd bass figures, and strokes on percussion. Initially unrelated, they growl, stutter and fumble their way to shapes and patterns from which the original melody emerges, to close. Each take charts the evolution of raw sound into music, but so that it’s unclear where one ends and other begins. (CG)

Joseph Jarman – Song For (1967)

Joseph Jarman described Abrams’ Experimental Band as third stream music with a heavy jazz bias, which is a fair summary of much of Jarman’s first album: an inclusiveness characteristic of all the early AACM releases.

It opens with Fred Anderson’s Little Fox Run, typical of much of the avant-garde jazz of the time (nobody yet called it “free jazz”, notwithstanding Ornette’s earlier album of that name). There’s a loosening, but not complete abandonment of the head-solos-head structure that had so long predominated. Jarman’s solos on alto include wide leaps and irregular sometimes compressed, phrasings and the overall balance is deliberately off-kilter due to the use of two drummers, playing flat out. Adam’s Rib has a modernist quality: Stravinskyian in its harmonies, reinforced by Charles Clark’s bass which he plays bowed throughout, some passages entirely in harmonics.

The title track however, is quite definitely what is now thought of as free jazz. It appears aimless, content to explore the circumference of its own space. There is a mournful tune, but it isn’t developed in any conventional sense by the saxophones and trumpet, but is instead modelled into new forms by fragmentation, intonation and register. Surrounding this are a web of sounds: bells, ritualistic chanting, cymbals, even a swanee whistle, and Christopher Gaddy plays his piano from the inside, holding, plucking and hammering strings. Absent a pulse, the drummers provide an undulating curtain of sound. We now call this kind of music “non-linear”, but one can only imagine what it must have sounded like at the time.  

For many, poetry with jazz has seldom been successful, but in some cases the problem might be the p-word. Jarman had worked in contemporary musical theatre, and considered as performance art, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City is a recitation whose flow and peaks are reflected in the changing colours and intensity of the music. The piece might not stand repeated listening (performance art doesn’t really have an afterlife – you had to be there) but it’s an early sign of the theatrical aspect of the Art Ensemble’s performances that were to follow. (CG)

Art Ensemble Of Chicago - People In Sorrow (Pathé Marconi, 1969)

This is one of those albums that completely shifts thinking about music. The unity of vision on this album is uncanny, offering two sides of a slow, almost a-rhythmic flow of immensely sad sounds, coming from a variety of instruments played by Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors (this is still the period before Famadou Don Moye joined on drums). There is no real soloing, just sounds and phrases interwoven in a stream of music that is both welcoming and strange, with a beautiful theme that once every so often becomes explicit when it emerges out of the background on the first side, and becoming more dominant on the second side, guided by Lester Bowie's beautiful trumpet playing, over a background of increasing mayhem and ritual shouts and incantations and little percussive sounds and other tribal goodies. Even after all these years, modern listeners will be surprised at the audacity of the music, as much as for its listening relevance today, and hopefully as emotionally impacted as your servant when listening to this album, again and again.

This is an absolute must-have for any fan of free music.Please also note that the early albums of the Art Ensemble of Chicago explicitly mentioned AACM and/or "Great Black Music". (SG)

Art Ensemble of Chicago: A.A.C.M. Great Black Music – A Jackson in Your House / Message to our Folks / Reese and the Smooth Ones (BYG Records, 1969 / 2013)

A Jackson in Your House, Message to our Folks, and Reese and the Smooth Ones were recorded during the Art Ensemble’s time in Paris before percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined the collective. The music on all these albums displays the typical Art Ensemble features: an arsenal of reeds and so-called “little instruments” (whistles, gongs, sirens and bells), free improvisation, New Orleans jazz, traditional African music and wild bebop runs combined with Malachi Favors’ bass let off the leash. As to their appearance there’s  a significant theatrical influence with strange spoken word sections (sometimes religious as in “Old Time Religion” on Message to our Folks, sometimes political as in “Ericka” on A Jackson in Your House), parody, and manic vaudeville humor with sounds of levity.  Sometimes you get the whole shebang in five minutes – as in the title track of A Jackson in Your House. There are also other constituents of many AEoC’s albums: the focus on percussion (especially on Reese and the Smooth Ones), a consequent reduction of harmonic fuss and the importance of silence as a constructive concept. A Jackson in Your House, Message to our Folks, and Reese and the Smooth Ones are the blueprint of what the band was up to in the following years. (MS

Anthony Braxton - For Alto (Delmark, 1969)


For Alto is a landmark recording – it is in one line with Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity or Cecil Taylor’s Live at the Café Montmartre since it was the first extended solo saxophone improvisation album in jazz. But it’s not only the groundbreaking fact that it changed the parameters of solo playing which makes For Alto such an extraordinary album, it’s the capacity to still blow you away after 46 years.

Braxton said that he recorded the album because he always had a love for solo piano compositions, especially for Fats Waller, Arnold Schönberg and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. But he thought that he “wasn’t strong enough as a pianist to do a solo concert”, which is why he decided to do a solo album for alto saxophone, which he considered his strongest instrument. What’s more, he developed his own vocabulary and syntax for his solo excursions. Braxton dedicated the eight compositions to close friends or musical influences in order to honor the people who’d helped him. The result is a musical stream of consciousness full of overblown and split tones, multiphonics, off-the-wall harmonics, balladesque breath sounds and raw, immediate and compelling energy. A true masterpiece! (MS)

Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre - Humility in the Light of Creator (Delmark, 1969)


In the liner notes for Humility in the Light of Creator John B. Litweiler calls Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre “a visionary of our times, a William Blake offering his songs in the deadly streets of 1969’s Cities of the Apocalypse”. What made his music so important for the development of the AACM is the fact that he added spirituality to his music, which is why it reminds one of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Especially the integration of the blues as a key aspect and the use of Native American elements by singer George Hines, which makes the album sound like a shaman ritual consisting of dissonant free jazz and African rhythms. And McIntyre’s band is a conglomeration of the future stars of the Chicago scene with Malachi Favors on bass, Thurman Barker and Ajaramu on drums, Leo Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn, John Stubblefield on soprano sax, and Amina Claudine Myers on piano. Humility in the Light of Creator is a perfect example of the AACM approach to create musical freedom through the interplay of silence and sound, it’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, an album which draws its tension from the opposition of density and space. (MS)

Art Ensemble of Chicago Les Stances à Sophie (Pathé Marconi, 1970)

Another iconic album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, originally planned as the soundtrack for a French movie, it was never used for that purpose yet released on the French Pathé Marconi label anyhow. The band consists of Lester Bowie on trumpet, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on saxophones, Malachi Favors on bass and Don Moye on drums, but also with Bowie's wife Fontella bass on vocals. It is iconic because it gives the band a totally new, and probably more accessible sound, and the most fascinating track is the opening composition "Theme de Yoyo", with lyrics written by Noreen Beasley, sung by Fontella Bass, and as jazz critic Brian Olewnick once described as the "finest fusion of funk and avant-garde jazz ever recorded". You can listen to it here on Youtube ... and if you're interested, these are the lyrics :

"Your head is like a yoyo,
your neck is like the string,
Your body’s like a camembert
oozing from its skin.

Your fanny’s like two sperm whales
floating down the Seine
Your voice is like a long fart
(although she may sing "fuck"? on the album)
that’s music to your brain.

Your eyes are two blind eagles
that kill what they can’t see
Your hands are like two shovels
digging in me.

And your love is like an oil-well
Dig, dig, dig, dig it,
On the Champs-Elysees.

The rest of the album consists of shorter pieces, some very rhythmic, some more meditative, even two variations on a theme by Monteverdi, the beautiful and strange "Thème Amour Universel", and followed by the even more open-ended "Thème Libre", a free-minded weird track about which you wonder which film director would use this ever in a movie, and you wonder even more what the scene should look like. The album ends with a short piece with Fontella Bass again on vocals, an unconventional accompaniment by the instruments.

An amazing album. Another one worth mentioning from the same period is the one with French singer Brigitte Fontaine, called "Comme à la Radio", on which the Art Ensemble accompany her together with Leo Smith. Listen to it on Youtube.  (SG)

Revolutionary Ensemble - Vietnam (1972)

The violin was no stranger to jazz, but the dynamics of this trio – Leroy Jenkins (violin), Sirone (double bass), Jerome Cooper (drums) – were unlike anything heard before: a string duo with percussion where for long stretches both Jenkins and Sirone play with bows, their double stops producing dense overlapping chords. More Bartok than bebop. Even when Sirone exits his first solo with a walking bass line, Jenkins saws away as if in the middle of a cadenza.

This was a period in which improvisers were rethinking not just the material available to them, but what could be done with it, individually and collectively – opening up all kinds of new dramatic possibilities for developing characters and the relations between them. Jenkins and Sirone start with a jaunty theme (yet another nod to Ornette) which forms a refrain to which they keep returning to take it in fresh often contrasting, directions such as the folk-like treatment on violin against scraping bass. Sometimes they find common ground, as when they join in a welter of arpeggios and harmonics, before they separate and reclaim their own spaces.

After Cooper’s solo winds down at the beginning of side 2, a new scene develops where soundscape rather than personalities predominates: music caught from a distance – a wheezing harmonica, faint wooden flute, and violin (with mute) playing snatches of melody and whispering trills, brought to an end by a mysterious bugle call.

The final section is based on a bluegrass tune – yet another setting to explore. As someone else put it: “All the world’s a stage”. (CG)

Anthony Braxton – The Complete Braxton (Freedom, 1973)

The title might seem an odd description for a musician still in his mid-twenties, but this double-album, recorded over two days in London in 1971, is a display of the range of Braxton’s talents as soloist, duo partner, quartet member and composer. An early sign of his diversity but also aspects of the AACM aesthetic writ large (and they would get larger -- Five Tubas is wholly composed, but there must have been something about the sound as Braxton went on to write Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas)).

Only Braxton would have thought of combining the style of Schönberg’s piano music with a bluesy saxophone – and make it work – on Soprano Ballad with Chick Corea. Their other duo Up Thing, is a race in technical bravado which Corea probably wins by a head. There’s Contra Basse where he explores all registers of the contrebasse clarinet (again, one of those low instruments that would continue to fascinate Braxton) and he made use of the multi-tracking facilities at Polydor Studios to play all the parts on Four Sopranos.

At the time, Corea and Braxton formed part of Circle, along with Dave Holland (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums, percussion) – one of the great rhythm sections of the 1970s. Substitute Corea with Holland’s friend Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn) and you have the first recordings of Braxton’s great quartet of that decade. There are three tracks, but the rumbustious Be Bop gives a sign of what was to come when the quartet reformed in 1974 to record and tour, and put on some serious muscle. In 1975 Wheeler was replaced by Braxton’s fellow AACM member George Lewis (trombone) and the quartet – and its impossibly fast unisons – continued until 1976. (CG)  

Roscoe Mitchell - The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts (1974)

The first thing that strikes your eye is the sensational cover on which an arsenal of woodwinds grows like weeds behind a small shack. On his first solo recording Roscoe Mitchell proves to be a brilliant architect of sound and silence, refining simple themes to complex and beautiful tracks. Culled from several different performances Solo Saxophone Concerts presents Mitchell on soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones – and on alto in particular he's a true master. Like his later magnum opus Nonaah from 1977 this album is also bookended by a crude version of his most famous composition by the same name. Solo Saxophone Concerts is an outstanding example of a saxophone solo performance with all its challenges: being out there alone and naked, without any preconceived notions, trying to focus, communicating with yourself, exploring a range of timbres, sounds and emotions (for example in “Oobina”). Solo Saxophone Concerts is Mitchell’s second act of emancipation (after Sound) and at the same time he relentlessly bares his soul. (MS)