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Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann

Islington Mill, Manchester, England. March 2016. Photo by Peter Fay.

Parkins, Cline and Rainey

Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics), Nels Cline (guitar), Tom Rainey (drums). Ibeam, Brooklyn, NY. April 2016. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Yoni Kretzmer Five

Yoni Kretzmer (tenor sax), Steve Swell (trombone), Thomas Heberer (trumpet), Chad Taylor (drums), William Parker (bass). April 2016. Arts for Arts, NYC. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Sunday, May 1, 2016

D.C. Improvisers Collective - Ministry of Spontaneous Composition (s/r, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

In 2014, the D.C. Improvisers Collective released In the Gloam of the Anthropocene, a stellar effort that combined improvised jazz with a myriad of other influences: driving post-rock, shimmering drone, and circular rhythms that approached krautrock in their machine-like regularity. Each iteration of the Collective has undergone slight line-up changes, but Ben Azzara (drums) and Jonathan Matis (electric piano) seem to be the members who’ve stuck around the longest. On this, their newest recording, those two are joined by Chris Brown (bass and electronics), John Kamman (guitar), Ben Redwine (clarinet), and Patrick Whitehead (trumpet/flugelhorn). The result is an album that distills and refines the essence of what the Collective do best: long-form improvisations that seamlessly integrate a number of moods, styles, and rhythmic modes.

The first and longest piece here, “The Division of Unlearning,” starts with a slippery, circular stream of notes from clarinetist Ben Redwine, and steadily adds layers from there. Soon, the band is locked into a tight, swinging groove that seems to owe more to the group’s jazz influences than anything else. However, the D.C. Improvisers Collective is never comfortable sticking with one style for too long - after a few minutes, drummer Azzara lays down a sturdy, relaxed rhythm, Matis’s electric piano takes a more prominent role, and the overall effect is of a transformation from the jazz idiom to something resembling 70’s prog-rock (think: Can, or the jammier side of Pink Floyd) Midway through, Redwine’s snaky clarinet returns, Azzara speeds up the tempo, and (with John Kamman’s guitar sounding straight out of Agharta) the band offers a healthy dose of sinister fusion. It’s this constant restlessness and eagerness to try new things that sets the D.C. Improvisers Collective apart and makes them such an idiosyncratic force; furthermore, they never sound like a cheap imitation or ersatz copy of the music they are tipping their caps too - if anything, the band breathes new life into some of these genres, showing how slight alterations and recontextualizations can resuscitate even the crustiest stylistic corpse. “The Division of Unlearning” ends with a section that sounds as if it could fit comfortably on the eponymous first album from Neu! There are propulsive drums, airy melodies that wind in and out, and an overall sensation of forward movement, joyous and irrepressible.

The other two pieces are much shorter, but they are not lacking in the exploratory impulse that is in evidence all throughout the first. “Unified Conspiracy Theory” starts at an unhurried pace, with the players contributing in brief, leisurely stretches. As the piece develops, though, the relatively stable structure begins to show cracks: Whitehead’s trumpet and Redwine’s clarinet drop their fetters, so to speak, spiralling upwards in progressively more unrestrained eddies; the guitar spits and snarls; Chris Brown weaves a jaunty bass-line throughout. Just when things seem to be on the verge of disintegration, the piece is overtaken by swathes of electronic noise, and the players ride the wave of ambience to its conclusion. “Dark Matter Denial” is a bluesy, swaggering track, Jonathan Matis leading the way with a menacing, yet alluring,  melody on the keys. Compared to the rest of the album, this piece doesn’t really change directions or veer off in unforeseen ways; the percussion and keys are rock-steady, acting as a canvas upon which the other players can paint. At the album’s close, the members of the D.C. Improvisers Collective erupt into laughter, undoubtedly feeling elated at the glorious noise they’d just created. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way after hearing it!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Jemeel Moondoc & Hilliard Greene - Cosmic Nickelodeon (Relative Pitch, 2016) ***½

By Joel Barela

Jemeel Moondoc's The Zookeeper's House was a stunner - a 5-star record on this site in 2014 and, by most accounts, a verifiable masterstroke. Contemplative in moments, it also spent a fair amount of time a-roar. Hilliard Greene knows. He was there; played bass on the record and afterward, he and Moondoc decided to work in duo on a more intimate affair. Cosmic Nickelodeon is that eccentric dilation.

'Blues for Katie' opens with Greene's simple figures and simpler variations allowing Moondoc space to breathe. No pyrotechnics in his blues, this is straight soul, almost dipping into a sound like southern gospel. It's a lovely opener and one that Moondoc lends to Greene for a quick solo with a few snapped strings before he closes the spiritual.

'Spiritual Melody (Swing Low, Deep River, Wade In the Water)' carries the gospel sound a bit further - no surprise, given the title. This is a more isolated, more introspective piece. Greene sustains an arco of simple but staggering beauty. This is a deliberate, ponderous, passionate "solo." Overdubs are evident, but they also belong to Greene. Moondoc rolls out of the gate on 'The Founding of the Lost World' with quick figures. Greene's nimble plucks follow in odd, irregular phrases. On 'Hi-Lo', Moondoc's solemn blasts mirror the plod of Greene's somber arco. The bassist's shift to pizzicato eventually becomes an insistence on a more chittering dialogue. Moondoc complies with some of the album's strongest and most brisk phrases. In the end though - and, again, in the spirit of the record in total - the duo returns to hash out its initial contemplation.

We aren't long to wait for Greene's arco to return, as it begins 'Here Now Gone Now' in the same somber clip; though it ultimately leads to playing more joyous - even rapturous in moments. Greene saws away in spurts and cements the fact that while Moondoc is perhaps the bigger "star" - and is, of course, brilliantly named - this is the bassist's record. Pizz furthers said assertion, a pizzicato solo to match Greene's earlier exploits in arco. Unlike the earlier spiritual however, Pizz is all stomp and swagger. The bassist spends most of the 11+ minute title track walking all over the given space. The simplicity of his runs on this closing song sets Moondoc aloft for some of his most bizarre and wonderful figures (borrowing liberally from giants like Coleman).

This isn't the titan that The Zookeeper's House was, but what did we expect? Sometimes masterstrokes are clumped; sometimes they're followed by a more ponderous conversation, an examining of the moment as it was. Compared to Zookeeper's House, this conversation's like smoke: not as threatening initially as the more obvious fire, but eventually, it fills the room.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Julie Kjær 3 - Dobbeltgæenger (Clean Feed, 2016) ****½

The discography of Danish, London-based alto sax player Julie Kjær is unfortunately quite slim. Her last solo album with her Danish Kvartet was released seven years ago (Baglæns Ind I Det Forkerte Rum, Gateway, 2009). She collaborated with the all-women chamber jazz Pierette Ensemble (Akrostik, Gateway, 2014) and in a yet-to-be-recorded free-improvising trio of tenor sax player Rachel Musson and cellist Hannah Marshall, Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit (2015 and Ana, PNL, 2016) and the London Improvisers Orchestra.

Dobbeltgæenger is the album that can mark Kjær as a sax hero to reckon with. Her trio feature one of the greatest rhythm sections around, the free-improv veterans double bass player John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, whose list of collaborations with sax players only encompasses legends as Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, Alan Wilkinson and Lol Coxhill. Kjær 3 was recorded at the Vortex club in London on January 2015.

Kjær has a distinct sound of her own, edgy and opinionated, full of intense energy, often extended with her breathing techniques. For this recording, she wrote five pieces and the other is a trio improvisation. All the pieces suggest a wise and nuanced approach, matching sounds with rhythm. The opening piece, “Out of Sight”, is a masterful demonstration of fast-shifting rhythmic dynamics, from a playful pulse to abstract and subtle free-improvised segments, without losing the focused interplay. “Face” and “Dear Mr. Bee” offer an even tighter rhythmic form, cemented by Edwards' exemplary driving role, played on the bow on the latter. Both pieces enable Kjær and Noble to elaborate on the rhythm with surprising and arresting ideas. “Alto Madness” highlights Kjær's inventive and commanding play of extended breathing techniques which are transformed into a playful, humorous chase between all three musicians. The trio free-improvisation “Pleasantly Troubled” suggests a more restrained and contemplative spirit, where they construct and deconstruct the tension patiently and yet still with great rhythmic focus. The last title-piece (in Nordic mythology dobbeltgæenger is a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance) is the most open-ended piece, stressing the highly personal and always searching vocabulary of these three gifted musicians and their immediate interplay, wisely sketching a moving texture that attaches more colors and nuances.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sarah Bernstein Quartet – Still/Free (Leo Records, 2016) ****

By Eric McDowell

There’s something bold in the first part of Still/Free, violinist Sarah Bernstein’s debut quartet album, released earlier this year by Leo Records. This boldness isn’t arrived at by the more common and obvious method of all-out technical bombast but rather by sustained quiet control and a sense of patience bespeaking true confidence. That is to say, if the eponymous opener introduces an introspective world of unhurried arpeggios, rich hesitations, and gradual repetition, it is not out of timidity but out of masterful restraint.

In following this first track with a second quiet meditation (“Paper Eyes,” a ballad), Bernstein ups the ante, challenging listeners to stick with her while she puts off showcasing dynamic range to continue building a relatively “still” atmosphere. Of course with such a stellar group of musicians at her disposal—Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on electric bass, and Ches Smith on drums—this is no real risk on Bernstein’s part, or chore on the listener’s. Bernstein herself as leader and composer gets much of the spotlight throughout the album, but not an inordinate amount—as expected, any of Kris Davis’s solo is worthy of highlight-status. And it’s to the rhythm section’s credit that they understand when to hang back, playing for the tune and in support of their band mates.

None of which is to suggest that the quartet as a whole doesn’t know how and when to show off its full capacity. After a head in the style of “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Cede” sets off on some compelling uptempo swing; where Bernstein’s solo makes thoughtful use of space, Davis’s grows by degrees, bringing Smith along with her cymbal crashes and rim shots and all. Popejoy takes a fluid and lyrical solo to lead the tune into a final rollicking pass over the theme. Track five, “4=,” begins with a repetitive gesture that loosens into a passage of group improvisation showcasing not only Bernstein and Davis’s individual talents but also their impressive interplay. But this is only the beginning: after four minutes, the quartet comes together for a kinked melody, which in turn sets up a more traditional series of solos over a funky ostinato/groove. In the predictable but effective pattern, Bernstein solos, then Davis—but Smith’s follow-up turn is a special treat, more musical than technical but still affording a welcome opportunity to catch the drummer’s chops in action.

If “4=” isn’t the album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute “Jazz Camp” may be. This piece combines all the best elements of the others—solos from Bernstein, Davis, and Smith; sensitive interaction between everyone; and incessant, hypnotic repetition. But even in this penultimate track Bernstein introduces new elements: eerily processed violin drones to haunt the tight 5/4 ostinato, as well as snippets of poetry radioed in during planned pauses. Still/Free has traveled a great distance from its opening meditations, but it’s not quite done: “Wind Chime,” with its gentle storm of pizzicato violin, tinkling piano, and blustery cymbals, provides the album a beautiful closing note.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Akira Sakata/Giovanni Di Domenico/Roger Turner/John Edwards - 15.01.14 (OTOROKU, 2016) ****½

By Joel Barela

Drone. String scratch.  Sax.  Eruptive drums.  Di Domenico finally lays his hands on the keys.  Two minutes in to the near-39-minute track, some semblance of ensemble play emerges - emphasis on the some.  Di Domenico bleeds his keys, drop-by-arpeggiated-drop.  Sakata's phrases are fierce and declarative; as always, his improvising is wild, his stretched notes wretched and beautiful at once. Just past five minutes, Sakata's repetitive phrases prompt a sustained kick and arco-on-repeat from the rhythm section while Di Domenico's hands cascade down the keys before pouring on a series of block chords.  Sakata continues to be Sakata; the best part: so does everyone else.  Which is to say that while the mad saxophonist has earned the right to stomp over songs exactly when and exactly how he pleases, it isn't always a given that his bands will do the same.  Here, they do.

I've written enough "this isn't jazz" or "isn't necessarily jazz" or "isn't free jazz" in my recent reviews to delight in writing now that this is absolutely FREE jazz. Seven-and-a-half minutes into Kaigara-Bushi - based on a traditional folk song - there has yet to be a clearly defined solo.  Everyone on stage seems game to play anything they wish all at once.  And, awesomely, it works.

A minute later, Di Domenico gets a drum rumble with cymbal hits like knife slashes, a power-walked bass turned arco pulls to match the cymbal hits and no Sakata. He uses the space to cut the demented rhythm sound with the highest of treble drops. But it's fleeting, as Sakata returns a minute later to twist the bones of the song into something ponderous and murderous at once.  At the 10:30 mark, Di Domenico takes the piece into something comparatively meditative, though Sakata's alto antagonizes in steady complaints and Turner is all too willing to follow the bandleader in cranked dynamic runs.

Two minutes later, all gives to a drumroll.  Then a single left-handed piano chord.  Scratched notes; then: Sakata.  But not on reeds.  He coughs.  Then growls.  Wretches and shrieks, and then growls a scat. The band responds to this call, then cedes the floor to his grunts and mumbled vowels.  He blows a few notes, screams a bit, then interprets his own vocal eruptions on his "main" instrument. Oddly enough, his screamed nonsense leads Sakata into his most melodic and lyrical improvising to this point.  It reminds of Coltrane at Temple University; but Sakata's done this before - notably, on last year's Flying Basket.  Its closest relative stylistically might be Tristan Honsinger's growled phrases on last year's incredible Henry Crabapple Disappear by In the Sea.

From here, the playing becomes much more contemplative.  It doesn't slow so much as stretch to near-silence between combustible phrases.  Turner taps and Di Domenico plays elastic plinks that seem like nighttime reflections, simultaneously sincere and unsure of themselves.  They're lovely, and potentially dangerous.  At 25:30, Sakata shakes his bells at Di Domenico's ponderings.  The procession, initially a hellcart of sorts, becomes something more dreamlike, even saccharine.  Hardly a bad thing; in fact, it's a nice respite before Sakata soils the finery with a nocturne-on-psychedelics moan.  Later, Sakata erupts in growled phrases once more, followed by two bass plucks, two cymbal crashes and some left-hand menace.  Sakata growls again, then screeches the whole piece to silence before raising his reeds again.

What to do after a 39-minute opener of such high theatrics? Instead of coffee & cigarettes, the band goes full street brawl with a four-and-a-half minute fire jam appropriately called Tornado.

In case it isn't obvious, Sakata-san is a musician whose product seems uniquely suited to my twisted sonic preferences.  As the initial piece in the set slides into its final melodic musings, we see clearly the dynamic gap and perfect fit Di Domenico's classical style is for Sakata's wildness.  I have never set foot in Cafe OTO (an issue of location, not choice), but I really wish I'd been there on this night. And I love how the simplicity of the album's title vibes perfectly with Sakata's prevailing aesthetics. His unhinged improvisations and manic vocal manipulations seem foreign and exotic and maddening to so many, but for Sakata, it's just another date, another gig, another day in the life.  Awesome.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Dikeman, Hadow, Lisle, Serries, Verhoeven, Vincente and Webster : Hard-working and Free

By Eyal Hareuveni

It is always interesting to discover how different schools of free improvisation adapt to each other and redefine this loose, inclusive art.  Amsterdam-based American sax player John Dikeman's free improvisations are rooted in the legacy of the fiery American free jazz and the volcanic aesthetics of European sax players as Brötzmann; British sax player Colin Webster and drummer Andrew Lisle are coming from a more distinct European school of free improvisation, while Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries has gravitated in recent years from being a master sculptor of power drones to a daring improviser who injects elements of metal and ambient into his free-associative settings.

All are prolific musicians, performing, and recording non-stop and keep collaborating with each other in different, changing formats. Dikeman and Serries collaborated on Live at  Le Vecteur Charleroi (Belgium 10/28/2014), as a duo on Cult Exposure (A New Wave of Jazz, 2014 and 2015) and again on Obscure Fluctuations (Trost, 2015) ; Serries and Webster collaborated on Cinepalace (A New Wave of Jazz, 2015); Webster and Lisle keep playing together in different formats and recently released the duo recording Firehouse Tapes on Webster’s Raw Tonk label.

The three new releases of these hard-working musicians offer arresting strategies of collaborative free improvisation.  

John Dikeman/ Andrew Lisle / Dirk Serries / Colin Webster - Apparitions (A New Wave of Jazz, 2016) ***½

The quartet of Dikeman, Webster, Lisle and Serries recorded last year a live album, Live at Café OTO, capturing the quartet performance from April 1st, 2015 (Raw Tonk, 2015). Apparitions was recorded a day later at the Sound Savers studio in London, and released as A New Wave of Jazz limited-edition double-vinyl (only 240 copies, no download version!). 

Apparitions, unlike the volatile spirit of Live at Café OTO, stresses a different approach for this set of four collaborative free improvisations. Here the four musicians explore a kind of a slow-cooking interplay, a calm and conversational one. Apparitions begins and ends with the minimalist “I” and “IV”, where all restrain their playing to low whispers, skeletal guitar lines and brushing of the cymbals, building the tension tension patiently and methodically until reaching a brief and fierce climaxes. “II” and “III” up the temperature and emphasize an immediate and edgy free-associative interplay.  Serries acts as the backbone of the quartet, sculpting their course with commanding metallic-resonating, economic lines that offer a thematic bridge between the restless sax outbursts of Dikeman and Webster and the sparse and fractured pulse of Lisle.   

Kodian Trio - I (A New Wave of Jazz, 2016) ****

Lisle, Serries and Webster reconvened again in October 2015 for another studio recording at the same studio in London, now calling themselves the Kodian Trio. This trio is supposed to be a working group and is already touring the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Again I is a limited-edition vinyl (240 copies with a download price of €500).

The interplay on Kodian Trio debut is much more energetic and experimental than the one explored on Apparitions. Serries and Webster alternate the leading roles, both sounding aggressive and assertive. Serries explores noisy feedback and metallic percussive terrains. Webster attacks and explodes, employing extended breathing techniques blended with dense, fast crys. Lisle avoids the abstract, fractured drumming and colors the improvised texture with inventive, fast-shifting dynamics. All three sound as pushing the sonic envelope to its extreme edges in each of the five improvised pieces.

The last two pieces, “VII” and “III”, are the most focused one. On the first one Webster flirts with a jazzy, Balkan-tinged theme while the latter develops almost like an Indian raga. Beginning with a slow and contemplative introduction of the theme, dispersed into an abstract, searching texture and then gels into a cathartic interplay, where the rough, metallic strumming of Serries collides with the fast sax shouts of Webster and the forceful drumming of Lisle.  

John Dikeman / George Hadow / Dirk Serries / Martina Verhoeven / Luís Vicente - Live at Zaal 100 (Nachtstück Records, 2016) ****

This ad-hoc quintet convened on February 2016 in Anderlecht for a studio recording and later played at the Zaal 100 club in Amsterdam, releasing this live recording as name-your-price, download-only album, donating all profits to Unicef.  Dikeman plays here the tenor sax, Portuguese Luís Vicente plays the trumpet (both Dikeman and Vicente collaborate also in the Twenty One 4tet that its debut album on Clean Feed was recorded in the same venue), Serries the electric guitar and his partner Martina Verhoeven on the double bass and British, Amsterdam-based George Hadow plays the drums.

The untitled 40-minute piece begins as an urgent and explosive free jazz meeting. The charismatic Dikeman and Vicente take the lead and exchange fleeting ideas, pushed by the driving pulse of Hadow. Still, there is enough enough room for Serries and Verhoeven to shift this energetic interplay of the quintet into a more, nuanced and multi-layered searching mode. Eventually all five musicians gravitate patiently again into a tight and immediate interplay. Dikeman and Vicente still lead, but now Serries and Verhoeven alter the rhythmic basis into a restrained and minimalist drone texture that balance the eruptions of Dikeman and Vicente.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Erik Platz - Life after Life (Allos Documents, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Erik Platz's debut disc,  Life After Life is an atmospheric outing made from a unique pairing of instruments. With the help of James Falzone (clarinet), Leanne Zacharias (cello), and Don Benedictson (bass), percussionist and composer Platz takes the time to develop an environment for the group to take his compositions on an inward journey. Throughout, a thoughtfulness permeates the album. 

An evolving theme entitled 'Life after Life' appears interspersed between the album tracks. It's a short melodic phrase that keys the listener into its arrival (if you're not looking at your playlist, of course) and acts as a sort of touchstone. Falzone's rich tone on the clarinet really shines throughout the recording, his piercing tone balanced by the deep textures of the cello and bass. This pairing of strings lends a lovely dark hue to everything - especially in the klezmer-like melodies that are spun in 'Seeds of Life'.

Of the other tracks, 'Blood Meridian' is a standout - it's a complex and layered cycle of ideas with short melodic snippets that grow, often reaching a peak, then dissolving, connecting loosely to the next idea via textural percussion passages. These sound fragments and ideas come together in an unusually intriguing sequence of events.  The closer, 'Marrakech Highline', while nicely constructed and based on repetitive patterns and very gentle tones, is perhaps a little too gentle for my ears. However, that is a tiny complaint about this nicely conceived and constructed recording.

Check out 'Seeds of Life" from Life After Life here, it's a captivating and slightly mysterious tune that is worth spending some time getting to know:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

David Murray, Lester Bowie, John Lindberg, et al. – From New York (jazzwerkstatt, 2015) ***½ (****½)

By Troy Dostert

Here we have a three-CD set released by the good folks at jazzwerkstatt, one of the less-visible labels dedicated to keeping creative jazz and improvised music alive in these precarious times.  If it weren’t for jazzwerkstatt, it’s possible that iconic records like Charles Gayle/Rashied Ali/William Parker’s Touchin’ on Trane would still be out of print, which would truly be a loss.  And they’re also releasing a number of vital and important contemporary recordings, such as Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa.  So I feel a bit churlish in faulting them too much for their  shortcomings.  But even so, some of their decisions do seem very perplexing, such as this particular release.  Most of the music here is top-shelf creative jazz, so in that respect, I have little to quibble with.  But why these three discs, all of which have already been previously released by the label, are joined together here is beyond me.

The set is called “From New York,” or perhaps “New York Box, Vol. 1” – I’m not entirely sure of the definitive title.  But in any event, one might assume that all of the music here was probably recorded in New York City.  Well, no, that’s not the case, as the third disc, which features two groups with the great Lester Bowie, consists mostly of music that was performed at a concert in Berlin.  So maybe it’s because all the artists here have a strong New York connection?  Not exactly.  While that may be largely true of David Murray and John Lindberg, you can’t really make that claim for Bowie, for whom Chicago was typically home base due to his leadership of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and his involvement within the AACM generally.  True, the personnel on these records overlap somewhat: Bowie plays on disc one, Murray’s Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, and drummer Philip Wilson plays on both Murray’s and Bowie’s discs.  But that still doesn’t explain the decision to package these discs as having some kind of distinctive New York tie-in.  And the eras represented here are also very different: Murray’s and Bowie’s recordings date from the late 70s-early 80s period of some of the most important music coming out of the loft-jazz and Chicago scenes, while Lindberg’s is much more recent, from 2010.  Oh well.  I can’t make any more sense of it at this point.  But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

The music itself is great—especially Murray’s disc and disc two, John Lindberg’s Live at Roulette.  Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club is one of the earliest documentations of Murray’s recorded legacy, so it doesn’t have quite the swagger and sheer dominance on the tenor that he would eventually develop more convincingly later in his career.  But the adventurous, spirited, soulful sound he’s always been known for is there in huge quantities, and it’s clear the band is having a lot of fun at this gig.  Bowie does take a while to get going—his solo on the opener, “Nevada’s Theme,” stumbles around a bit at times—but the two horns generally have excellent energy throughout the set, their shared just-off-center disposition giving the material both rawness and accessibility.  And the rhythm section, featuring Wilson and bass legend Fred Hopkins, is simply outstanding: fully in sync from the get-go, yet amazingly fluid and malleable in their rapport.  It’s no wonder that Murray worked so often with Hopkins in his groups over the years: the nimble musicality of his playing is joyous to behold.

Of the three discs, Lindberg’s (A)Live at Roulette was the real revelation for me.  I’ve long admired Lindberg’s prodigious bass technique, but here it’s truly sensational.  Listening to his arco work on “One for Ayler” or “Send Off”  is stunning.  But all his playing here is exceptional; the disciplined command he displays on the instrument is one thing he has in common with Hopkins, although their styles are very different.  Don Davis is also terrific on soprano/alto sax and bass clarinet, and Kevin Norton’s contributions on drums and vibes are superb.  All in all, six extremely tight and focused post-bop tracks, including “MC5,” a rousing tribute to the Detroit rock legends: listening to Lindberg’s electronically-distorted bass onslaught is another ear-opening experience.

Disc three, which consists of Bowie’s The Great Pretender and Steel + Breath, isn’t quite up to the level of the other discs, although there are certainly some inspired moments, especially on the opening cut, “Mother’s Mode and Peace,” a 24-minute free/modal performance of depth and power, with some fantastic over-the-top playing from Ari Brown in particular.  But much of the rest of the Great Pretender is fairly straightforward gospel music, and while it’s effective and well-played, and even stirring at times in its intensity, it’s not of particular value for its improvisational prowess.  Other tracks are enjoyable enough, such as the calypso-infused “Tobago, Tobago,” but aren’t especially noteworthy.  The Steel + Breath, tracks, the last three on the disc, are Bowie’s trio with Philip Wilson and William Parker.  The music is very good, with the second track, the freely-improvised “Philadelphia,” revealing Bowie in a particularly fiery mood--but the three tracks seem to be more of an add-on afterthought at just a little over twenty minutes total.

Since all of these discs are available separately from jazzwerkstatt, and there doesn’t seem to be any special-pricing incentive to buy the set, it’s hard to recommend the box as a whole as offering anything of value beyond the individual recordings themselves.  That, combined with the puzzling packaging, requires me to deduct a star from my review.  But since so much of the music here is exceptionally good, and worth owning, I’d prefer to end on a positive note by celebrating the vision and spirit that these recordings do offer in abundance.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

David Ades - A Life In A Day (Lionshare, 2015) ****½

By Derek Stone

A Life In A Day was recorded on September 18, 2013. Three weeks later, alto saxophonist David Ades passed away, a victim to the lung cancer that he had been battling for nearly two years. Ades undoubtedly knew that any day could be his last, but he never allowed that knowledge to subdue him, to crush his spirits or pinch the glorious flow of notes that he’d been unleashing since he was 18. Recorded with saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, A Life In A Day is a testament to the transformative power of music - no, it might not be able to rid the body of disease or pluck us from the arduous situations in which we find ourselves, but it can lighten the load, lift us up, and give us hope. When listening to this recording, it’s clear that Ades dedicated himself to harnessing that power. During this session (as on uncountable others), he poured his heart and soul into his saxophone. Two years later, we’ve finally been given the chance to hear the wondrous sounds that were created that day.

The first time this group got together, we were given A Glorious Uncertainty. That album was an exuberant display of the tight rapport between the four players, but its title is perhaps even more apt for A Life In A Day. While the pieces on A Glorious Uncertainty could occasionally veer into boisterous, hard-driving territory, this album is relatively understated. The uncertainty here is in greater abundance - there’s an exploratory mood that manifests itself in gentler, more expressive playing. In other words, the tempest has been turned inwards, resulting in tunes that are more introspective. A lot of that is due to Cleaver: on the last effort, he roared out of the gate with rhythms that approximated rock in both tempo and style. Here, he tends to give more space to the two saxophonists, encircling their figures and melodies lightly, rolling along the outskirts. His percussion work has gotten more subtle, and it’s all the more effective for that reason.

The first piece, “Slow Song,” illustrates this more subdued approach perfectly: it begins with the Ades’ lilting, earnest melodies, the soft skittering of Cleaver, and Helias’ esoteric constructions (reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison’s work in Coltrane’s last quartet). Malaby stays out of the picture for the vast majority of the track, giving Ades time to engage in a fervid soliloquy. “Bark” is the first chance they have to truly stretch out and enjoy each other’s company, and it’s absolutely gorgeous - on the alto, Ades frequently swoops upwards to the higher registers, but he never abandons his warm, expressive tone. When listening to the labyrinthine webs that are often spun in improvisational jazz, I like to visualize, to picture the shapes being made. Taken with Malaby’s sonorous, more languid lines, the resulting image of these two players is that of a dalliance between birds. Perhaps Whitman can explain it better than I:

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling...

On “Removab,” everyone picks up the pace: Helias provides urgent, elastic bass-work, Cleaver pushes things forward with his quietly insistent rhythms, and the two saxophonists (particularly Malaby) reach for the stratosphere. Malaby opts for the soprano sax here, and the switch seems to thaw any inhibitions he might have; he’s never stuffy, but in this piece he’s downright irrepressible, overblowing, squeaking, honking, and generally squeezing every note out of his instrument like a thirsty man would squeeze water from a cactus.

A quick word on Mark Helias: he’s the heartbeat of this group. While Cleaver delimits the compositions and provides them with steady, electrical pulses, Helias pumps the blood. Malaby and Ades spend a great deal of time attempting to escape orbit, so his presence is doubly appreciated - he makes sure that the melodies’ muscles are still flexing, and his throbbing bass-lines are the roots that keep the whole affair grounded and stable (side note: the fact that I need to use mixed metaphors to describe this group is proof of how hard they are to pin down). Hear: “Blahh,” in which Helias’ strong, sinewy notes tumble over one another in a ceaseless march. I shudder to imagine him replaced with a more sluggish, sedate bassist - the others players would undoubtedly suffer for it. Helias is not always locked into the same routine, however. On “Arco and Alto,” he switches to (you guessed it) arco while Ades mans the (yep) alto. The title is a bit misleading, because Malaby pops up too, playing soprano. Without Cleaver, there’s a definite change-of-pace, a looser and more abstract feeling, but that haziness eventually resolves itself - Helias goes back to pizzicato, and the track comes to resemble the others more closely.

A Life In A Day is a group effort, of course, but you’d be excused for taking it as primarily a showcase of the unbridled energy and skill of the two saxophonists. That’s not to downplay the contributions of Helias and Cleaver -  these compositions would be incomplete without them - but it’s simply to point out just how incredible Ades and Malaby sound together. Even more incredible is the fact that, in these sessions, Ades was playing beneath the weight of his disease, beneath the weight of the knowledge that it could be his last-ever recording. When listening to these pieces, it certainly doesn’t sound that way. He sounds light as a feather. I suppose that’s the most important message to be gleaned from this album - that even the threat of non-existence can’t quell the joy and sense of freedom that music provides. In Ades’ spiralling streams of notes, you can truly hear a life. As the album’s title suggests, these sounds were performed and recorded in the span of a single day. However, it’s safe to say that that they will echo for much, much longer.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Uli Kempendorff's Field - Heal the Rich (Why Play Jazz, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Saxophonist Uli Kempendorff's quartet Field is guitarist Ronny Graupe, drummer Oliver Steidle, and bassist Jonas Westergaard. Their music is a great example of the vibrant and highly syncopated blend of modern bop/free jazz that seems to be pouring out of Berlin as of late (I'm thinking of groups like Die Enttäuschung and Soko Steidle).

The group acts as a tight cohesive unit on Heal the Rich and their taught interplay propels them along as they jump right into the fast-paced opener 'Dreiturwaltz'. It's an electric buzzing - charged particles of sound reacting to each other, intensifying at each contact - the guitar and sax breaking out into musical fistfights and the whole group ablaze. The follow up 'Aggressively Loving It' begins, somewhat ironically, with a subdued melodic line from Kempendorff, shadowed by Graupe. A quick push by the drums and the pulse quickens. The often understated guitar playing provides crisp and focused comping and the sax responds in kind. The abstract "Sehr Nüchtern" ('very sober'), introduces a more atmospheric vibe, as it advances like a curious dream. Percussion and off-beat tones create a soundscape that eventually coalesce into a rhythmically complex melody.

Throughout, the group's lightning quick interactions and reactions keeps the music flowing and exciting. The comfort and ease the members of Field have playing together is a treat to hear.