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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Michael Bates' Outside Sources - Clockwise (Greenleaf, 2008) ****½

Canadian bass player Michael Bates continues to deliver high quality jazz, with a superb band and wonderfully crafted rhythmic music. The band has slightly changed, with Quinsin Nachoff still on sax, but now with the great Russ Johnson on trumpet and Jeff Davis on drums. The real power of this band, and certainly of Bates' compositions, is that despite the complex compositions and rhythmic layers, which would act as an enormous constraint on many musicians, the whole is still delivered in a very spontaneous mood, with the improvising soloists manoeuvring freely and skill-fully through the set framework. As much inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman as by the great Russian composers of the 20th Century, the compositions manage to convey a wonderful mix of human emotions : joy and sadness, anger and acceptance, in the same piece, and sometimes even at the same moment. The rhythmic oddities can sound like fun, while the sax or trumpet are wailing with sadness. The rhythms change constantly, from 5/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 sometimes in the same track, or sometimes between 4/4 and 3/8, the themes and the structures of the pieces are all set, there are lots of thematic changes and thematic counterpoint, tempo variations, melodic references to traditional jazz, to soundtracks and classical music, and yet it grooves, it swings, it sounds all so natural. But that's all the hardware of the song, the true quality of the album is in the improvisations. In earlier reviews, I have already listed the qualities of trumpeter Johnson : he has an enormous technical skill, while being very emotional in his solos, and on this album, Nachoff plays at the same high level, not to mention Davis and Bates himself, whether pizzi or arco. It is not free jazz, but it's a musical delight from beginning to end. Don't miss it.

His former release "A Fine Balance" was on my Top-10 list for 2006.

Comment on Russ Johnson : I actually never posted my review on him. It contained a combined review of his "Save Big" and Nicolas Masson's "Yellow (A Little Orange)". It's still a draft.

Listen to
Great Exhibition

Download or buy from Greenleafmusic.
© stef

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Persons - Sweet Ears (Ramboy, 2008) **½

No doubt Michael Moore is a great clarinetist and saxophonist and he's surely not afraid to go to musical territory as yet unchartered, in line with his ICP experience and some of the other bands he's been playing with over the years. I saw him play earlier this year with Han Bennink on drums and Will Holshouser on accordion and that was pretty stunning. The Persons is his more rock-influenced band, and this is only their third release in almost twenty years, with next to him Ernst Reijseger on cello, Danny Petrow and Nick Kirgo on guitars, James "Sprocket" Royer on bass and Michael Vatcher on drums. As on the previous album "Live During Wartime" the mix doesn't quite take. The musicianship is excellent, but the music is too artificial to be good. It lacks the raw energy you expect from rock music, and it lacks the musical wealth and freedom you expect from jazz, with as a result that the moods and the subgenres shift permanently as well : there is some funk, some reggae, some blues, some rock, some Frisell-like playing, and the problem is that all these styles are not really integrated with the jazz elements, they work along each other, with insufficient clear and musical vision, and it lacks teeth. Too bad.

© stef

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ramon Prats & Albert Cirera - Duot (2008) ***½

It rarely happens that we hear free jazz from Spain (at least I'm not too familiar with it), but here is an excellent album by two young musicians, Ramon Prats on drums and Albert Cirera on sax and flutes, quietly and gently exploring free sounds, melodies and moods together. The long first track does barely vibrate the silence surrounding the musicians, the second track is more joyful and could be inspired by Don Cherry. The center piece, "Sachs", starts with wood flute and is a little reminiscent of South American sounds of Nana Vasconcelos or Egberto Gismonti, but that's just an introduction for the very controlled double-tone blowing on the tenor. There is no screaming or wailing on this record, but the intense and very disciplined exploration of soft sounds and sensitive interaction is all the more enjoyable. There are meditative parts, and some fun joyful lightly dancing passages. The overall mood is warm and free, like a breeze in the summer night.

More info on MySpace and listen or download from CDBaby.

© stef

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut - The Digital Box (Ayler, 2008) *** & ****

As much as I was pleased with Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut's Williamsburg Sonatas, as much do I have mixed feelings by the digital box with 8 CDs that Ayler Records just released. You get 8 discs with some of today's top free jazz musicians, including Daniel Carter, Blaise Siwula, Sonny Simmons, Adam Lane, Marc Edwards, Luther Thomas, Ras Moshe, ... and these in various line-ups, with Shurdut on guitar, keyboards and guitar amp on all performances. Very often the CD consists of one track of uncompromosing and unrelenting free blowing, with no structure, no rhythm, not even an attempt of melody and sometimes not even interaction, creating a wall of sound which can go on for 45 minutes on several pieces, with all the instruments playing loud, all the time.

The guitarist's approach to music is for him to act as a "receptor for the all-out storm of the world to communicate through". He wants to vibrate along with the noise he hears, in his flat, coming through the doors, from the streets, the neighbours. The quality of the sound is often nog quite good, and the ideas not always very refreshing.

However, there are some exceptions. "Etuning" is certainly one of the best discs in the box, with eight tracks inspired by the bathroom floor, the kitchen sink, wood rattling against the heater, which are also some of the titles. It is fun and contains some great moments. The best CD of the box is "New Text", which has a more gradual build-up, and has some haunting moments, and it also contains a wonderful march-like piece, very dark, very menacing, with crazy but repetitive piano playing by Shurdut, a hypnotic rhythm and mad horns. The great thing here is the variation, which often totally lacks on some of the other CDs, with slower parts alternating with speedier, louder with calmer, chaos with discipline, with or without rhythm, with or without melody, but it works, it's coherent. And the last CD "City Limits" ranks third in my list in this box, probably because the recording quality is again quite good, and possibly because some of the musicians are now accustomed to playing together and especially more familar with Shurdut's approach. It is possibly also not a coincidence that the three best CDs were recorded in 2007, while the others date from 2005 and 2006. And yet, there are some moments when this totally take-no-prisoners-attitude of the first CDs are also enjoyable, but they are definitely not for the faint of heart. The advantage of the box is that you have a broad overview of the musicians' approach and evolution, but a little more selectivity would have helped. Luckily the CDs can also be downloaded separately.

Listen and download from eMusic, or buy from Ayler Records.
© stef

Daniel J. Levitin - This Is Your Brain On Music (1)

I've been away for a couple of days, but that gave me the time to buy and start reading this wonderful book "This Is Your Brain On Music", in which rock guitarist turned PhD neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, explains how music interacts with our brain. I will review it later, but I learned here about the "Diabolus In Musica", Latin for "The Devil In Music", a title of the album by Herb Robertson I reviewed earlier this year, and now I understand where the title comes from.

Levitin writes in his introduction about this diabolical interval, the 6th semitone (or 3 full tones) in our western octave, known to musicians as an "augmented fourth" or "diminished fifth". I quote: "The (medieval catholic) church also banned the musical interval of an augmented fourth, the distance between C and F-sharp and also known as tritone (the interval in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story when Tony sings the name 'Maria'). This interval was considered so dissonant that it must have been the work of Lucifer, and the church named it 'Diabolus in Musica' ".

No wonder the tritone is a crucial element in jazz. I wonder what the church fathers would think about the music reviewed on this blog.

Hence the title of the Herb Robertson, Rick Messbauer, Tom Sayek album (and of the somewhat more popular yet less sophisticated album by Slayer).

© stef

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Joan Jeanrenaud - Strange Toys (Talking House, 2008) ****

The cello is the ideal instrument for expressing melancholy and sadness, almost by its very nature of being able to play deep and low tones, while the bowing can create long almost weeping sounds, and yet still be able to sustain a full melody. Joan Jeanrenaud certainly is one of today's leading cellists. Her "Strange Toys" brings a strange cocktail of genres and adds a lot of her own creative musical vision. Jeanrenaud was for about twenty years the cellist of the Kronos Quartet, a modern classical string quartet, which was open to any style of music. On this album she takes this a step further, with her own compositions and approach, which is a little more sentimental and romantic. She uses the full emotional power of the instrument while still adding unexpected tones and combination of tones, but always with the same purity of sound. The compositions themselves range in style from repetitive Philip Glass influenced pieces (especially on "Vermont Rules") over minimalist to modern classical, avant-garde and world music, with the center piece "Transition" incorporating them all. The line-up changes with the tracks, with William Skeen and Joanna Blendult on viola da gamba, Alex Kelly on cello, and Paul Dresher on his quadrachord. On the fantastic "Dervish" she is joined by William Winant's marimba which adds wonderful rhythmic counterbalance to the singing cello, dancing together like sufi mystics. Winant plays vibes on "Livre", creating a repetitive almost lullaby pattern of crystal clear bell-like tones, over which the cello wails and weeps in agonizing beauty. At times she barely avoids the trap of falling into "new-agey" mood or soundtrack music, but in general there is sufficient power and variation in the compositions and arrangements to make this more than a worthwhile listen. And those expecting only smooth sadness, will have to look somewhere else.

The only downside of the album is the presence of PC Muñoz who recites a poem on the otherwise nice "Air & Angels" (sorry guys, I can't help it).

Listen and download from iTunes.

© stef

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mauger - The Beautiful Enabler (Clean Feed, 2008) ****½

Mauger is a new trio of three musicians who no longer need any introduction : Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Mark Dresser on bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums. Mahanthappa is known for his collaborations with fellow Indian Vijay Iyer, in which complex rhythmic and melodic structures define the often thundering nature of his music. In this trio he shows another side of his playing, more minimalistic, more subdued, calmer and it suits him well. This is of course also the result of the fact that the music is truly a collective creation, with Dresser and Hemingway playing an equally important role, also in the time they get the frontline, which leads to very open music, with lots of space that is not filled in, a big contrast with Mahanthappa's and Iyer's music, which can be quite dense. Each musician composed two tracks and one is a collective effort, yet the focus is clearly on the improvisation itself and the interaction between the musicians, who manage to find each other brilliantly in the music. It is relatively accessible, in the sense that there isn't much dissonance or overblowing, yet the music is adventurous. The title song, "Beautiful Enabler", for instance is typical : a beautiful melody, almost classical in its concept, gets confronted with moments of real musical distress, where arco bass and a crying sax shift moods and then come back in the same effortless movement back to the core theme. "I'll See You When I Get There" is a typical Mahanthappa composition, a little more dark and menacing, with sudden tempo changes and great intensity. "Meddle Music" is the most avant piece, starting with just sounds created by the three instruments, reacting to one another like wild life at the break of day in the jungle, and out of these sounds, about half-way through the piece, grows a hesitating melody, that generates some great polyrhythmic drums support and powerful bursts on the bowed bass. Again a wonderfully rich album, with lots of musical ideas, mood changes, and powerful expressiveness. Highly recommended.

Listen to

Download from eMusic.

© stef

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ernie Krivda - The Art Of The Trio (CIMP, 2008) ***½

Nice album by tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda, rightly described as a great stylist, yet more often heard in larger ensembles, but this trio outing, accompanied by Peter Dominguez on bass and Ron Godale on drums, brings a change to this. The music is straightforward, boppish, but with great improvisations by the three musicians, and a little more free than his usual more mainstream style. The compositions are nice (some excellent), the playing is nice (sometimes great), the interactions are nice. It's hard not to like this album. But it's just nice.

Listen and download from iTunes (but don't read the review that goes with the download : it's the review for another album).

© stef

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Anthony Braxton, William Parker, Milford Graves - Beyond Quantum (Tzadik, 2008) *****

I think Braxton is at his best when he improvises, as he does on this album. On most of his other albums, his compositions are often abstract, distant and cerebral, unfortunately. But once in a while, as on the 100th release of Clean Feed, and here on "Beyond Quantum", wonderfully accompanied by William Parker on bass and Milford Graves on drums, Braxton demonstrates his absolute superiority on the sax. The album consists of five tracks, each representing a "meeting" between the three artists, ... and meet they do! This isn't a Braxton record, it's a real trio album in which the three of them create the music together. Braxton has got soul on this record, pushed forward, challenged by Parker and Graves who are staggeringly good. Graves' percussion is as multifaceted as it is unrelenting, as if he has a few arms more than ordinary people. Parker is again nothing less than superb, anchoring the rhythms, creating repetitive vamps at times, or clusters of notes at others, while Braxton keeps changing his horn all the time, soaring, stuttering, wailing, screeching, but most of the time very lyrical and soulful. This is free jazz at its best : with an incredible drive, purely improvised, with lots of variation and expressive delivery. The first track is the perfect opener : a sensitive reconnoitering of the possibilities, still within the range of accessibility, with great polyrhythmics and a very meditative Braxton, weaving beautiful sounds over the often odd rhythmic parts. "Second Meeting" starts with high-pitched wailing sax playing, moving to tribal shouting and chanting and rhythms, creating a kind of spiritual and ritual and sometimes festive mood, while "Third Meeting" is more adventurous, especially because Braxton explores the full tonal range of his instrument. "Fourth Meeting" starts with high whistling, joined by Parker on arco, followed by some otherworldly and unique soprano playing, while Graves keeps moving about, hitting all his cymbals and toms simultaneously without hesitation or sign of fatigue. This is raw but deep. On "Fifth Meeting" Parker moves to reeds too, playing his Indian shenai (I think), adding a world music flavor to it. This is great. This is music without boundaries. Anything is possible. Because of their skills. Because of their vision. Because of their creativity. This is music that demonstrates that any written part would have acted like a cage. This is wild as it should be. True. Fierce. Naturally restrained. Authentic. This is free in its truest sense. You, as a listener, can share in the joy of this freedom when listening to it. Enjoy!

Listen and download from iTunes.

© stef

I Heart Lung - Interoceans (Asthmatic Kitty, 2008) ****

I Heart Lung is a strange band, creating music with a strong personal vision, and which is extremely hard to pigeonhole. After the excellent Between Them A Forest Grew, Chris Schlarb (guitars) and Tom Steck (drums) continue further explorations in their mixture of rock, electronics, jazz and even some folk elements. This is mostly slow meditative mood music, but of a high level. The original sounds and music were totally improvised and recorded during a two day session, but then post-produced for over three years, which is not exactly characteristic of jazz, where immediacy and direct performance reign. The music is pleasant to the ear, consisting of drone-like waves of sound, and the second track, "Interoceans II (Overturning)" with Nels Cline on guitar and sitar, and Kris Tiner on trumpet is a real beauty of carefully crafted soundscapes. Other guest musicians include Lynn Johnston on clarinet and bass clarinet, Andrew Pompey on percussion, Anthony Shadduck on bass and Aaron Xim brings field recordings. On the last track "Interoceans III (Outspreading)", tension increases with very conflicting sounds : harsh guitars and electronics interwoven with slow trumpet playing, ambient sounds with hard-hitting percussion, leading to near-silence with the horns playing a wonderful duet, but as you can expect, this is the calm before the storm, as the tune explodes into layers and layers of wailing guitars and hypnotic tribal drumming.

The art work by Tom Steck is - as on the previous albums - superb.

The CD will be available on September 23.

© stef

The Thing - Now And Forever (Smalltown Superjazz, 2008) ****

All right, not much time, just a short one today. This is a re-release of Swedish/Norwegian free jazz luminaries "The Thing", with Mats Gustafsson on sax, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. The first two discs were released before, as "The Thing" (2000), which is a Don Cherry tribute, and "She Knows" (2001), which still has a Don Cherry composition ("The Thing") and adds Joe McPhee on sax and pocket trumpet. As an extra now, there is a third disc, with as yet three unreleased long tracks, called "Gluttony 1", "Gluttony 2" and "Gluttony 3", recorded in 2007. The musicians are the same but the music is not. There are no references to Don Cherry anymore, even the jazz element is pushed to the background, and the music is closer to free improvisation and avant-garde, with long moments of just sounds at times : scraping, whispering, clacking, grunts and groans, and yet listening to the whole movement of the three pieces is rewarding. The musical scope, ideas and rich interaction of these musicians are excellent, and the music evolves nicely over the three pieces, with luckily some very lively jazzy moments. The three discs are certainly totally different in style and approach, but all three have their merits. Enjoy!

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Monday, August 18, 2008

Trio Viriditas - Live At Vision Festival VI (Clean Feed, 2008) ****

The problem with reviewing all these albums, is that I like good music too much. And when I listen to this one, I think by myself "yes, this is it!", but then asking myself "how does it compare to all the other albums?" and "how can you describe it best in its musical uniqueness?". This is free jazz leaning towards avant-garde, but as bluesy and soulful as it gets, and that's probably one of the most challenging things there is : to create something new, but at the same time to express those well-known feelings in a deeper, warmer, more impactful way. Trio Viriditas consists of German saxophonist/trumpeter Alfred Harth, the late bass-player Wilber Morris and drummer/vibist Kevin Norton. This album is a kind of antithesis of the recent 7000 Oaks recording by 7K Oaks, which is led by Harth, and which has a fierce wall-of-sound approach. This album is as down-tempo and cool as can be, with the three musicians taking their time to weave great interaction, with lots of silence, very subdued, but played with great accuracy and intensity. The limits of the trio is expanded by Norton's vibes - sensitive, sad, moody - and Harth's occasional trumpet playing or even shouting. All tracks are compositions by the trio, except for the last one, "Peace" by Horace Silver, brought in full respect of the pianist. The whole album is a delight of single-minded atmospheric coherence. All compositions stay in the same mood, despite their clear differences and almost limitless improvisational freedom, and if once in a while some rebellious tension erupts, as on "Hiranyagarbha", the tune sinks back into a general feeling of sadness, setting the scene for Wilber Morris's beautiful, slightly Latin "Melancholy". It is a great album, with three wonderful musicians, who interact beautifully and Harth's tone on the sax is superb, so rich and warm. It is as calm, free and subdued as their first album. Again, some great cool free jazz.

© stef

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mark O'Leary, Kenny Wollesen, Jamie Saft - The Synth Show (Leo, 2008) ****

The development of electronics in the 60s and 70s led to some unexpected use in music, including the sudden possibility for instruments such as guitar and piano to lengthen the notes being played, and create long sustain, something which up till then had only been within the realm of horns or bowed string instruments. Changing the tone color and adding additional layers of sound, gave further possibilities to create soundscapes. On this album three modern jazz musicians, Irish guitarist Mark O'Leary and Americans Kenny Wollesen on drums and Jamie Saft on synthesizer, try to fuse the music of those musicians who first explored electronic possibilities in music with more current musical ideas and jazz. Mark O'Leary mentions his admiration for musicians such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Rick Wakeman and Tangerine Dream. But don't let this mislead you : the music on this album is as far away from Jarre's superficial kitsch, Wakeman's self-centered bombast or Tangerine Dream's emptiness as imagineable (as you may notice, this is certainly not my favorite genre!). There are some jazz elements in this music, more in the approach to the instruments than in the music itself : despite all the effects, O'Leary's still brings fast guitar runs with a clear jazz tonal progression and Wollesen's drumming is, even when fixed rhythms are rare, typical for jazz. The rest of the music is "beyond there", in the spheres, with high-toned, long phrases, odd noises coming and going. They also keep away from identifiable tunes : the full focus resides with the possibilities of the instruments to create soundscapes together, but then in a structured way. The longest track "Sky Kirk" clearly illustrates this, even ending with some boppish space ending. "Texas" is more reminiscent of Jan Hammer's fusion-like approach, with the synth also taking care of a punctuated and percussive bass line, over which the guitar can play high-toned solos, and Wollesen shows himself a rhythmic master on this tune, restrained, jazzy and with an inherent funkiness. But what really makes this music totally different from its pretentious original space-rock pioneers, are the elements of improvisation, the obvious fun and even at times lightheartedness. It must be clear that the album is a tribute to the pioneers of electronic music, starting with Ron Grainer's Dr. Who Theme dating from 1963 (but here closing the album), with a piece called "Oxygen" as a reference to Jarre's best-known record. Yet regardless of the references, these three musicians clearly manage to lift this exercise in style a little higher and beyond just imitation or even modernization, they add a lot more, making it a real personal voyage into the electronic past, and well, a little bit in outer space too.

© stef

Friday, August 15, 2008

Human Arts Ensemble - Autonomous Oblast (Freedonia, 2008) *****

I find great pleasure in listening to "big bands" playing free jazz, adding sound upon sound upon sound. Very often it does not work though. You need this lucky moment when all instruments are in sync and focused around a central vision. This is one of those albums. It does not have the ambition to create complex interaction, nor does it have the ambition to create clarity in melody and rhythm. It just flows in a quite organic or natural fashion, like waves, or the wind blowing through leaves, or it has something tribal, with a cacophony of pure sound just there to accompany moments of deep emotional value : rites of passage, weddings, funerals. The pleasure is in the spontaneous creation, the deeply felt unity of the musicians playing without boundaries and restrictions, yet fully respectful to each other and to the musical end result. You can describe this end result as twelve musicians soloing at the same time, over/under/through/against each other, but it's rather the opposite : there are no solos, it's just one gigantic spontaneous musical movement, a sound evolving following its own inherent dynamical logic and emotional dynamics, unsteered and unplanned, a wild tidal wave of sound alternated with slow and subdued moments and with musicians joining in to add shades and color, depth and emotional accents. You need great musicians to accomplish that, and that's what this band was, when it recorded this phenomenal piece of music in the mid-70s. The band was considered to be led by saxophonist James Marshall, but in reality it was a loose gathering of like-minded musicians with shifting line-ups depending on availabilities. The first two tracks are pure gold in their uncompromising spiritual adventurousness, the third is more rhythmic, with a more prominent piano and more distinctive soloing, but it remains powerful throughout. Kudos for Jay Zelenka of Freedonia Music for having re-released this gem. It falls in the same category of great free jazz re-issues as "Thing" on or Norman Howard's "Burn, Baby Burn" (I actually heard later that this is not a re-issue : it's a first issue of tapes which had never been used before, so even more appreciation for its release!). It is wild, fierce and yet controlled. Awesome.

And for those interested in the title of the album :
Autonomous Oblast: "A semi-independent city-state in the old Soviet Republic," reads the meaning the ideal "pirate utopia". The Free State. Where the National Anthem is free improv and nobody knows the words. Sing along!

The band consists of

On "Invocation" and "Oasis" (track 1 & 2)

Maurice Malik King:alto saxophone
James Marshall: alto saxophone, mijwiss, tin flute
Thurman Thomas: tenor saxophone & bass clarinet
Luther Thomas: alto & tenor saxophone
Carol Marshall: vocals
Carl Arzinia Richards: bass
Rick Saffron: piano
Jim Miller: drum set
Jay Zelenka: percussion, tin flute

on "Remembrances of the Present" (track 3):

James Marshall: alto saxophone
Greg Mills: piano
Rob Beckner: electric bass
Papa Glenn Wright: drum set
Jay Zelenka: percussion

Listen and buy from CDBaby for a mere $8 or download from iTunes.

© stef

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Adam Lane, Lou Grassi , Mark Whitecage,- Drunk Butterfly (Clean Feed, 2008) ****½

I've just come back from a festival where I saw performances by Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran, Dré Pallemaerts with Bill Carrothers, Pharoah Sanders quartet (actually four musicians playing consecutively, tune after tune!), and I also saw Han Bennink doing an entertaining solo performance for the kids at the festival. Bennink was the most entertaining of all, the rest was mediocre to poor, so in order to get rid of my musical frustration, when I came home I put on this record, which I already heard several times in the past week and which was certain to warm my heart and my bones after the disappointing (and chilly) concert. This is a new trio of three musicians who got lots of releases on the CIMP label and now they play together for the first time on Clean Feed: Lane on bass, Grassi on drums, Whitecage on sax. And it is a winner: warm, melodic and rhythmic. Every tune is composed with a clear theme, but the improvisations can be quite free, and the three Adam Lane tunes are very bluesy. His "Sanctum" is an example in case, with a beautiful tune, vaguely reminiscent of French bass player Henri Texier's take at composition. Mark Whitecage adds three compositions, starting with "Like Nothing Else" and again it is typical for the release, half of his tune consists of arco bass and drums, the sax only joining for the last part. Typical because these musicians play for one another, and for the music in the first place. The album is a delight for its variation and coherence. Variation because the tunes can evoke heartbreaking agony, intense menace, or bring some joyful lightly dancing tunes, even within the same piece, as on "Chichi Rides The Tiger", on which the whole middle piece consists of dark free form, with the main theme lightly touched upon, and then it arises out of the chaos like a beautiful flower. The Grassi compositions are the more boppish, the Lane compositions more bluesy or with world influences, the Whitecage compositions the most abstract, but each track is more than worth listening to, if only for the strong collective performance, the coherence and the emotional expressiveness. Heart-warming and bone-warming music. The jazz of today is often better than the jazz of yesterday. I wish all concert organizers would start understanding that. For those of you living in New York, this band opens the Clean Feed festival starting on September 19. Don't miss it. It will certainly be better than the one I just came from.

Listen to
Last Of The Boppers

© stef

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chris Kelsey Quartet - The Crookedest Straight Line, Vol. 2 (CIMP, 2008) ****

Strangely enough I find this sequel better than the first album, which certainly was also fine. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were recorded during the same session with Chris Kelsey on soprano, John Carlson on trumpet, François Grillot on bass and Jay Rosen on drums. The first CD, which was released a year ago, was very much an inside-out thing, with structured compositions and free improvising. I have the impression that some of the freely improvised pieces found their way to the second CD, and that's not bad at all. The CD starts with "61715" which brings an evolution of freely improvised duets between the various band members, joining for short quartet moments and back to duets. It is followed by a slow and bluesy "All Small Not At All", on which the inside theme still generates very agitated soloing by Kelsey, less so by Carlson who remains fairly subdued, but no less intense. "Charming" again brings lots of variation, starting with a clear theme, then moving into free dialogues, even fierce conversational pieces, full of excited chatter between the two horns, and a drum solo by Rosen. "Inside Pout", which starts with a long bass solo, brings the most beautiful composition of the album, very melancholy and sad, and is in stark contrast with "It's Yer Birthday", which is more uptempo and joyful as the title suggests, setting the pace for the last two pieces, equally energetic free bop. Nice!

© stef

My Favorite Rock Albums

Well, it shouldn't be jazz all the time. Rock music has brought some marvels too. Here are my favorite albums.

Jimi Hendrix - Blues

(I'm sorry guys, but this "Here My Train A'coming" is beyond belief - I do not think that any musician went deeper into the essence of the blues than Jimi), but all of his other official albums should figure here as well.

Hendrix is on the same level as Bach, Beethoven and Coltrane.

The Allman Brothers Band - Live At The Fillmore East

This is possibly the best rock live album ever, next to the Rolling Stones "Get Yer Ya Ya's Out" and the "J. Geils Band Live". But also listen to Goin' Down Slow on the Duane Allman Anthology 1 to get an idea about Duane's absolute mastership : less is more : how a few notes can tell it all : the sign of a true master.

King Crimson - The Court Of The Crimson King
and Red (including the phenomenal "Starless")

I should also not forget.

Frank Zappa : Hot Rats

The Soft Machine : Third

Gong : You

The mad French-British space-rock band brought something unique and unparallelled in music history.

© stef

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Daniel Zamir - I Believe (Tzadik, 2008) ***

Although this quartet consists of some great instrumentalists such as Uri Caine on piano, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums, the whole record is focused on Daniel Zamir's lyrical sax-playing, mixing jubilant moments with sadness, typical for klezmer, and adding the soul and the rhythmic power of jazz, and even reggae on one track. Although Zamir's playing is highly recognizable and a real joy to hear, he seems to be stuck in a certain idiom which has reached its limits. His three previous albums were a little more direct, a little more raw, and possibly a little more genuine, and especially the first two "Satlah" and "Exodus" are in that sense the easiest to recommend. Things are more polished here, nicer, with less anguish, which also means that the music has less tension. I'm not sure how to interpret the title, but inspirational music and great art never really fit, you need internal struggle and conflicts to create true art. Nevertheless, his sax playing is a joy to hear at moments.

© stef

William Parker - NOW!

Just a reminder that as of today this wonderful William Parker album is on the market. I was so enthusiastic about the CD that I reviewed it a few months too early.

© stef

Monday, August 11, 2008

Kris Davis - Rye Eclipse (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008) *****

The musical evolution of pianist Kris Davis as a leader is quite remarkable. Her first CD "Lifespan" was nice, still deeply anchored in traditional forms, and a little impressionistic. The second "The Slightest Shift" meant more than a slight move : the compositions became more abstract, the band smaller, the intensity more than a notch higher, but still with clear structural forms and mainstream elements and sentimentality. On "Rye Eclipse", she delves even deeper into the nature of music and sound, and with unbelievable success. The band is the same as on the previous album, with Kris Davis on piano, Tony Malaby on sax, Eivind Opsvik on bass and Jeff Davis on drums, but this band now works as a single instrument. The music seems stripped of all unnecessary ornaments and needless patterns and goes directly to the core of the matter : creating emotional expressiveness and musical explorations that go beyond genres and conventions. The title track undulates between violent energy and sweet tenderness, starting with an odd-metered hammering rhythm, with pounding piano chords, crashing cymbals and pulsing bass over which Malaby does what he does best : scream with passion and utter despair, subduing the rhythmic beast until only tenderness remains, smooth arco bowing, gentle piano notes and sympathetic percussion, which moves back into roaring rage for some minutes only to end again in the most tender of feelings. And this sets the tone of the album : the tune-crafting of her first records has moved into real art, gaining incredible depth and musical value. On the abstract second track, "Wayne Oskar", the piano plays a more dominant role, creating a raw directness in which all impressionist flourishes have disappeared. The third track "Prairie Eyes" is calmer, with a repetitive piano line over which Malaby improvises beautifully. The quartet is the most exploratory in the beautiful "Empty Beehive", in which eery sounds create a magnificent landscape, including buzzing bee evokations by the arco bass and the sax. "Black Tunnel" is the highlight of the album together with the title track : it is varied, again with repetitive hypnotic piano pieces, wonderfully loose drumming, precise and creative bass and sax-playing. At times Satoko Fujii or Vijay Iyer come to mind, because of the physical approach to the instrument, the way the music is at the center of the performance, the cleverness and the adventurous mindset. All four musicians of this band are truly excellent as individual masters of transferring feeling through their instruments, but the biggest achievement is without a doubt the common understanding of the music and how they contribute to generate the same concept even in the most improvised parts. The core of each track is yet always carefully prepared, rhythmically, thematically and structurally, and these by themselves are clever and original, but the way the band brings them makes this album into a great total listening experience. Rich music! Don't miss it.

© stef

Sunday, August 10, 2008

George Schuller's Circle Wide - Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape, 2008) **½

It's a little unfair of me to judge a mainstream jazz album the way I'm going to do it, but well, I can't restrain myself, only because I want to make a few points about music in general. George Schuller is a great drummer and with this album he wants to bring a tribute to Keith Jarrett's American quartet of the 70s and early 80s, which was, also according to me, the pianist's most exciting period (with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian). Schuller's band consists of Donny McCaslin on soprano, tenor sax and alto flute, Brad Shepik on guitar, Tom Beckham on vibes, Dave Ambrosio on bass and Jamey Haddad playing percussion on a few tracks, all of them respectable musicians, and especially Shepik is one of my favorite guitar players, with a very broad technique and extreme lyrical fluency in his playing. Apart from two tracks by Schuller ("Dew Point" and "Back To School"), all pieces are Jarrett compositions.

The "Survivors' Suite" is one of my favorite Jarrett albums. The pianist is probably one of the few musicians who come to the same level as John Coltrane in terms of expansiveness of a performance, making it grand, universal, somewhere on another plane than usual music, and "The Survivors' Suite" epitomizes that, bringing music as hypnotic exaltation, a spiritual listening experience. Schuller's band tries its best with the composition, but instead of feeling alone in the universe as when listening to Jarrett, here you find yourself alone in your living room. Again, the music is reduced of its grandeur, and despite the band's efforts on "Part 1", it's only a bleak reproduction. The intro of "Part 2" is still OK, as long as only the bass and vibes are playing, but when sax, guitar and drums join, the whole thing collapses into mediocrity, and it becomes even worse when Shepik distorts his guitar sound (and again, Shepik is a brilliant instrumentalist, but not here!), leading McCaslin on for further complete destruction of the music.

"Encore B", in the Jarrett performance on "Eyes Of The Heart", an underrated album, is a long heartrending wonderfully beautiful and expansive tune, on which Jarrett plays soprano sax and Redman tenor, playing the tune with a powerful expressiveness : listen to the slight time differences between both musicians, the pauzes, the soaring improvisation by Jarrett over a loose rhythm, with a great free bop transition when Redman takes over. And indeed, this tune deserves more attention than it currently has, but the way it's played by this band the music sounds so domesticated, so reined in, reduced to the sequence of notes it is built with, devoid of tension, devoid of its paradox of sad musical joyfulness, ...

So, what's the problem?

One, on a personal note, you (I) know the original compositions so well that you identify with them, knowing them by heart, so any cover of the music is a little bit odd.

Two, in general, it is highly unlikely to bring a successful cover of the best music by the jazz giants. Anyone trying to cover Coltrane's "Love Supreme" is likely to fail, like anyone trying to cover Miles' "Bitches Brew", because the success of these tunes is so linked with the performance that brought it in the first place.

Three, the only way out of this risk, is to bring a cover which is so special, so personal and unique in its approach, that you (I) as a listener can still take something new away from it, or even add new perspectives when listening back to the original afterwards.

Four, and to make matters even worse, is that often covers like the ones on this CD drag these great tunes into the comfort of mainstream. They take out the stings and the claws, the rough edges and mold the music into something more accessible than the original.

Five, the problem is not only Schuller's. His band is fine, and they play well. It's just pointless from the listener's perspective.

Suppose that you copied a Rubens or a Picasso, with your more limited painting skills, as well as more limited artistic vision and personality, why would anyone come and look at your copy if they can see the original for the same price and effort?

The result is that the music, also here, is more old-fashioned than its original. It adds nothing new, it reduces musical wonder to a shallow interpretation, lacking character and inspiration, with no added value to the listener. One can only hope that Schuller's release will lead its listeners back to the original compositions.

The above does of course not apply to all covers, of course. Great compositions by Monk or Ornette Coleman can more easily be covered because the compositions are less intrinsically interwoven with the performance : it's more about the tune than about the playing. You can also have covers that play tribute as an act of just plain fun, think of Greg Bendian's "Mahavishnu Project" or Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Miles albums.

© stef

Friday, August 8, 2008

Conference Call - Poetry In Motion (Clean Feed, 2008) ****½

This is Conference Call's second studio release out of a total of five CDs, and it also celebrates the quartet's 10th anniversary, if you allow for the changes in drummers (from Matt Wilson over Han Bennink to George Schuller), and especially "Spirals : The Berlin Concert" is easy to recommend. The band consists of Gebhard Ullmann on reeds, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums, four musicians who've played in numerous bands and line-ups, and who clearly feel extremely comfortable together, both as performers and as composers. This CD has two compositions by each band member, except for one by Schuller, and still the music has an incredible unity in its variation. This is free jazz, for sure, but when I first listened to it, I was amazed by their daring mainstream influences (and yes, I find that's courageous at times, it requires openness of mind). "The Path" and "Back To School" for instance start off in a clear mainstream mood, melody and structure, but the musicians' sensitivities and breadth of scope are such that these are just the backbones for wonderful improvisations, which clearly go beyond the mainstream without losing the harmonic basis of the tune. Especially Schuller's "Back To School" brings some fantastic interplay and wonderful free soloing by Ullmann, for a melody which is extremely joyful in an overall sad environment, quite a compositional feat. It is followed by Jefry Stevens' dark and beautiful "Quirky Waltz", on which all four musicians push their instrumental skills to the limits : the bass clarinet is deep and low, alternated with light dancing, the piano haunting, the bass eery, and the percussion functional and sounding at times as glasses and bottles being collected in a bar. And you may expect anything from this band, on the last track "Desert ... Bleue ... East", a calm and free composition moves into the most energetic free environment and then back into bluesy piano notes with a flute sounding from a great distance in the background, and despite all the changes, it still is undoubtebly the same piece. It just illustrates that these four musicians know what music is about : powerful emotional expressiveness combined with musical inventiveness and group interplay. But the centerpiece of the album is Joe Fonda's "Next Step", which brings a repetitive hypnotic African rhythm for bass and drums, offering a great dialogue between piano and sax, that evolves quite brilliantly together with the rhythmic part, ending in an energetic bass solo. Highly recommended.

The album is dedicated to poet Tina Barr.

Listen to
The Shining Star
Poetry In Motion

© stef

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nuts - L'Atelier Tampon Ramier September 2007 (Sans Bruit, 2008) *****

Here is one more album that really tickles every braincell of mine that is linked to enjoyment and pleasure, despite the music's inherent sadness. With a double trumpet front, a double drums rhythm section and a single double bass, with a mixture of French and Japanese musicians and one American, this CD delivers the goods. Benjamin Duboc on bass, Didier Lasserre and Makoto Sato on drums, Itaru Oki and Rasul Siddik on trumpet, flutes and other objects, play an exceptional kind of free jazz : totally improvised with a stunning power and cohesiveness. The album consists of two long tracks : "First Nuts" and "Nuts Society", which evolve as slowly, expansively, freely and subdued as possible. A flow of sounds, sad, inevitable, accentuated, muted, moves on like a river of emotions, flowing endlessly to the sea. There is no rhythm to discern, no melody to remember, yet there is a forward motion which is far more fundamental than rhythm, there are sounds and emotional outbursts which go beyond the remembrance of pure melody. But it's not all softness and quiet flow, there are some rapids, cascades and intense parts too, with all musicians unleashing their powers, yet always coherently, keeping focus, moving on in the same direction. It's music you want to hear over and over again, to experience now, as it is played, not as tunes in your head. The coherence of the five musicians' interplay for such a totally improvised piece is exceptional. At times "Other Dimensions In Music" comes to mind, or Wadada Leo Smith, or Daniel Carter, and these are great references. Brilliant!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Avant Coast - Discussions (Avant Coast, 2008) ***

Avant Coast is a young free jazz band from the East Coast, with Larry Gelberg on baritone and tenor saxophones, Thom Keith on baritone and tenor saxophones, Tim Webb on bass, and Jared Steer on drums. The music they bring is free, relatively downtempo, but with a steady rhythmic pulse and great sax improvisations. The first track "Ole" is the John Coltrane composition, and while maintaining the Spanish rhythmic influence, the tune is more intimistic here, less expansive than Coltrane, but that would be a tough achievement for any sax-player. The second track is Mal Waldron's "The Seagulls Of Kristiansund", and is probably the highlight of the album, both for its sensitive and melancholy playing, especially powerful because of the depth of the two baritone saxes. The third piece, "The Agitator", composed by Keith, is uptempo, with a funky vamp, offering each musicians his solo moment, but above all demonstrating that they are able to create music with character. And that's possibly what they need to do more : create their own voice, dare go a little bit further into unchartered territories, but it's a nice debut.

Listen and buy from CDBaby.

© stef

Monday, August 4, 2008

Trio 3 - Live At The Sunset/Wha's Nine (Marge, 2008) ****

This is the 5th album by Trio 3, the great trio consisting of some of free jazz most longstanding musicians, Oliver Lake on alto sax, Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. With his 64 years, Lake is the youngest, Cyrille's 69 and Workman 71, but they are still going strong, with nothing left to prove, having played with such luminaries as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton. They call themselves "the group where music is the leader" and that is apparent not only from the playing itself but also from the compositions - there is no need for anything less than playing in the service of music : direct, full of fun, emotions and creativity. The great thing about the album is the absolute unrelenting energy these guys still muster, their attack is powerful throughout, even on the slower pieces as "Amreen" or "ZC", always rhythmic and melodious, never losing track of the theme. Apart from the title track, highlights on the album are the Reggie Workman composition "Willow Song", and Cyrille's "Striation", the latter a tune which kind of desintegrates but without losing its rhythmic base, and the last tune "Hassan" is the band at its best, going full force for a quite enthusiastic Parisian audience. The music itself is nothing new, nor is the performance itself, but the quality of these three musicians is so great, that the album is too. Great fun.

Watch a Trio 3 video clip

© stef

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bill Gagliardi, Ken Filiano, Lou Grassi - KenBillou (CIMP, 2008) ****½

From the comments by Robert Rusch on the CIMP website, one could deduct that Bill Gagliardi (sax), Ken Filiano (bass), and Lou Grassi (drums), recorded sufficient material for a second CD, and after hearing this one, one can only hope that the second release is not too far away in the future. The three musicians represent everything that the label stands for : free, direct, uncompromising and technically great music, rooted in bop, with a strong emotional component. I wondered a long time why Robert Rusch always commented on the food eaten with the bands in between recording sessions in The Spirit Room and how the musicians all felt about the music. The answer, I think, is that CIMP music is characterized by this physical, emotional and relational aspect to it, that embraces all non-rational aspects in music. It is close, immediate, intimate, and this album is no different.

Last year, I was already quite enthusiastic about "Memories Of Tomorrow", and despite the more limited line-up, I am still as enthusiastic. The three musicians have this incredible drive, epitomized in the long "The Last Of The Beboppers", on which the sax screams and wails rhythmically and lyrically, and on which the bass and the drums keep pushing things forward, keeping up the speed and the momentum. Other tracks are more meditative, mid-tempo, expansive and lyrical, such as the title track, on which the arco bass and the plaintive sax conjure up a deep melancholy. The most beautiful track is the last one "Written In Water", on which the sax plays a stunning theme over a hypnotic rhythm.

I enjoyed every note on this record. Without a doubt one of the best sax trios of the year. Don't miss it.

© stef

Mark Dresser, Ed Harkins, Steven Schick - House Of Mirrors (Clean Feed, 2008) ****½

It is great that musicians keep coming up with creative approaches to music. In "House Of Mirrors", Mark Dresser (bass), Ed Harkins (trumpets) and Steven Schick (percussion), go in search of planned rhythmic complexities and melodic improvisation, in itself an ambitious endeavour, yet in the hands of these three top musicians, it evolves into something combining the improvisational freedom and soulful intimacy of jazz, with the cerebral calculation of new music. Apart from the odd meters, tempo changes and rhythmic complexities, lots of attention is paid to the sounds of the instruments, leading to quite unexpected but refreshing ideas, such as the water percussion on "Osculla", to the use of various types of trumpet by Harkins and the "surrealist" pick-ups used by Dresser for his bass (for more insights into this 20 year science project of his, click here). The intense focus on the rhythm gives the music an angular immediacy, with no room for expansiveness or lyrical explorations, requiring extreme concentration from the three musicians to come up with new ideas all the time. Indeed, there does not appear to be one moment on the album where automatisms and practised phrases find a place. On the composed pieces, the music does not flow, it bounces, and the improvised tracks luckily bring the reverse : more flow and less rhythm, making the overall result sufficiently varied and balanced. But whatever the point of departure, every note sounds new and specifically construed, which, together with the strong rhythmic base leads to some hypnotic moments, especially the two longest pieces, "Xonia" and "Osculla". The various instruments act on exactly the same level to create the overall sound, and the traditional roles between melodic and rhythmic instruments are more often than not inversed, with the trumpet setting the rhythm and the percussion adding variation and color. Some tracks, such as "Rebus", are totally free improv, and it is even hard to distinguish which sound is produced by which instrument. Dresser had been tinkering with the idea of exploring this approach to music since 1999, when he got acquainted with Harkins' pedagogical book of rhythms. It took them almost nine years to bring the idea to fruition, and it's certainly one worth to further explore, but let's hope a little faster than nine years this time. The overall effect is clever, tight, refreshing, intimate and fragile music.

© stef