By Troy Dostert
Billy Hart/Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner/Ben Street - All our Reasons (ECM, 2012) ***
Although it’s a fairly brief overview, I have to say that this was one of the most burdensome reviews I’ve written for this blog. This is really due to the fact that, although with fine musicians (Billy Hart, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Mark Turner, tenor sax; Ben Street, bass), and a lot of attentive interplay among them on the record, the honest truth is that this release is just plain boring.
Okay, it was intended to be a meditative, introspective kind of record, rather than a barn-burner. I understand that, and I certainly can appreciate and enjoy quiet and contemplative improvisation when it’s done well. But that’s not the case here. Rather, these nine tracks seem to lack any sense of purpose or direction; each seems to meander and sift around for several minutes, before finally trailing off, leaving the listener (this one, at least) desperately seeking a foothold—some way to get into the record and draw something from it. For me, that just never happened.
A big part of the problem is Turner, who seems consistently aimless and monochromatic in his playing. Even when he gets a bit of fire in his belly (as on the third cut, “Tolli’s Dance”), he just doesn’t sound as though he’s fully into it. Some of the least desirable aspects of the ECM aesthetic are unfortunately on display here: everything’s too clinical, too detached, too unemotional. Even Hart often seems like just an accessory, as his mallet playing on a number of the tracks ends up sounding like filler, rather than a contribution that can give these songs some much-needed sense of identity. Maybe with a stronger melodic sensibility, the tracks would cohere a bit better—but the unceasingly icy abstraction in Turner’s playing prevents that as well. When it’s a chore just to stay focused while making one’s way through a record, that’s not a good thing. This one was definitely a disappointment.
Steve Beresford and Matt Wilson – Snodland (Nato, 2011) ***½
An odd pairing, with two musicians coming from very different directions joining together for a freely improvised live date back in 2010. Beresford’s no stranger to this kind of thing, as he is one of the go-to pianists in the free-improv scene; check out his brilliant work on 2012’s Foxes Fox: Live at the Vortex for confirmation of his prowess. On the other hand, drummer Wilson has earned plenty of his own accolades, but not typically in a free-improv context; he excels in those projects that are just left-of-mainstream. He’s especially terrific on Myra Melford’s Trio M discs with Mark Dresser, although his own projects are always worth listening to as well. So does this intriguing combination succeed?
There are some interesting moments, to be sure. Beresford is a creative and searching player, always trying out a number of different ideas and exploring where they go, and while he can provide propulsive, driving fusillades of notes, he’s often just as content to offer subtle little phrases and patterns, taking his time to work through his options. Wilson seems game for going wherever Beresford wants to go; indeed, he has always impressed me as being a remarkably sympathetic drummer, always listening and responding to other players with great focus and complementarity. In some ways, however, this is perhaps the biggest limitation of this recording. Wilson’s too content most of the time to shadow and support Beresford, without really challenging or suggesting his own possible directions for the duo. Particularly absent here is the humor and playfulness that Wilson often brings to his work. Here he just seems too careful. Maybe it’s just a reflection of him being a bit unaccustomed to working in this kind of a project.
This isn’t an uninteresting disc, by any means. But while the playing is quite strong overall, the spark needed to make it truly exceptional and memorable just isn’t quite there.
Dennis Gonzalez’s Yells at Eels with Alvin Fielder – Resurrection and Life (Ayler, 2012) ****
Now here we have a recording where everything really does come together—and it’s no surprise, really, given how Gonzalez has devoted years to shaping and developing his Yells at Eels group, and it’s a true family affair, with his sons Stefan (on vibes and drums) and Aaron (on bass) complementing their dad on trumpet (and cornet and flugelhorn), along with trombonist Gaika James and the astonishingly resilient Alvin Fielder, still going strong at 76. Simply put, this is a terrific recording, with loads of energy, dynamic group interaction, and a soulful spirit that Dennis Gonzalez has always brought to his music.
The eight tracks are all built around fairly simple post-bop themes, with plenty of room for collective interplay and solos as well. Each player offers memorable moments, with Aaron Gonzalez providing some agile maneuvering on bass and Stefan offering impressive flurries of notes on the vibes. Dennis is, as usual, first-rate in anchoring the spirit of the group, and Gaika James brings a lot of creativity as well. Perhaps the most impressive of the five, however, is Fielder himself, who despite being the grizzled veteran of the ensemble is unceasingly propulsive and buoyant in keeping the group moving forward; with active work on the snare to spur things along, he’s much more than just a timekeeper on this record.
A very strong recording all-around, and certainly on par with Gonzalez’s most interesting and rewarding efforts.