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Friday, May 30, 2008

Michael Dessen Trio - Between Shadow And Space (Clean Feed, 2008) ****

I have been checking how many trombone-bass-drums trios I know, and there aren't many, but that probably says more about my knowledge than about their existence. Steve Swell has a few, so does Julian Priester, Jeb Bishop has one and there is of course BassDrumBone, with Ray Anderson, with several CDs. Now there is the Michael Dessen Trio, and one which can stand its ground in the list of the above bands. The trombonist has a great sense of music, very lyrical and structurally complex while giving the appearance of lightness and openness. The long title track "Between Shadow And Space", was inspired and originally composed to accompany a poem by Pablo Neruda, and some Pentagon texts, but those were taken out in the end. The long piece brings lots of thematic and structural variations. The second track "Chocolate Geometry", starts with a clear melodic structure, but looses all footholds for abstract improvisation, with sparse notes, electronics and brushes recreating the impression the musicians had from the paintings of Mariangeles Soto-Diaz, moving back to intense acoustic playing at the end of the track. The great thing about this CD is not only the unbelievable precision and skills of the three musicians, but also the interesting compositional power of all tracks. "Restless Years" for instance, has a fixed bass line by Christopher Tordini, over which Tyshawn Sorey plays intricate polyrhythms, with Dessen playing slow trombone tones over it. As the drum intensifies and even picks up speed, the bass remains imperturbable. On "Anthesis" the bass gets the opportunity to carry the tune, bringing a long intro, with lots of variations, the drums join somewhere halfway, offering the solid foundation for the bass to evolve even more, and only then does the trombone join, very lyrical and melodic, enjoying the openness created by the bass and adding to it, intensifying it, expanding it, taking the rhythm section along. "Granulorum" is more subdued, with slow moving soundscapes, with electronics thrown in at times, but disciplined, well-balanced, opening and ending the tune, and the last track, "Water Seeks", even deepens that approach, creating an interesting wall of overlaying sounds, a sonic tapestry that is as hypnotic as it remains ethereal. An excellent debut : fresh, creative and open.

Listen to
Between Shadow And Space
Chocolate Geometry (for MSD)
Water Seeks

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Satoko Fujii ... and bands ... looking back from the future ...

I can guarantee, with certainty, that, somewhere in 2087, in a bar on the planet ZOrghk942, when some legally extraterrestrialized, yet interesting, jazz afficionados are thinking back about their favorite music at the turn of the century on planet Earth, that Satoko Fujii will come up in the discussion. Many- and I mean MANY - of the musicians that we think of as good today, will unfortunately have totally disappeared into oblivion, disappeared into a black hole outside history, fortunately together with some other zillion musicians who occupy radio space. What makes Satoko Fujii great? The answer is simple : she is music, she loves music, she creates new languages in music. And I mean indeed the plural of the word. She has more ideas in a year than most musicians in a lifetime, and she manages to create with each CD and with each line-up something exceptional, out of the ordinary, unique and yet accessible, relatively speaking then. The major problem with many avant-garde musicians is that their lack of inspiration pushes their music over the cliffs of endurable listening, into the chasms of self-absorbed and self-indulgent hermetism. Not so with Fujii - she pulls her listeners out of their comfort zone into new realms of music, into new listening experiences, but more gratifying than crashing off cliffs, she rather lifts them up into the air, up for new vistas, where falling is no longer an option, with room only for surprise, wonder and joy, hard at times, sweet at others, but always impressive, and once you're in her musical universe, falling is no longer an option, you fly along ... Her music is not only exceptional, she is also prolific, like Mozart, releasing one CD after another, in some years even one a month, and each of a level of quality that is suprising. I just got three new CDs released by her by three of the bands she plays in, and I am at a total loss about how to review them. Let's give it a try.

Satoko Fujii Trio - Trace A River (Libra, 2008) ****

Mark Dresser opens the first track, "Trace A River", with high arco bowing, plaintive, brooding, with sparse piano chords by Fujii and soft accentuations given by Jim Black's drums, but then the slow flowing tumbles down the slopes of hills and mountains in torrents of hard-hitting chords and percussive power, with Dresser's bass taking over the momentum for a fast pizzi solo, without slowing down the cascading river, sinewing and moving left and right, while Fujii is building up the tension again, in full force, with a quite interesting orchestrated and unexpected unison core theme, then Black gets his cascading solo moment, after which quietness and sweetness return, the water has reached flatter landscapes, leading to a stunning arco solo by Dresser, which evolves into a slow beautiful repetitive plaintive theme, supported by a fixed rhythm uptempo percussion, Fujii restraining herself with some sparse chordal accentuation. Expressive and impressive. The second track showcases Fujii's sense of rhythm and rhythm changes. I will not describe every track, it would be boring, but I justed wanted to share that Satoko Fujii really has her own style, full of unexpected dynamics, twists and turns, a great melodic and structural approach while remaining very improvisational at the same time. This is the fourth release of the Satoko Fujii Trio since 1997 if I'm not mistaken, and it's a real pitty that they only record every few years. The interplay between these three musicians is excellent and full of surprises. Like with Tamura, the blending of sweet impressionistic moments with hard accents and expressionistic depth and power is unusual and it works really well. Just one more example : on "A Maze Of Alleys", the piano starts with an upbeat jazzy Mozartian theme, which then really comes crashing down the stairs, piano and all, hitting the wall on the landing, and hard, but then the tune resumes and the track goes on, and you can visualize the way the tune finds its way through the maze, taking turns, bumping into things, hesitating, slowing down, then taking up speed again if the exit appears to be clear. It's fun, it's clever. It's soft, it's hard, it's serious and it's not. The following track brings a solo piano piece : soft, sensitive and serene. Great.

Junk Box - Sunny Then Cloudy (Libra, 2008) *****

But the piece de résistance of her recent releases is the new Junk Box, with Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and John Hollenbeck on percussion. The first Junk Box CD was already something special, but this one goes even further, even deeper into avant-garde territory, with lots of extended techniques used on the various instruments, but they create music, not just sounds, there is a story to tell, sometimes full of anguish, sometimes dark, full of drama, with truckloads of expressiveness. The brightly shining wheat field on the cover, with the red flames under a dark sky truly reflect the nature of the music. It is all about contrast, about freedom and control, about darkness and light, speed and slowness, rhythm and counter-rhythm, but then with the dynamics of fire and passion to move the whole thing forward, and it's in all this heavily accentuated lightfootedness that the true art of this band emerges.

"Back And Forth" brings a great counterpoint duel between piano and trumpet, echoing, and changing the theme, in a nervous, repetitive tone at first, then while Tamura gets a clearer and higher tone, the piano becomes all chaotic and dissonant. And although Fujii composed and leads the trio, she offers the space to the two other musicians, with Tamura clearly receiving the spotlight.

In sharp contrast to the Gato Libre album, Tamura goes at times totally beyond any conventional trumpet sound. Listen to his extreme shouting out his anguish on "Soldier's Depression", coming close to the human voice, in pure agony, as a matter of scene-setting, (together with Hollenbeck's military march), but then he moves on to sadness while Fujii and Hollenbeck accentuate, creating a weird canvas around the lead voice of the trumpet.
On "Chinese Kitchen", Tamura's trumpet is screaming and howling, while Fujii works the inside of her piano and Hollenbeck manages to provide percussive hits without any discernable pattern. On the last track, "Cloudy Then Sunny", the tune starts with music close to the most hectic moments of the opening track "Computer Virus", again totally disorienting with low piano rumbling and screeching trumpet, yet the piano calms him down (although not willingly from what you can hear), his trumpet-playing is suddenly clear as a bell, pure and almost classical, with Fujii playing impressionistic romantic accompaniment, and then, just as you think that darkness and pain have been conquered, the track ends with some hair-raising trumpet sounds, giving the effect of the hand coming out of the grave at the end of a horror movie.

This is not easy listening, but it is very rewarding. The trio manages to create something unusual with known and unknown ingredients, creating things on the spot with lots of complexity and evocative power. There aren't many who can manage this. Next to being the pièce de résistance of her recent releases, it's also a tour de force. It's a rare artistic achievement. Brilliant.

When John Zorn turned 50, he got the brilliant idea of releasing a kazillion records to celebrate the occasion. Satoko Fujii has also reached that age now. Congratulations! There is nothing she needs to copy from John Zorn, except for her to release a kazillion CDs to celebrate the occasion.

And as a wish, well, that her CDs get better known, but that will come with time. By 2087 for sure. You can bet on it.

Gato Libre - Kuro (Libra, 2008) ****

This is the third album by Gato Libre, the Japanese chamber jazz quartet that brings European folk. Natsuki Tamura plays trumpet, his wife Satoko Fujii accordion, Kazuhiko Tsumura guitar and Norikatsu Koreyasu bass. Tamura is responsible for all the compositions and he's clearly the leader of the band. This record is a little better than its predecessor, if only because the tracks have more of an avant-garde edge, a little more harshness to interrupt the sweetness of the melodies. And these melodies are great, based on Spanish, Italian, and French folk music, and despite the initial clear rhythm and theme, the musicians are skilled enough to explore them, changing the harmonies in their improvisations, moving the pieces away from their confines, but gently, warmly, into musical territory that surprises even the notes making up the melody, as is the case on the waltzing second track. The third track, called "Battle", delivers on its title, with the four musicians soloing consecutively, then all four fight over the tune together, free-for-all style, yet nicely ending in unison. This music is sad, nostalgic, melancholic, but created and played with a great cleverness and sense of humor. It has an enchanting lightness. "Beyond" is more free, without clear structure, and "Kuro", which means "black" in Japanese, ends in all sweetness, a lullaby for Tamura's cat. Tamura's clear trumpet tone is a joy for the ear, but the other three musicians are also excellent.

Tamura is, like Fujii (more on her to come), a master of various genres, capable of blending styles, but also of creating a wonderful mix of sweet and hard sounds, integrating a touch of the bizarre into very familiar tunes. Even if you hear them for the first time, you seem to know them, as if they're part of the collective memory (at least in Europe), but then again they're not, the intimacy is kind of peeled away from it as the tunes evolve, slowly showing another reality behind it, and he's not unlike his compatriot, author Haruki Murakami, in that respect. The fact that he's taken the music a step further really pays off. Recommended.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Aaron Leaney 3 (Socan, 2008) ***½

Aaron Leaney is a young Canadian saxophonist, joined on this trio outing by Thom Golub on bass and Chris Dadge on drums and electronics, and they are more than worth listening to. The music moves hesitatingly between composition with defined melodies and structure on the one hand and full freedom on the other. The music is free in nature, but in a sensitive, lyrical manner. The first track is a nice example of this, with a kind of joyful melody and great exploration of the theme. The second track, "Until The End", is my favorite, a slow and dark piece, with a repetitive bass line, over which Leaney plays sensitive and beautiful sax phrases, with bird-like electronic sounds from Dadge, giving the whole an extra dimension, and the sax slowly expands on the tune while keeping the dark focus, with the arco bass playing offering a great variation in the long piece. Despite its title "Still Water", the third track is more uptempo, with enthusiastic, energetic and angular drumming by Dadge, offering Leaney the chance to unleash more power than on the other tracks, with the drummer himself playing up a storm, until the bass brings peace and calm, temporarily that is, because the tension increases again. The last track starts with unison arco bass and sax, for a repetive intro, which breaks open into a singing then halting melody, with gradual building up the tension and the energy again, without really breaking loose. These are three musicians with great skills and promise. They are clearly evolving towards creating their own voice and should be better known. Technically and musically there is no reason why they shouldn't be.

Listen to
May Break Your Bones
Until The End
Still Water
Waiting Circle

Visit the Aaron Leaney 3 on their website.

Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio Featuring Pharoah Sanders - Ooh Live (Bright Moments Records, 2008) ***½

Kahil El'Zabar's has this magical touch to turn all his music into a pure joy, full of playful spirituality, reverent and fun at the same time. And yes, he tends to repeat himself at times, but then what, who cares, the performances of his Ritual Trio or the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are always great to excellent. What more can you want? This one is recorded live in 2000, with Ari Brown on piano (predominantly) and sax and the late Malachi Favors on bass, and with special guest Pharoah Sanders. The album starts with a long piano trio version of "Autumn Leaves", a favorite of El'Zabar and already recorded several times in various live settings. Only on the second track does the great Pharoah make his appearance, first slowly, entering in all quietness, quite bluesy, but as the piece evolves, energy and tension rise, and Sanders becomes really wild, howling, screaming, full of power, opening his soul, pulling the other musicians with him on his sonic journey, and they not only follow suit, but they spur him on to go even further, to go even higher, to go even deeper emotionally, ... and he does! ... and then this monolith of sophisticated and sometimes less sophisticated emotional power calms down, in halts and sputters, still wailing, now singing, then screaming, then back to subdued lyricism, moving into a rhythmic tune, a signal for Brown to start a nice piano solo, with boppish walking bass and El'Zabar's drums in full support. The third track is again a piano trio, with great bass and drums solos, but without Sanders, and the fourth track brings us back into uptempo blues or boogie land, the enthusiastic crowd shouting out its excitement, with Sanders joining again, on sax and vocals. Throughout the performance El'Zabar sticks to his drumkit, without using his thumb piano, playing much more jazzy and without any direct African musical references as we are used from the Ritual Trio. The album will not be on my list of preferred Ritual Trio albums, but it is still great fun, with four musicians clearly enjoying themselves, with the second track as an absolute killer.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Jim Hobbs, Joe Morris, Luther Gray - The Story Of Mankind (Not Two, 2008) ****

Saxophonist Jim Hobbs is probably best known as the leader of the insufficiently known Fully Celebrated Orchestra, his quartet with Taylor Ho Bynum, Timo Shanko and Django Corranza, a band that is funky, free and often hard-driving as a rock band.

On "The Story Of Mankind", Hobbs joins forces with Joe Morris on bass and Luter Gray on drums, for a slightly but not entirely different approach. The music is still rhythmic and free, but a lot more expressive and emotional.

The title of the album, and the titles of the tracks are taken from the famous (?) history book for children written by Hendrik Van Loon, a Dutchman who moved to the States in the early twentieth century, and who published his book in 1922. The cover art is a copy of the book's cover, as you can see thanks to my didactic illustration.
Although the liner notes give no information on this, we can assume that the different tracks are inspired by some of the passages in the history book.

Now, all that being said, this is a nice album, with some truly great moments. The first track "Then A Genius Bethought Himself Of The Use of Fire", is ok but not special, but as the album moves on, the expressivity increases. "Lost In The Vastness Of The Universe" starts very slowly with sparse arco and a sad sax, with the drums joining after a few minutes. "The Story Of A Word" starts with solo percussion, and when a firm middle-eastern rhythm is established, the bass and the sax join, for an equally middle-eastern melody. "Gunpowder" gets into a boppish mode, and "The Spreading Of The Idea Of Popular Sovereignty" is in my view the highlight of the album, with lots of tension and less straight-forward rhythms and structure, and all three musicians at their best : Morris using his typical notes, Luther Gray giving a very creative and subdued solo and Hobbs blowing sensitively and plaintive. All tracks are long and very open, giving the musicians lots of space to maneuver and to elaborate on the themes. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Marc Ducret & Benoît Delbecq - Bleu Sur Scène (Sans Bruit, 2008) ****

French guitarist Marc Ducret is best known for his collaborations with Tim Berne, but he already has close to a dozen own releases. French pianist Benoît Delbecq has played with numerous musicians, including Evan Parker, François Houle, with the French Kartet, recently with Poolplayers, and he has of course also released several own CDs. I think Ducret and Delbecq played only once together on a record and that is on Ducret's "Qui Parle". This duo recording is a live performance from 2006 and it is excellent. Delbecq's prepared piano creates unusual sounds and timbres, creating a slow eery environment on "Asiatiques", the first track. On the second track Ducret's guitar is more prominent and both musicians create an odd-metered composition, halting and moving forward, unison and in counterpoint, moving away from each other and coming back again. As usual, Ducret's guitar sounds unusual. Yet despite the unusalness of both musicians, and despite the adventurousness of the often eery compositions and improvisations, this music sounds gentle, familiar and close, intimate even. The lyricism is absolute, and this without the need for an obvious melody, they can relinquish known sounds without needing to create chaotic dissonance. On some tracks, such as "Un Peu D'Histoire", the music is built around shifting rhythmic patterns, and hardness of playing, which can move a single piece from dramatic to more intimate moments. But the duo is at its best when Delbecq uses his extended piano techniques to the full, as on "Le Même Jour", creating outlandish sounds with his left hand, while playing a tune with the right hand, echoed by long notes from Ducret, giving the music a depth which is quite unexpected from a duo setting. Ducret's playing has the same intensity, moving from gentle playing over high-toned sounds or the musical equivalent of shards of glass. Interesting and very creative music.

And the album is the second release on - again - a new French label, Sans Bruit. Let's hope they bring us more music of the same quality in the future.

Listen and download from Sans Bruit, for a democratic 6 euro.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris - Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (Clean Feed, 2008) *****

Congratulations to the excellent Portuguese label Clean Feed, not only because this is its 100th release, but also for their continuous effort to bring new avant and free talent into the spotlight, while at the same time managing to publish albums with vested names like Anthony Braxton and Joe Morris. Many (young) artists would not have received the possibilities they get now without Pedro Costa's ongoing attention. And sure, not every album is a hit, but for me personally, some of the Clean Feed albums are in my list of most appreciated records of the last years : The Nu Band, Dennis Gonzalez, Mark O'Leary, Herb Robertson, Stephen Gauci, The Lisbon Improvisation Players, Carlos Barretto, Vinny Golia, Tony Malaby, Steve Lehman, Raymond MacDonald & Gunter Sommers, Adam Lane, Rob Brown, to name just a few.

Back to Clean Feed 100 : it brings four CDs of each one hour of free improvisation. And I must admit that I had my opinion about both Joe Morris and Anthony Braxton before putting on the first disc. I like Joe Morris's sense of adventure, and I also think he has composed wonderful music (King Cobra for instance), yet I prefer him as a bass player than as a guitarist, because on the latter instrument he lacks lyricism, usually creating sounds as if his guitar is speaking rather than singing, or even reproducing the musical equivalent of background chatter. Braxton I like at times, but I find him often too abstract and intellectual.

But what you get here, goes totally against my opinionated prejudices. Maybe because the two musicians never played together, maybe because it's entirely improvised, without prepared themes, melody, structure : it works beautifully. Morris's soft-toned parlando style little guitar sounds seem to have an incredible effect on Braxton who is lyrical as I've seldom heard him. Both musicians listen extremely closely and actually compose on the spot, moving these long improvisations through different moods and musical landscapes, but then of the low and hilly kind, without high peaks or deep chasms. The music is fragile, sensitive, deeply emotional and vibrating with life and musical joy. This is disciplined, controlled, warm and creative music, and as free as it can get. You would think that four times one hour would be the perfect recipe for boredom, but it's not : the four improvisations offer music with the same coherent focus, yet they are different, and there is even some kind of evolution to be noticed. On the first improvisation, both musicians start from their own comfort zone, easily recognizable as Morris & Braxton. On the fourth improvisation, the music sounds as if preconceived, with Morris playing arpeggiated figures and Braxton actually playing something close to a melody, including almost playing patterns and repetitions, but then not, just touching on them. And while Joe Morris keeps his guitar sound throughout the four improvisations, Braxton changes his instrument on a regular basis, using the whole sax range from sopranino to contrabass saxophone. And only when Braxton uses the latter, does Morris give his guitar a little more of a high-pitched tone. In the hands of amateurs free jazz tends to becomes cacophonic noise. Free jazz in the hands of masters is the ultimate form of music. This, this is sublime. This record is absolutely stunning.

Two five star CD reviews on two consecutive days, ... well there are some nice moments in life, including the fact that my biased opinions can be reversed.

More information on Clean Feed is to be found here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet - Tabligh (Cuneiform, 2008) *****

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has always been one of my favorite musicians, and that is confirmed again by the new release of his Golden Quartet, which consists of an entirely new line-up. Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors and Jack DeJohnette having been replaced by Vijay Iyer on piano and Fender Rhodes, John Lindberg on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. The new musicians are of course not comparable to the former band, and that is easy to notice. It's the same high quality, but the approach is different. And sure : also Vijay Iyer and John Lindberg are also among my favorite musicians of the moment (see my list of CD Reviews for further information). 

On "Rosa Parks", the first track, the four musicians venture back into electric Miles territory, with a soaring staccato trumpet, wah-wah pedal on the bass, thundering drums and with the electric piano filling in the spaces with interspersed chords and fast runs on the keys. The piece starts and ends with slow and meditative solo trumpet with a highly rhythmic very intense middle part. The second track is called "DeJohnette", aptly starting with fierce drumming by Ronald Shannon Jackson, joined by Vijay Iyer who surely is one of the most lyrical and rhythmically adroit pianists of the moment, he moves the track into free jazz regions, very abstract and dissonant, joined by John Lindberg on arco, then there's a moment's pause and Wadada's rhyhtmic trumpet invites the other musicians for an uptempo improvisation, which falls quiet for a long lyrical and abstract center part, which slowly gathers speed and momentum again : electrifying and beautiful. The third track "Caravan Of Winter", is slow and mysterious. The last and longest track is called "Tabligh", which is Arabic and means as much as "the duty to convert". The spiritual connotation of the piece is evident, with Wadada Leo Smith playing slow, precise and piercing trumpet tones over a sparse acoustic piano background to start with, then the piece explores a variety of moods, alters intensity and even styles.

The four musicians complement each other quite well. And if the first track was reminiscent of Miles, the music evolves into the more spiritual areas of the late phase Coltrane, creating vast expanses of sound, but with a relatively open texture, unhindered by fixed concepts, free, yet clearly structured. The soft lyrical approach of Lindberg and Iyer is in stark contrast to Ronald Shannon Jackson's hammering and pounding, which is absolutely essential here to bring the rawness needed in this journey, to create depth and variety. And Wadada Leo Smith spans everything. He is lyrical, intense, soaring, powerful, meditative, hard, soft, deep ... and offering lots of space to the other players. The amazing feat is that the quartet - and this really is a quartet album, rather than an accompanied soloist - integrates much of the lightness and almost zen-like fragility of Wadada's solo or duo releases. An amazing and paradoxical album, full of musical inventiveness, human feelings and spiritual moments.

For sure one of the highlights of this year.

Listen to
Rosa Parks

There is also a new DVD with this Golden Quartet released, called Eclipse.

Watch a clip from the DVD (and notice the excellence of the editing!).

Bobby Zankel Trio - Many In Body, One In Mind (CIMP, 2008) ***½

This new CD by the Bobby Zankel Trio, with the leader on alto, Dylan Taylor on bass and Edgar Bateman on drums, brings free jazz as I like it : straight ahead music, full of direct emotions and lots of space to move in, offering ample opportunity for the musicians to be creative, to work with the material and the ideas offered by the other players. Zankel himself is pretty intense, and at his best in the long improvisations. The themes are reminiscent of Ornette Coleman, but only seem to exist to kick-start the long pieces of free interaction, which does not mean that there is no focus in the music, quite on the contrary. This is highly rhythmic and melodic music, which does not change boundaries, but that's clearly not the band's intention. Zankel's sound on the alto is great, and so is Dylan Taylor on bass, but the most special appearance comes from Edgar Bateman, who is a pleasure to hear. The 78 year old drummer is still going strong, with a style which is a little unusual in its angularity, but that adds an interesting angle to the music.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Henning Sieverts - Symmetry (Pirouet, 2007) ***½

Many years ago during a music lesson at school, we were asked to play a variation on a given tune. One of my fellow-students played a tune which did not sound like a variation at all, since the original tune was totally absent. Asked what kind of variation it was, he said he had played it backwards. On this album German bassist and cellist Henning Sieverts does both : the structure of the songs are like palindromes : words wich can be read in both directions, as are the titles of the tracks on this album : Top Spot, Luz Azul, Evil Olive, Dr. Awkward, etc. That the structure is symmetrical and that the main themes are the same whether played forward or backward is of course nothing more than "spielerei", a formalistic intellectual game which adds nothing to the music as such. If it wasn't mentioned in the title, it would even be hard to notice. Yet it sets the framework for music which has a clever kind of lightness. The tunes are carefully crafted, light-spirited, joyfully dancing, still offering the musicians the chance to improvise and to do that with sufficient abandon to leave the formal restrictions. The band further consists of Johannes Lauer on trombone, Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Achim Kaufmann on piano and John Hollenbeck on drums. The music is nice enough, well played, but it stays within safe boundaries.

Listen to
Top Spot
Sun Is In Us

Listen and download from eMusic.

Return To Forever - The Anthology (Concord, 2008) **

I am currently listening to one of the tracks of this album which will soon be released. The track is called "The Duel Of The Jester & The Tyrant", originally from the "Romantic Warrior" album, and it will now be part of "The Anthology", a compilation album released at the occasion of Return To Forever's reunion tour. What strikes me when listening to it again after a couple of decades is this. First, the absolutely stellar instrumental skills of these four musicians, second, their unbelievable breadth of musical knowledge (from Bach to Coltrane), third, their unbelievable sense of rhythm and interplay, fourth, their equally unbelievable lack of knowledge of what music is all about. I mean, despite all their incredible strengths, these guys haven't got a clue about what music is all about. And I mean it. They haven't got a clue. Technically, Al Di Meola is better than John McLaughlin (but not musically), Stanley Clarke is awesome and Lenny White brilliant, and Chick Corea, well ... there are no words for his talent. And yet ...
"The Romantic Warrior" used to be one of my favorite albums, I hate to admit. Listening to it now, I find it's still unbelievable, both for its technical mastership as for its being an icon of Kitsch with a capital K. It is pretentious, it is plastic, it is synthetic, it is devoid of emotion, it is dead, I imagine it's like having sex with an inflatable doll (not that I have any experience!). In the past few months, I've been bombarded with e-mails about the spectacular reunion and the wonderful anthology, and a special contest on top of it, and no doubt you have been too or will be in the near future. But on the other hand, and I must admit it, listening to their technical skills, it is still awesome,.... and awful.

Listen to extracts on their reunion website.

... and here is youtube clip of the same track (and it's better live!)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Steuart Liebig Tee-Tot Quartet - Always Outnumbered ( Pfmentum, 2008) ***½

An interesting mix between blues, rock 'n' roll, bop, swing and free jazz, and you will find most of them integrated in all the tunes, which are dedicated to Mingus, Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Skip James. Very aptly, the band's lead instruments are dobro and trumpet, an interesting combination which works very well for the concept displayed here, which is straightforward fun without being cheap. The band consists of Steuart Liebig on fretless contrabassguitar, Joseph Berardi on drumset and percussion, Dan Clucas on cornet and Scot Ray on dobro, four excellent musicians, with the electric dobro especially opening new perspectives. This is highly rhythmic and enjoyable music, with once in a while a slower melancholy blues, bringing a mixture that is pretty unique and interesting. The down-side of such an approach is the emotional distance it creates, much in the same vein as much of Steven Bernstein's music. It's nice to hear, interesting, fun too, yet it's not heartbreaking or very expressive music, despite the incredible effort made by Dan Clucas. His cornet playing is in some of the tracks absolutely fantastic.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kirk Knuffke Quartet - BigWig (Clean Feed, 2008) ****

Although the Clean Feed label changed the design of its CDs (gone are the complexly folded brown cardboard sleeves), they have not changed their ability to spot new talent and to give them a chance. And that's the case with the Kirk Knuffke Quartet, the first CD of the trumpeter as a leader, although he has already recorded several albums with amongst others Butch Morris and Kenny Wollesen. Knuffke sought out band-mates Reuben Radding on bass and Jeff Davis on drums, initially for a trio recording, but after he met trombonist Brian Drye at a concert he invited him to join. After many live gigs they now have their own album, of what can be called "free bop", with influences of Ornette Coleman but also of more traditional swing. The music is rhythmic, with nice themes, great improvisations and wonderful interplay, and - surprisingly - relatively compact. The 12 tracks are on average 5 minutes long, and that's short compared to most free jazz tracks. This is of course straight-ahead music, with no other goal than to bring a nice tune, play with it, explore it, juggle a little with it, bounce it around among the four musicians and bring it to a close, before they start doing the same with the next tune. This sounds disrepectful, but it is not : the themes themselves are often complex, as are the rhythms, the exploration, the juggling and the playing are excellent, a joy to hear and probably fun to play too, or that's at least how it comes over. Great debut.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Swami LatePlate - DoomJazz (Veal Records, 2007) ****½

As its title and the cover suggest, the music on this album is dark, gloomy, depressing, but more than that, it is minimalistic, repetitive, slow and all about style. Jamie Saft plays piano and bass and Bobby Previte drums, two musicians who no longer need any introduction, and what they're doing here is to move away from conventions and create their own pretty unique musical universe. The amazing thing about this album is the absolute darkness, despair and sense of fatality they conjure up with just these instruments, without any electronics or special effects : just piano, bass and drums. And it sounds like the soundtrack of a psycho-thriller from beginning to end, never once releasing the tension, never once lighting a light, never once opening the possibility of even a tiny speck of hope. In that sense, it is truly unique and exceptional, something you've never heard before, attractive on the surface, frightening in its totality. But this unbelievable musical focus is also a dead end. You can do this on one album, and push it to the extreme, as they do here, with little but subtle variations, yet this also closes any perspective of a sequel that could add anything more. Yet that's irrelevant when you listen to the exceptional power of these two musicians, not in terms of instrumental pyrotechnics, but in terms of musical effect. Saft can play very sparse piano notes over a repetitive bass line, while Previte plays the most unbelievably "right" things on his kit, accentuating, emphasizing, changing speed and touch, creating drama and tension almost on his own. This is without a doubt one of the most unusual piano trios in a long time, and a record that definitely deserves wider attention, and yes, why not among metal fans ...

ZMF Trio - Circle The Path (Drip Audio, 2007) ****

Rarely has a violin trio album started in such a haunting and captivating way, for a short and plaintive arco bass and violin drama with accentuating drums, aptly titled "Low, Dark and Slow". The second track breaks the mood by a high speed high energy unison theme, side-stepping expected evolutions in the tune with every few bars, adding power, dissonance and raw abrasiveness into the music. The trio consist of Jesse Zubot on violin and Jean Martin on drums, both from Vancouver, and Joe Fonda on acoustic bass. And when you think you've come to understand their approach, you get a "Slow Blues", the most traditional of jam band fall-back positions, but they handle it like you've never heard it before, back into the gloomy territory of the first track, and it becomes something entirely new. And that's the nice thing about this music. It is not avant-garde per se, but rooted in the jazz tradition and creative to the point that everything sounds fresh, the compositions, the overall tone, the interplay. The band is at its best in the slow pieces, when the voice of the violin does not get too mangled in the power of bass and drums, but manages to sound full and deep, as on "Wild Horse", another highlight of the album, in which Fonda plays a wonderful bass solo. The album closes with a reprise of the first piece, ending in power and beauty. I am not usually a fan of violin in jazz, but this one is definitely an exception.

(Thanks Michele for pointing out its existence!).

Listen and download from eMusic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dennis Gonzalez Jnaana Septet - The Gift Of Discernment (Not Two, 2008) ****½

On the first, 15-minute long track, small percussion and gong sounds lead you into a hypnotic African-tinged music, a great bass vamp, with the piano playing some inviting chords, a female voice rejoicing after some ten minutes, accompanied by a background trumpet of twice 10 seconds. And yes, you're right, this is trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez for you : all for the music, even if it means a self-effacing approach. On this percussion-heavy band he is joined by Leena Conquest on vocals, Alvin Fielder on drums, his sons Aaron on bass and Stefan on drums, Robby Marcado on percussion and Chris Parker on piano and percussion. In fact, this is the sequel to Alvin Fielder's A Measure Of Vision which appeared last year on Clean Feed. The African mood and rhythms of the first track are further expanded on the rest of the album. And it is excellent : Gonzalez's warm bluesy tone is recognizable out of a million, the rhythmic support is an ongoing stready groove, rich because of its wealth of percussionists, with Parker's superb piano-playing to put the harmonic layers and counterpoint to the trumpet. The band does not go too far into unchartered territories, remaining in the free bop zone, using many of the musical effects that have been used successfully by others before, yet this band purifies it and lifts it to a higher level than many of their colleagues did. Listen to the third track "Ganesha The Spy", again a 16-minute long track with a steady almost funky beat, but there is no exuberance, no extravagance, the whole thing is so sparse, functional, with slow trumpet phrasing and isolated piano chords, Gonzalez building tension by repeating the same motif several times and then releasing it by launching a high plaintive note, or somewhat later, Parker improvising with his right hand only, building the same kind of tension over a repetitive bass vamp and economical drumming, and these little single piano tones tell a whole story, the whole track conjuring up worlds, full of drama, pathos even. Even on the more uptempo pieces, as on "Tamazunchale 1", Gonzalez keeps his melancholy tone, almost like Tomasz Stanko would, although they sound quite different of course. On "Portugal", which is without a doubt the most electrifying piece, Leena Conquest joins again, adding a spiritual and deeply bluesy feeling to the music. The last track has a reverse structure of the first track, ending with percussion by all band members, with rhythmic moments interspersed with percussive sound effects, fading in and out again and back. This is unpretentious, deeply emotional and spiritual jazz, brought by skilled, but more importantly, by inspired musicians. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 12, 2008

7K Oaks - 7000 Oaks (Die Schachtel, 2008) ***½

Ferocious, fierce, frenetic, intense, wild, energetic are words that describe well the overall atmosphere of this music, yet there are moments that are calm, subdued, intimate even. The ferocity is not destructive, the four musicians build huge walls of sounds that come and go, change texture and shape, while keeping their energetic momentum most of the time. Luckily for the listener they are also clever enough to integrate some slower pieces, in which the musicians' emotional qualities, but also the subtlety of their approach, come better to light. And even in the slower pieces, the tension remains in the music, creating expectations for things to happen (and they do). The German-Italian band consists of Alfred 23 Harth on saxophone, clarinet and electronics, Luca Venitucci on piano, accordion and objects, Massimo Pupillo on bass, and Fabrizio Spera on drums. All four musicians have long track records in various bands of various genres, but what they bring here is strong, and a nice examples of how free jazz and electronics can merge if used cleverly. And its probably this variety of backgrounds that creates the variety in the music, there is some punk attitude, but also jazz and avant-garde, and the last track even brings a bass vamp and fixed rhythmic drum pattern which could fit as the base for some progrock, but free jazz and electronics are the dominating voice. This is not easy listening, but fans of the genre will surely love this one.

Listen and buy from Die Schachtel.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Steve Harris' ZAUM - I Hope You Never Love Anyhting As Much As I Love You (Amazon, 2007) *****

I must take back what I said about electronics in a recent review. Sometimes electronics can add wonderful power to music, as is the case on this sublime album by British drummer Steve Harris, who sadly passed away in January of this year. I assume that this must be his last album, and it makes it clear that he left us too soon, also musically speaking. This fully improvised set, recorded in St. Aldhelm's Church, Poole, Dorset 21st October, 2006 (again a church!!), is really boundary-shifting without being totally inaccessible. Yes, it demonstrates that with the right musical vision, instrumental skills, a coherent approach and creativity, it is still possible to bring something new and enjoyable, with no compromise to commercial considerations. The musicians are all from different backgrounds, from classical over jazz to more rock-oriented bands, and include Cathy Stevens on violectra, Geoff Hearn on saxophones, Karen Winhurs on clarinets, Udo Dzeizanowski and Jim Black on guitars, Andrian Newton on samples, Andrea Parkins on accordion and laptop. Kathy Prince, Tina Leeming, Fliss Kingston and Julie Harris bring the vocals on two tracks. The music is ambitious, creating weird and unreal soundscapes, sometimes eery and flowing, mostly with a highly rhythmic basis, full of electric intensity and great soloing, without (too much) chaos or dissonance. Yet the overall effect is brilliant at times. Highlights are the second piece "From Dancing Ledge" and the last track "Watt's Curve", which pulls the listener in various directions, from slow melancholy to high energy moments, built by howling guitar and battering drums, slowing down again for sax sadness and percussive resignation. Another great thing is the constant variation. You could expect that a fully improvised album with so many musicians could lead to boring repetitive approaches but that is not the case : every track has its own story to tell, and many tracks even several, bringing surprises and new angles in the music. And if all the musicians are great on the album, also in their restraint and capacity to dive in at the right moment and keep quiet at others, the real hero of the album is Steve Harris himself, who moves about his drumkit subtly yet leading, full of rhythmic creativity. Deeply emotional avant-garde, a real feat.

Listen and download at iTunes (although the samples are really too short to give a good idea about the music's light expansiveness).

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Johannes Enders - Dome (Intuition, 2008) ****

German saxophonist Jonas Enders joins forces with Norwegian trumpetist Nils Petter Molvaer for a nice and gentle album, recorded at the St. Michael church in Altenstadt in Bavaria (these churches really become something of a hip thing to do these days), with Uli Wangenheim on bass clarinet, Ralf Schmidt on church organ, Saam Schlamminger on dohol, tomback and electronics, and John Hollenbeck on drums and percussion. Enders manages to create very open music, offering lots of possibilities for the soloists to perform, although the gound layers are rhythmic and the solos, especially Molvaer's, in a typical slow and lamenting form. The overall feel is just on the right side of kitsch, with sufficient room for innovative sound exploration to make this a worthwhile album. Especially Enders is strong, as is Hollenbeck's percussion work. All of the tracks contain composed melodies and structures around which the musicians improvise. Melodies and improvisations rarely go "outside", striving for aesthetic beauty rather than for new forms of expression. And some of the pieces really are beautiful, such as "Kameido" or "Rain At Night". This record may certainly appeal to a broader audience, although is possibly still very relative.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6 - The Pond (Hathut, 2008) ****

Here is what Swiss trumpeter Manuel Mengis writes about his own music, and it's such a good descriptive that I copy it here in its entirety : "From the onset my aim was to find create a sound, which challenges each of us and which provides a balance between control and caprice, structure and instinct. Kitsch is a part of our music just as much as brutal force. The music is not reduced to one particular style, but depending on the venue and mood a variety of styles – combined or deconstructed – will be used in one composition. Motifs and themes will take the listener through a continuously changing soundscape; these will be highlighted and covered up, joined together and taken apart, they will disappear only to resurface in a later part. That way all pieces are connected. Musicians are not simply virtuoso soloists, who are occasionally unleashed to shine, but they have character, whose contributions have a clear connection to the emotional and formal aspects of the compositions. Although many parts follow the firm structure of the composition, every musician has the possibility to break out from his part, thus continuously challenging his fellow musicians to decide whether to go along, let go, or expand into new territory. That way the music verges on the unpredictable, but always follows the basic shape of the compositional structure, as if a new story was being retold again and again, but different." And he's right, this album - as did the previous one "Into The Barn" - brings a delightful balance between composition and freedom. The compositions are awkward, with lots of counter-rhythms and counter-themes, creating a whirling complexity of different layers of sound, which suddenly fall away for a more straight-forward rhythmic and thematic basis, over which the soloists can perform, or they could just as well move into full avant-garde explorations of sounds. Every track is a kind of suite, with evolving moods, themes and genres. The band consists of Manuel Mengis on trumpet, Achim Escher on alto sax, Roland von Flue on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Flo Stoffner on electric guitar, Marcel Stalder on electric bass and Lionel Friedli on drums. Indeed a perfect balance between masterful control and free form. Very creative. Very beautiful.

Listen to
Tomorrow Will Be Colder
Furry Buddy

Fire Room - Broken Music (Atavistic, 2008) ***

More stuff from Norway : Fire Room, with Lasse Marhaug on electronics, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and Chicagoan Ken Vandermark on sax. When I first listened to it, I thought the record would have been better without Marhaug's electronics, which are often irritating, and just adding noise. On the track "When Water Burns Air", Vandermark and Nilssen-Love unleash all the physical power they can muster, playing up a storm, being called to a halt by some tiny electronics, and the drums get a long and excellent polyrhythmic solo, which is brought to a final silence by the softly sqeaking intervening electronics, probably the best example of how fire can become broken music, but also demonstrating how the electronics can force direction into the music, leading to effects in the acoustic instruments which would otherwise probably not have happened. On some of the other tracks, the electronics bring just noise, in the form of loud static, or a thundering noise, or crackling explosions, adding nothing musically except static, a thundering noise or crackling explosions. In between, over, and unfortunately sometimes under the electronics, there is the wonderful playing of both Vandermark and Nilssen-Love. OK, you get my feeling : I don't like electronics. I would like to remix the recording without them, and you could have something decent. After listening several times to the album, my initial feelings have not changed. But kudos for trying.

Listen to
Broken Music

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Charles Gayle/William Parker/Rashied Ali - By Any Means (Ayler Records, 2008) ****

It is probably a very personal and subjective thing, but there is nothing in jazz that beats the clean, direct and undistorted naked sound of small improvising ensembles. It is often music straight from the heart of the musicians, without complicated arrangements or post-editing, but with depth, also speaking directly to the heart of the listener. And that is what I like about Charles Gayle. He is often criticized for his screaming and wailing, and sure, not everything he does is successful, but on this performance, recorded in Norköpping in Sweden in October last year, he is in great shape, as are of course William Parker and Rashied Ali, performing together under the band name "By Any Means". This is free jazz, free bop and free blues in its purest form, and a real joy from beginning to end. Gayle has the strange habit to play the main theme of the different tunes in a blaring, almost unrespectful way, as if he can't wait to start improvising, but once he starts doing that, his tone becomes warmer, richer, deeper and a real pleasure to hear. Parker and Ali are also at their best, both acting as full members of a trio, equally represented in getting the credits for the tracks as for the solo time they have. One of the highlights of the album is "Macchu Picchu", which starts with a 5 minute sensitive arco "intro" by Parker, which evolves into a slow and bluesy improvisation by Gayle. On the following track Ali shows all his skills, both in power-play and in rhythmic subtleties. The second part of the set is much more powerful than the first one, with Parker really bringing out the best in Gayle, in a more free environment, more expressive and creative, with Ali in a role which could befit Paul Motian, suggesting rhythms and accentuating where necessary. A strong performance.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Bottesini Project (Bottesini, 2008) ***½

Now, this is a tough one to review. On the one hand the music is relatively simple, both rhythmically as in its structure and expansion, until you find out that the whole thing was improvised on the spot, and that means that you need great musicians to perform at this kind of level, especially in a live setting. So, on the other hand, the band consist of great musicians, especially Ron Miles on trumpet, Jeff Parker on guitar and Scott Amendola on drums, acting as guests on "The Bottesini Project", an initiative by saxophonist Paul Riola, with DJ Olive on turntables and laptop, Glenn Taylor on pedal steel guitar and Doug Anderson on bass. It's not because it sounds rehearsed while being improv, that it is better music. The music is dark and slow, with lots of electronics as background, giving a soothening velvety feel to the overall sound, with a fixed rhythmic base over which the musicians improvise. Apart from electronics, the music has a rock approach, sometimes reminiscent of the electric Miles, but much darker and more modern, but also less intense and energetic, and the band integrates a lot, too much even, over a too simple framework, resulting in a jam band feel of a little higher order, but without doing anything spectacular either. Ron Miles is really great on this album, Jeff Parker is a little too much in a conventional mood to my taste, and Amendola is his usual subtle self. If they had reduced the whole program to something more condensed and focused, the overall effect would have been better. Now, its lukewarm.

Listen and buy from CDBaby.

Watch clip from Youtube

Magnus Broo & Paal Nilssen-Love - Game (PNL Records, 2008) ****½

Well, here is one more for the list of "trumpet drums duos", and a nice one, with two of Scandinavia's best jazz musicians of the moment : Magnus Broo on trumpet and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. The 6 tracks are freely improvised, and move us across a broad landscape of jazz expressiveness : from rhythmic and melodic parts to very avant-garde excursions, from slow and bluesy sounds to staccato blasts, with the real focus on the interplay between the two artists. Through Broo's playing, other trumpeters come to mind : Lester Bowie, Don Cherry, Paul Smoker. One of the reason's I like the album a lot is that both musicians demonstrate that it's possible to be creative, innovative, avant-garde, free and still be deeply emotional. Despite the limited possibilities of the duo, they manage to captivate the attention from beginning to end. This is intense, direct and raw music, but beautiful ...

Clearly, a very much underpromoted release.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Ronnie Lynn Patterson & Didier Lasserre - The Gernika Suite (Amor Fati, 2007) ****

Ronnie Lynn Patterson is a classical and a jazz pianist. On this album, he evocates together with drummer Didier Lasserre the bombing and destruction of the town of Guernica in Spain by a joint strike force of the regimes of nazi Germany and Italy in 1937. This is a sad piece of music. You would expect a hard and violent rendition of the bombing itself, but there's nothing of the sort on this beautiful and quiet album. Only in the second track does the drums indicate something of more percussive power and a, albeit short, march-like rhythm. The music depicts and evokes the stillness after the destruction, the dust settling, the quietness of the dead, the shock, numbness and perplexity of the survivors, unable to realise what just happened, the ultimate devastation ... There is nothing of the mythic suggestive expressive violent suffering as in the famous Picasso painting, yet there are some ressemblances. The painting is in black and white, the music here consists of two instruments, reducing the musical texture to its bare minimum. The cause of the suffering is not depicted in Picasso's painting, nor is it here, because the bombing itself is meaningless, it's the result that's terrible. But the music here is more intimate, much less expansive, with lots and lots of empathy and compassion. An excellent album.

Bobby Previte & The New Bump - Set The Alarm For Monday (Palmetto, 2008) ****

Back to more jazzy territory, with the new CD by master drummer Bobby Previte. His "Bump" band has released very rhythmic, funky even, modern jazz with their first two releases (with Marty Ehrlich, Wayne Horvitz, Steve Swallow, Ray Anderson to name but a few). This one is a little bit more moody, less funky, but broader in musical scope, fusing jazz and rock, and even Latin elements in a kind of soundtrack-like atmosphere, which is determined to a very large extent by Bill Ware's vibraphone, with great musicians like Ellery Eskelin on sax and Steven Bernstein on trumpet adding their bluesy melancholy late evening sounds over it, with a solid rhythm section consisting of Brad Jones on bass, Jim Pugliese on percussion and Bobby Previte himself of course on drums. The music itself is not boundary-shifting, but it is still nice to listen to, unobtrusive, full of soul and feeling, full of tension and sweetness at the same time. There is also no comparison with his adventurous excursions with Charlie Hunter, or with his recent "The Coalition Of The Willing". The tempo went down compared to the previous releases of Bump, but the quality is still high, both in terms of the compositions and of the overall unity of the album. Some of the tracks are open invitations for slow and tender dancing, and that is not something that I can often write on this blog. Bill Ware is brilliant on this CD, in his restraint and magnificent coloring of the overall sound.

Listen and download from Palmetto. (you can download for US$ 9, all-in, which is a good deal for Europeans with the current currency exchange rate)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Evan Parker's Transatlantic Art Ensemble - Boustrophedon (ECM, 2008)

The Transatlantic Art Ensemble is an orchestra created by Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker. Its first production was released on ECM as Roscoe Mitchell's "Composition/Improvisation N° 1, 2 & 3". I listened to it several times and put it away, exhausted and disappointed. Now, the ensemble has released its companion CD, written and conducted by Evan Parker, called "Boustrophedon". The list of musicians is impressive : Evan Parker on soprano saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell on alto and soprano saxophone, Anders Svanoe on alto saxophone, John Rangecroft on clarinet, Neil Metcalfe on flute, Corey Wilkes on trumpet and flugelhorn, Nils Bultmann on viola, Philipp Wachsmann on violin, Marcio Mattos on cello, Craig Taborn on piano, Jaribu Shahid and Barry Guy on double-bass, Tani Tabbal and Paul Lytton on drums and percussion. This kind of release forces one to think about the nature of music and the nature of jazz. On the one hand, you can admire the fact that musicians keep looking for new ways to express themselves, with the possibility that you, me, as listeners will be able to enrich our aesthetic and emotional experience in the process. In the worst case, you're in for a bad trip and a purse a little lighter. On the other hand, the most burning questions I had when listening to this CD were: "What pretence or misplaced ambition drives wonderful improvisers in this direction?", or differently "Why do jazz musicians - or rock musicians - think that they can only be considered serious musicians once they've tried to move into classical territory, even modern classical music?", or "Why would you sacrifice the self-discovered gem of spontaneity, free form and emotional expressiveness on the altar of Art with a big A as described and defined by some high-brow intellectual critics?", or "Why would a musician with so much experience in the egoless interplay of jazz, be willing to rip the genre's heart out, to strip it from its soul, just in order to create some weird concoction of sounds which all together shout in unison : do you hear me, have you heard me, see what I can?" or "Why does a musician whose main aim has always been the unadultered joy of pure sound, light and free, indulge himself in a banquet too rich and too heavy ...?".

The only good thing about this album, is that it made me reflect on these things...

The perfect antidote is to listen to some of Parker's solo, duo or trio recordings.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Scorch Trio - Schorch! Brolt! (Rune Grammofon, 2008) ***½

It takes some listens to come to appreciate this band, consisting of Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, and Norwegian rhythm masters Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. This is their third release, after Scorch Trio and Luggumt. This is a band with lots of rock and punk in spirit, combined with a more intellectual inquisitiveness into the nature of sound. The spirit of the music is anger, revolt and rage even, played in very direct emotional outbursts, but the sound inquisitiveness give this anger a touch of uncertainty, a kind of despair, a big question mark too above the exclamation marks on the cover. The musicians integrate both dimensions in their playing, which can be down-and-out rock, or very avant-garde explorations. Just compare the violence of "Olstra", the opening track with the more subdued and eery atmosphere of in the first half of "Gaba", a piece that evolves into a totally disorienting musical experience. True, there are some electronics involved, but it's still phenomenal to get this massive sound just out of three instruments, without overdubs. Even in the more rock-oriented pieces, as on "Graps", the three musicians manage permanently to get outside the rhythms as you would expect them, adding to the overall feeling that something is not quite so right. And that's a real compliment for their mastership : to avoid all predictability, and yes, they sometimes flirt with fixed rhythm or bass vamp, but just for a few bars, used as a launch-pad for the explosive departure of yet another rocket. Raw! Not for the faint of heart.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Watch a clip from a performance in Finland in 2006

Yuri Honing

Dutch saxophonist Yuri Honing just released two CDs, a "classical" CD, with compositions by Schubert and a fusion CD, with German Rote Bereich leader Frank Möbus.

Yuri Honing & Nora Mulder - Winterreise (JIM, 2007 ) ****

More musicians have tried to blend classical music with jazz, but few have done it so reverently as Yuri Honing and Nora Mulder do here. Honing basically replaces the vocal parts in Schubert's lieder, but he does so with lots of emotion, and with a jazz feel. This is classical music, but then again it is not. There is no improvisation here, but Honing's sax does not sound like a classical sax. Mulder's piano playing is closer to what you can expect. The sax plays well too, but once in a while it sounds a little bit bland. You would expect either the clear pure perfection of a classical musician or the unbound power of a jazz musician, yet Honing keeps it in between. Nevertheless, for those who like cross-over initiatives, this is certainly one worth looking for.

Listen and download from iTunes or eMusic.

Yuri Honing's Wired Paradise - Meet Your Demons (JIM, 2008) ***

A double electric guitar front plus electric bass, added with sax and drums, and you know that this is not your regular jazz outfit. The band consists of Yuri Honing on saxophones, Frank Möbus and Paul Jan Bakker on guitar, Tony Overwater on bass guitar and Joost Lijbaart on drums. The music is also not jazz, it sounds more like new wave from the 80s, but then instrumental and with a quasi-jazz band. The band brings lots of variations, from rhythmic power play with screaming guitars on the title track, over sensitive gentle compositions like "Lost", to Bowie's "Wild Is The Wind". It misses the inventiveness and adventurousness of a Jim Black, but this may appeal to a rock audience (and hopefully move them to jazz).

Listen and download from eMusic.

Watch a series of extracts from a live performance of "Wired Paradise" in Paradiso in Amsterdam.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wayne Horvitz

I like Wayne Horvitz, if only because of his broad knowledge and approach of musical genres. In that sense he often reminds me of Bill Frisell and Michael Blake, who are also as much at home in rock music as in traditional jazz or the avant-garde and are willing to explore all, in different projects or by mixing the genres. Their open ears and large technical scope clearly offer different angles and enriches the creative process. Horvitz has had 13 different own musical projects so far, next to his collaborations with amongst others John Zorn's Naked City. His most famous projects include the defunct funky Zony Mash, his improv jazz-rock band Ponga, and his "Sweeter Than The Day" band, which brings one of two new releases. And both bring a subgenre of jazz which is unique. To have created only one subgenre would be a wonderful element on anyone's resumé, but two?

Wayne Horvitz & Sweeter Than The Day - A Walk In The Dark (self published, 2008) ****½

Next to Horvitz on keyboards, the band consists of Timothy Young on guitar, Keith Lowe on bass and Eric Eagle on drums, the latter replacing Andy Roth. The band's music brings a wonderful and unique melodic blend of light-footed bluesy rock-oriented jazz, extremely refined and enjoyable. The band started as an acoustic version of Zony Mash, with the exception of the electric guitar, but musically actually improving on the original concept. As with the two previous CDs, the music is very melodic, rhythmic, danceable even, a jazzy kind of rock devoid of anger, harmonically enriched mid-tempo blues, cleverly constructed, without instrumental pyrotechnics, just simple (on the surface) plain fun, with lots of tempo and rhythm changes. So, a real treat, again, although there isn't the slightest shift in the musical approach as compared with the previous ones. But the quality was already so high that this is probably a good thing. Have fun!

Listen to
A Walk In The Dark

Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet - One Dance Alone (Songlines, 2008) ****½

This is the second release of the Gravitas Quartet, with Peggy Lee on cello, Ron Miles on trumpet and Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon. Whereas the first release "Way Out East" contained a more avant-garde feel, with lots of use of extended techniques, "One Dance Alone" comes closer to the accessibility of Sweeter Than The Day, but then in a real chamber jazz environment. The band and the music were specifically created with these musicians in mind, with the explicit intention to mix composed themes with small group improvisation. And the band is a perfect fit for the music : all four musicians are extremely gifted, but also manage to play in a very focused and self-effacing way : the instruments just build the music together, as a whole, not as consecutive soloists supported by the other three. And whereas Sweeter Than The Day is fun and light-hearted, this band is dark en deeply emotional, full of melancholy themes and romantic moods. Despite the big difference between the two bands, the music is still unmistakeably Horvitz. The great success of the album is the similarity in approach of the four musicians : perfectionists with a very precise touch of their instruments, playing with lots of clarity, moving effortlessly between classical music and avant-garde or jazz improvisation. Of the composer's many projects, this is clearly a winner, and one that will hopefully continue to perform and record.

Listen to
One Dance Alone

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Xabier Iriondo & Gianni Mimmo - Your Very Eyes (Long Song Records, 2008) ***½

Without some interventions, in which Xabier Iriondo creates awful, ear- and brainsplitting high-pitched electronic noises over the otherwise great soprano sax of Gianni Mimmo, this album could have been excellent. It was recorded at the summer solstice in a 10th century church in Italy (what's this? a competition among avant-garde musicians to find the oldest church to play in?), leading to the typical hollow distant acoustics of the space it was recorded in. In essence, it is the sax that leads the music, all improvised, minimalistic and relatively accessible (but not always), with the guitar complementing the music with sounds that are usually not identifiable as coming from a guitar. John Butcher and Evan Parker come to mind, but also Lacy and Roscoe Mitchell. While most of the time Iriondo's guitar really contributes to the music, by offering depth, at other times his interventions are irritating, but luckily not too often. The album has its great moments, but its downsides too. A pitty.

Magnus Broo Quartet - Painbody (Moserobie, 2008) ***½

It seems like there is an avalanche of good albums being released these days, and it's hard to keep up for your daily reviewer. Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo has many voices, ranging from the more mainstream free bop as with this Magnus Broo Quartet, over the pleasant inventiveness of Atomic, free jazz as with 4 Corners, to the more avant-garde outings as with Boots Brown last year. The Magnus Broo Quartet consists of the leader on trumpet, Torbjörn Gulz on piano, Mattias Welin on electric bass and Jonas Holgersson on drums. The music is inspired, belonging to the modern mainstream, with once in a while some leanings to more free. The music is highly rhythmic, structured and fully in the service of Broo's strong trumpet playing, which is melodic and very energetic. It's a nice album, engaging but a little bit too much on the safe side for me.

Listen and download from Klicktrack.

The Stone Quartet - DMG @ The Stone (DMG ARC, 2008) *****

In December 2006, French bass-player Joelle Léandre had planned a series of duos at The Stone with Marilyn Crispell on piano, with Roy Campbell, Jr. on trumpet and with Mat Maneri on viola & violin. However, as it turned out, the four musicians ended up improvising together for the whole set, in various combinations. The four musicians had each of them already played together beforehand in one or the other line-up (Campbell with Maneri, Maneri with Léandre, Léandre with Crispell), and they feel like like-minded spirits on this free and open album, full of slow and intimistic harmonic confrontations between their four instruments. The slowness of their hesitatingly exploring of and expanding on the created sounds gives a rather accessible listen, with hauntingly beautiful parts in it, especially in the long opening track. The short samples which you can hear below will not really do credit to the carefully built up evolution of the pieces. The second piece, the first duet on the album, starts with Maneri's viola and Léandre's bass, the latter first pizzi, then joining on arco for a great bowed strings interaction, coming together in the same tonal regions and then moving away again to the extremes of both instruments' scope, while keeping the unique musical dialogue going. The third track is also a duet, with Campbell's wonderful trumpet-playing accompanied by Crispell, whose responsive ideas on piano are as close as you can get to the trumpeter's improv, including the almost simultaneous mood change close to the middle of the piece, or the sudden excitement of joint fluttering sounds later on, but when she starts taking the initiative, Campbell follows suit in a manner that is equally close, as if it was all written down and duly rehearsed. The fourth piece starts with Maneri's familiar microtonal viola sounds, that create an eery sound universe which the other musicians enjoy exploring with him. The notes are sparse, the atmosphere haunting and dark, the interaction brilliant. Half-way the track Léandre increases the tempo a notch, with Crispell accepting the invitation, the two men receding into the background, for a great many-faceted duet, for which, once the scene has been set, Maneri adds his ideas, and when Crispell changes the tone with a playful piano tune, Campbell jumps in again, expanding on the melody, with the whole band reacting to Léandre's bass vamp, and then Campbell slowly leading the piece to its end, with melancholy solo trumpet. I love it!

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Part 1
Part 2