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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Confusion Bleue

By Stef

Just after its release in 2010, I reviewed Nobu Stowe's 'Confusion Bleue' album, and gave it a five-star rating for its wonderful total improvisation, lyricism and ability to maintain melody and tonal harmony. Then, as it often goes these days, nothing more is heard of Stowe, who changed his day job and moved from Baltimore to San Diego to work as an academic scientist, trying to invest his time in both in research and music.

Luckily he returned several times to New York for some shows with his former band-mates, who now perform with the "Confusion Bleue" name. The music is the same, an incredibly eclectic and quite accessible mixture of post-60s jazz in all its beauty, with strong references to Jarrett's post-boppish piano-playing, including the sometimes romantic leanings, all mixed with more Miles Davis fusion elements - but without the funk - over free form and with an overall expansiveness that fits well with the Ictus label. Oh, and I forget the classical influences that permeate Stowe's piano-playing, used sparingly but effectively.

Confusion Bleue - Roulette Concert (Ictus, 2012) ****

The first album is performed with Nobu Stowe on Steinway grand piano, Fender Rhodes & Wurlitzer electric piano, Ray Sage on drums, Ross Bonadonna on electric and acoustic guitars, alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Lee Pembleton on sound and special guest Chris Kelsey on soprano sax. There is no bass-player on the album as Tyler Goodwin joined the US Army band, stationed in Germany.

The album starts calmly, searching, hesitatingly almost with Chris Kelsey's soprano playing high and sustained  notes over sparse piano keys, with increasing intensity and level of abstraction as the tune advances. The second track brings us in free jazz territory with violent interactions and wild piano chords Cecil Taylor style, and unfortunately with a somewhat bad sound balance, pushing the sax too far into the background, and out of this chaos, Stowe creates some structure, a rhythmic and melodic base to continue playing on, both in intense and calmer moments, making this "Part II", an improvisation that changes face and mood throughout while retaining a sense of unity.

The longest track clocks at over twenty minutes, with Stowe mixing a classical tone with jazz harmonics, and with both Kelsey and Bonadonna intertwining their saxes, and the band keeps changing the music through peaks of agitation and valleys of calm yet very free playing, and when Bonadonna picks up his guitar, harmony comes back, beautifully with piano first, then with the rest of the band joining in, playing Miles Davis' "Blue In Green", as they also did on their first album.

The last track is again a wild affair, very agitated and expansive, yet always - and that is really the band's strength - focused and lyrical. It sounds a contradiction, and the only way to understand it is to listen to the music.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Confusion Bleue - East Side Banquet (Ictus, 2012)  ****½

Recorded a year later, the band is still the same, but now the guest musicians are Brian Groder on trumpet and Lisle Ellis on bass, and the result is absolutely stunning at moments, not in the least because of Groder's magnificent playing. Sure, Stowe is still the one leading the journey, organising the exploration, yet the way the six musicians freely improvise while keeping a strong focus on each other's short excursions and reintegrating are nothing short of phenomenal.

Groder's trumpet and flugelhorn give a more melancholy and sentimental touch to the music, but with taste and keeping away from cheap surperficial effects, and Stowe is clever enough to reign in the band and change course at the right moments, changing tempo, rhythm, the musical color, level of aggression, excitement and volume in a dazzling display of musical unity. Even more so than on the Roulette album, the whole band really moves as one, taking all the different twists and turns as if the music was composed, arranged and conducted, but then with the looseness, the freedom and the expressivity of free improvisation.

Only one track has a reference to an existing theme -  this time Miles Davis' "Nardis" - accompanied by seagul-like sounds conjured out of Pembleton's machinery.

The last track is a calm meditative piece, a beautiful interaction between Stowe and Groder. It is grand, it is epic, a fantastic finale for a great album. And it is jazz. Very much so.

In sum, the band has created its own kind of sound, and interesting synthesis of subgenres, full of freedom and full of emotions. Free jazz afficionados may find some parts too harmonic and post-bop lovers may find some parts too wild, but that's the toll you pay when you expose yourself to something new. If you really awant a recommendation, my preference goes to the "East Side Banquet" album, mainly because Groder is such a great addition to the sound of the band, but I can recommend both albums easily.

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef