Click here to [close]

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith - Abbey Road Quartet (Treader, 2009) ***½

Wadada Leo Smith's second record for the Treader label is better than the previous "Brooklyn Duos", on which he plays duets with John Coxon on guitar and harmonica. The latter still plays guitar on this album, but the band is expanded with Pat Thomas on piano and electronics, and Mark Sanders on drums. Smith's powerful and meditative horn blasts are still the main feature over the long improvisations, which move back and forth between the gentle and accessible on the one side, and the fierce and abrasive on the other. This works well in some pieces, as on "For Johnny Dyani", the 18-minute long first track. This shift between approaches gives all the improvisations a kind of suite-like structure, as if the pieces are built around a preconceived concept: it starts with gentle piano and trumpet and gradually evolves into a nightmarish and unpleasant mix of violent electronics and dissonant guitar scratching. The second piece, dedicated to Coxon's brother in arms Ashley Wales, is more atmospheric with synthesizer-created string orchestra, melodramatic heavy piano chords, and bottle-neck guitar sounds. The third improvisation shifts to a more intimate sound of electric piano, light percussion and equally percollating guitar, with Smith playing sad muted trumpet, a short tribute to "Mongezi Feza", another South African jazz great. "For Grant Green" gets introduction by guitar and electronics, with dark and dissonant tones, totally unlike the great guitar player's music. "For Elton Dean" moves into more rhythmic playing, with disconnected short bursts of sounds, but more around the beat than on it, like many of the other pieces somewhat reminiscent of the electric Miles. I'm a great fan of Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, I like his playing, I like his openness to try new forms and to play in a wide variety of settings, it can only make his music richer. Yet again, to my ears the marriage with the electronics does not always work, not because of the electronics per se, but rather by how they sound here. I've said it before, take away the electronics, keep the trumpet, the piano and the drums, and I'm sure I will love this music. But that's the boring and unadventurous position of an old man. You have to leave the beaten track, and that's what these guys do, and they end up in a different place than I would have gone.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, September 28, 2009

KiKu Trio - Méthane (Veto Records, 2009) **

I do not usually review CDs that I don't like, but once in a while I will do it to make a more general point. The Swiss KiKu Trio consists of three excellent musicians : Yannick Barman on trumpet, Malcolm Braff on piano, and Cyril Regamey on drums. Together they create a really nice musical environment, quite sophisticated and creative, but then they tear it to pieces by the use of silly electronics. I have no problem with electronics per se, but why on earth would you use it in such a superficial and almost infantile way, making the trumpet sound like quacking ducks, or something between early 70s trials on a minimoog or the electronic sound of arcade games from the same period. Sorry guys, I don't get it. Do away with the silly electronics, and you have a nice album.

© stef

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Black Napkins (Rat Records, 2009) ****

When I said some days ago that there aren't many women trumpet-players, I missed one who is basically living and playing in my backyard. Sanne van Hek is a Dutch trumpet-player, who started on clarinet and saxophone before switching to bass and bass guitar when she turned sixteen, an instrument on which she expanded her skills at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She switched to trumpet at nineteen and studied amongst others at the Manhattan School Of Music. The trumpet is now her main instrument.

Named after a Frank Zappa song, The Black Napkins' music doesn't sound like Zappa at all, except maybe for the high quality instrumental skills and their sense of adventure. On this trio, the trumpeter is joined by Jasper Stadhouders on guitar and Gerri Jaeger on drums. The music is quite adventurous indeed and quite special. Each short track has its own left of center approach, setting a mood, a theme, a weird improvisation, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes it's all about the sound, which fluctuates between the traditional and the industrial, between jazz and rock and pure improv, between form and chaos, all quite full of character while remaining enjoyable. There are two long pieces on the album, "9.5" almost nine minutes long, which shows that the band is also capable of really building up a composition, expanding on the main concept and creating an interesting atmosphere : a cold and thorny melancholy. On the last eleven minute track, the band is joined by Jozef Dumoulin on keyboards, who moves the music into a more electronic environment and ambient sounds as the background for some great introspective soloing. Again, despite the sudden shift in approach, it fits well with the rest of the music, which is stubborn, single-minded and rich.

Listen to samples on MySpace and buy from Instantjazz.

Here in possibly the darkest Youtube clip imaginable:

© stef

Miles Davis epigones

Your humble servant is a great fan of the "Bitches Brew" period of Miles Davis, so when young bands bring materials that is influenced by the master, it is always with interest that I listen to them. Two new epigones recently albums that would broadly fit within this category.

Agent-K - Mouvements (CDBaby, 2009) ***

Agent-K is a band created by bassist Kenny Cordova, with David Burgos on trumpet & flugelhorn, Max Farber on keys, and Bobby Macintyre on drums. The references to the electric Miles are more than obvious, including the sound of the trumpet and of the electric piano, and if you stay in the same zone, you of course elicit a comparison which is hard to win. That being said, the music is worth a listen, rhythmic, atmospheric and fun.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

Iron Kim Style (CDBaby, 2009) ***½

Iron Kim Style is Dennis Rea and Thaddaeus Brophy on guitar, Bill Jones on trumpet, Ryan Berg on bass and Jay Jaskot on drums. The band brings a quite interesting mix of jazz and rock, strong compositions and subtle playing. Yes, Miles is present in spirit, and so is McLaughlin, yet less in the pyrotechnics and more in the overall stylistic development. Another great advantage is the compactness of the compositions, which helps them avoid the trap of the lengthy elaborations in which usually only the best can survive*.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

* free aphorism : if you can't swim, don't create your own ocean, but stay in the bath-tub

© stef

Viktor Tóth, Hamid Drake, Mátyás Szandai - Bringing Light Towards Me (BMC, 2009) ***½

Maybe I exaggerate, but I like albums to have a musical coherence from beginning to end. Variation is needed, and even necessary, but a good album has to offer one line of thought and approach. Despite all the good qualities of the music, that lack of coherence was already and unfortunately one of the shortcomings of Hungarian altoist Viktor Tóth's previous album "Climbing With Mountains", and now it happens again with this album. The first five tracks are a live performance played as a trio, with Hamid Drake on drums and Mátyás Szandai on bass. The music is good, the playing is good, and even on those six tracks, they manage to have this stylistic side-step on the Latin-influenced "The Easiness Of Steps", even if it gives Drake the additional opportunity to demonstrate his skills at the drumset. On the sixth track Ferenc Kovács joins on trumpet and the music's quality increases, adding depth and volume. As of the tenth track, the band expands even further with Mihály Dresch on soprano and flute, Adam Javorka on alto violin, and György Jeszenszky on drums and percussion, giving it a more orchestral perspective, especially when Kovács switches his trumpet for violin, and a more distinct central European flavor. Despite these shifts, each of the three approaches brings worthwhile and sometimes beautiful compositions and playing, but a little more unity would have made this a far better record.

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Raymond MacDonald - Cities (Nu-Jazz Europe, 2009) ****½

More than any other art form, music has the possibility to express anything that goes beyond the rational and the logical, which makes it of course hard to describe in words, but which makes it all the more valuable to experience. Some musicians actively seek this experience by breaking patterns, anticipations, predictability and creating contradictions, illogical forms, new sounds. In this sense the Japanese couple Satoko Fujii on piano and Natsuki Tamura on trumpet form the perfect match for British saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, guitarist Neil Davidson and drummer Tom Bancroft, for an improvised recording that took place in Glasgow in 2005 in front of an enthusiastic audience. The interaction of these five musicians is truly fantastic, even if they rarely all play together at the same time, with duets and trios actually dominating. They create the kind of sound paintings that are incredibly rich with detail, with broad patterns that are somehow familiar and yet not quite so : the pieces can be meditative and melancholy (especially the last track "Euforia"), but are equally disorienting, yet always in a gentle and subtle manner, allowing the audience to fully participate in the experience of the organic, hypnotic, animal-like, or just hard-to-identify sounds. And as is so often the case with good music: switch off your brain and let yourself be led into this world of melodyless lyricism, of serious fun, of light-hearted depth, of solid abstraction, of smooth weirdness, of unfamiliar warmth, of exquisite delicacy.

Buy from Nu-Jazz Europe or from CDBaby (with sound samples).

© stef

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tyft - Smell The Difference (Skirl, 2009) ****½

Tearing his way through jazz, Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson continues to move even deeper into the possibilities of power jazz, building his music on the mad yet solid foundation of hardhitting drums and guitar power chords, selecting the best of modern metal as inspiration, from the slow droning beats alternating with superfast rhythm changes, accentuated by lightning fast shredding notes, headbanging himself and yourself into a trance in the process, and wouldn't it all be a little bit bland and boring if this music was not in the hands of the absolute masters of the modern fusion between jazz and rock, to know : Jim Black on drums, Chris Speed on clarinets, Andrew d'Angelo on sax, Peter Evans on trumpet, and Joel Hamilton joining on electronics on track four, a horn front line broader than on earlier releases and one that superimposes melodic themes on the voluminous rhythms, cleverly, in counterpoint or just in unison with the heavy beats, offering of course the real treat in their wild yet disciplined soloing, disciplined because this music is measured and planned to the very microsecond, not much is left to chance, adding quality and precision in the execution, which is half the joy because you will be taken by surprise by unexpected twists and turns, including some excursions into the more melodic territory of Jim Black's Alasnoaxis, where the mellow sentiments fuse with the raw and abrasive, adding risky complexities of the don't-try-this-at-home variety to simplicity and vice versa, hitting you in the face as well as pleasing you immensely at the same time, offering varying modes and moods and rhythms and phrases, explosions and implosions, on and on, making this more than just a stylistic exercise, but a real worthwhile new synthesis of creative jazz sensitivity, craftmanship and skills with the compelling and exhilirating mad pumping drive of metal.

© stef

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dennis González Galore!

Dallas-based trumpet-player Dennis González will always be one of my favorites for this warm and solid tone, his openness of mind and the emotional power of his music. With the exception of "Paura", his music is always very rooted in bop, but then of the free-er and sometimes the harder kind, while remaining open to more rock-influenced adventures, the latter possibly under the influence of his two musical sons with whom he forms the trio "Yells At Eels".

This year González seems to be very productive, releasing in quick succession his third, fourth and fifth album of the year. Dennis González has the incredible knack of making his albums, even the more free ones, accessible, recognizable too, yet while keeping a fresh approach, re-inventing himself, remaining open to the rest of the world. And you get the impression that the trumpeter gets as much pleasure from listening to his fellow musicians, giving them the floor and enjoying their music, as much as playing himself. A true musician. No wonder he has played with so many of today's top musicians.

The Great Bydgoszcz Concert
(Ayler, 2009) ****

On this album the aforementioned trio (Dennis González on trumpet, Aaron González on bass, and Stefan González on drums) becomes a quartet with Portuguese Rodrigo Amado on tenor, a musician who we've reviewed before and with whom González already played in Amado's Lisbon Improvisation Players. The music here shows the wide variety of the band, together with their respect for the masters: Ornette Coleman's joyful "Happy House" gets a fine rendition, and so does Krzystof Komeda's sad "Litania", at the same time offering a great illustration of the musical span of this album, varying between the cinematic, the melancholy, the boppish and the free, but always with that modern infusion added by the González sons. Stefan González' long opening track "Crow Soul" has the kind of hypnotic rock rhythm that reminds a little of Terje Rypdal's Odissey. A great album.

Songs Of Early Autumn (NoBusiness, 2009) ****

"Songs Of Early Autumn" is possibly the best adapted for this season of the year, and it was recorded at an improvised meeting in the not yet heated (and therefore chilly) home of Joe Morris, who plays bass on this album. González and him are joined by this other bass-player turned tenor saxophonist Timo Shanko, and with Luther Gray on drums. Morris and González had played before on "No Photograph Available" and apparently the collaboration was worth a follow-up. Three of the eight tracks are compositions by González, all the other pieces are group improvisations in the real free (bop) tradition. The album starts highly rhythmic, uptempo with steady bass vamps and drum lines, and both horn players get all the space they need to enjoy us with their skills (and I laughed out loud because it is such fun at moments). But the album is balanced, with slower, more moody pieces, allowing the horn players to show another perspective, and I must say that Shanko outdoes himself, reaching the improvisational emotional power of González, howling, screeching, wailing, going deep, deep, deep, and making this again a great album.

A Matter of Blood (Furthermore, 2009) ****

There was already a hint to Tomasz Stanko in playing "Litania" on "The Great Bydgoszcz Concert", but on this album González moves more into the great Polish trumpeter's musical territory, also illustrated by the band's line-up. He plays C trumpet and B cornet, with Reggie Workman on bass, Curtis Clark on piano, and Michael T.A. Thompson on drums. And this band is truly excellent for this sad and dark post-boppish album. The playing is versatile, crisp, sophisticated, almost in the ECM way, with lots of open space, shifts in intensity and room for González to move in, yet so does the band. The long tracks are connected by some musical capsules of improvisation by each of the band members. But the long tracks are of course what capture the interest: their length provides ample time for spatious and careful elaboration of the themes, creating depth and a great sense of space at the same time. The music lifts you up, even if it's not joyful by nature.

So, you will ask me, which one should I buy?

Well, I will answer you, you make the selection, or buy all three.

These are three different albums, all three with their value and musical angle. But all three of a high quality, all three with excellent musicians who understand the musical project, improvise creatively and sensitively, and interact well. All the rest is a matter of personal preference.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, September 21, 2009

Carter/Colbourne/Flaherty - A Flash In The Sky (TheGlassMuseum, 2009) ****

You like free jazz raw and hard and real and authentic? Well then here's a treat for you: Daniel Carter meets Randall Colbourne meets Paul Flaherty in a free-for-all blowing session.

The session? Two tracks, one of thirty and one of fifteen minutes of unadultered sax+sax+drums, with Carter occasionally switching to trumpet.

Doubts? No need to have them. In the hands of three such experienced musicians the end result is one well worth listening to, and for most of us, a great joy from beginning to end.

Essential? Not really. But listen how they find the right balance between power and subtlety, between violence and tenderness, between mutual respect and I'll-show-you.

Quality? You bet! In every note. Fine sound quality too. Great art work.

Will it sell? Surely not. Have you ever seen a paper sleeve with no names or references? You buy this? But I'm not sure selling is the objective.

You like free jazz? Order it through The Glass Museum.

And now with a Youtube clip (thanks Kevin!)

© stef

Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle - Morpho (Mudi, 2009) ****

There aren't many women trumpet-players. I know Ingrid Jensen, Jamie Branch, Nadje Noordhuis, and now Gunhild Seim. Seim is a Norwegian and someone to watch. On her sophomore album, she is accompanied by a great band, with Arild Hoem on saxophone, Dag Magnus Narvesen on drums, John Lilja on bass, and with Odd Børge Sagland joining on marimba on half the tracks. This is not free jazz, but carefully composed and meticulously arranged music with room for improvisation and the occasional wild excursion. And indeed, next to a wonderful trumpet-player, she is also a promising composer, very open in her ideas of how to use rhythm and how to superimpose several melodic lines, while paying lots of attention to the piece's specific style and mood. Most tracks could be categorized as chamber jazz, despite the presence of the drums, which doesn't mean that all compositions are down-tempo. "Frown" and "Motion Sickness", for instance, are more boppish, forming the middle part of the album. "Blue Morpho" is a mid-tempo piece, sad and joyful at the same time. Dave Douglas, with whom she studied, is not far, and especially on "Gigue" you can hear his influence, both in the composition and in the tone of her playing. But Seim has sufficient character and creativity to develop her own musical ideas. And the best pieces are the ones on which Odd Børge Sagland joins on marimba, adding a nice touch of additional flavor, and in combination with the arco bass, the great rhythms and the nice playing of both Seim and Hoem this works extremely well. "Just A Hunch", and "Captain Cook" are my favorite tracks, together with the dark closing piece. This is music like a fresh bowl of salad : light and substantial, varied and coherent, simple and complex, and with a great mix of subtle and contrasting tastes. Enjoy!

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blog as source of information for jazz journalists

A self-serving message today: below you will find the results of a recent poll that Improvised Communications conducted among jazz editors, and I copy as it was published on their website.

"We recently asked 50 prominent writers and editors working in the jazz arena to complete a survey, with a special effort made to reach out to as diverse a sample as possible.

We asked them about their preferences for receiving information, how and where they listen to music and their interaction with publicists among many other things."


"When tackling the subject of blogs, we asked respondents to list five of their favorites. Oddly enough, more than half skipped this question completely, and only 37.5% filled in all five slots. Some even dedicated one or more of the slots to expressing their dislike for reading and/or discussing blogs at all.

The calculations don’t apply to write-ins, but the most popular choices were Destination: Out, Do The Math, Free Jazz, Jazz Beyond Jazz, Lerterland and Secret Society.

Blog influence

But this time, when we asked if what they read on these blogs influenced their own work, only 44.4% said yes."

So, it's good to know that this blog is being read by REAL jazz editors (even if only half of them). I'm not sure this means that this blog comes in the third place in the ranking, but it would seem so. I only hope that it will give some more exposure to the music reviewed here.

This blog is also in the fourth spot of the official jazz blog directory.



© stef

Saturday, September 19, 2009

EAR&NOW - Eclipse (Wallace Records, 2009) ****½

The great thing about music is that its inherent possibilities for novelty are absolutely endless. Yet rare are those who manage to create something entirely new, perplexing the audience, wrongfooting the listener, while maintaining an element of the listenable and the enjoyable. This album clearly falls within that category, and is beyond classification in terms of genre or style, let's call it avant-garde for lack of a better word. EAR&NOW is an Italian "band", sounding more like a project, with varying line-ups on this record, with Alberto Morelli on hammond organ, rhodes piano, bendir, khan, harmonium, electric bass, acoustic guitar, rolling coins on percussion, treatments, piffero, whistle, mouth organ, bow vibraphone, tibetan bells, mouth harp, bow dotara with sympathetic strings, Paolo Cantu' on electric guitar, clarinet, whistle, and farfisa organ, Xabier Iriondo on electric guitar, treatments, mahai metak, autoharp, and taisho koto. These three men seem to form the nucleus of the group. They are assisted by another list of musicians, with especially soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo as possibly the best known guest, next to Federico Cumar on trombone, Roberto Mazza on oboe, Federico Sanesi on tabla, Cristian Calcagnile on drums, Stefano Stefani on voice. The instrumentation already indicates that you're in for something special, with unusual combinations of old and new, of the familiar with the uncanny, keeping a light touch of opening new musical horizons.

One of the most noteworthy moments of the album is the integration of a field recording from 1969 of a song by then 75-year old Rosa Corn, one of the last traditional singers of the Valle dei Moccheni in Trento, Italy.

Although the different tracks vary quite substantially in style, ranging from folk, far eastern meditative influences, soundtrack elements, electronics, avant-garde jazz to the days of the early Soft Machine, yet it all fits well in the overall concept, and adding a sound sample of the music will not do it justice: it's the variation, the broad scope and focused approach of a combined intimacy, spirituality, weirdness, lyricism and musical drive, that makes the overall effect rather unique. Impressive result.

© stef

Friday, September 18, 2009


Read more about this campaign on the dedicated website, now with Youtube video.

© stef

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Horace Tapscott - The Dark Tree (HatOLOGY, 2009 re-issue) *****

Sitting in my hotel room, waiting for the New York Clean Feed Festival to start, my ears, brain and body receive full enjoyment from what might possibly be the re-issue of the year. Recorded at a live performance in 1989, this album by Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott is an absolute post-boppish free jazz delight, with other icons John Carter on clarinet, Cecil McBee on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums. The long title track alone is worth the purchase of the album. It is a hypnotic, highly rhythmic, forward moving piece, with John Carter's clarinet soaring high above the thundering piano chords, and the absolutely relentless rhythms of bass and drums. Tapscott's piano solo is as great as Carter's. And throughout the album the bass and drums also get their moments in the spotlight. This is music in the tradition of Coltrane: African, expansive, highly rhythmic, spiritual, deeply expressive, helping the listener to break away from all the provincialism and mediocrity of daily life. It is music that goes directly to the essence, conjuring up sounds of beauty, passion, drama, but also of liberation and freedom. You get even a second version of the title track on the second CD. All the pieces of the album are of the same high level, and even if John Carter does not play on all tracks, the quality of the music as a piano trio is equally superb. Don't miss it!

The title itself refers to the artistic traditions of African Americans that Tapscott tried to revive, the reason why he even left Lionel Hampton's big band, to start his own Arkestra (spelled in reference to Noah's Ark).

Here is the title track on Youtube: enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Akira Sakata - Friendly Pants (Family Vineyard, 2009) ****

Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata has been active on the free jazz scene for more than fourty years, with only limited exposure in international album releases. Now he performs in a trio with Chris Corsano on drums, and Darin Gray on bass, in a production of Jim O'Rourke. It's the kind of sax trio that is highly enjoyable, free in spirit, daringly emotional, both in the soft and violent passages, and bringing music with the same stylespan. Some of the pieces make you understand why he is easily connected to Brötzmann, because of the fierce energetic power of the Japanese, and the Corsano/Gray rhythm section is also at its best when all hell breaks loose, as in "In Case, Let's Go To Galaxy". But in stark contrast to this, the music can be gentle, sweet even, without using fixed patterns or rhythms, just letting it all flow quite meditatively and free, as on "Un", or finding the right level in between, in a kind of post-boppish mode, where the rhythm section does drive things forward, and Sakata plays the most beautiful melodic lines, as in "That Day Of Rain". This variation, together with his incredible skills, and the powerful rhythm section, makes the (re-)discovery of Sakata a real pleasure and joy for the ears. Let's hope it doesn't take another twenty years before his next album is available outside of Japan.

Watch the trio on a quieter piece on Youtube:

© stef

Monday, September 14, 2009

Gordon Grdina - East Van Strings - The Breathing Of Statues (Songlines, 2009) ****

I knew Vancouver guitarist and oud-player Gordon Grdina from his debut album "Think Like The Waves", with nobody less than Gary Peacock on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Quite a feat for a young musician, and one that illustrates the trust these jazz greats have for his skills and potential. And although the album got some favorable reviews, it was still very rooted in bop. Next to his jazz albums, he also created more Arabic music with Sangha, genre-fusing music with Box Cutter, and now he explores the possibilities of a string quartet, with Jesse Zubot on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Peggy Lee on cello, with of course Grdina playing guitar and oud, moving the music away from jazz and into modern classical music and avant-garde, with strong influences from Arabic and Persian music. The combination is not bad at all, it adds the right level of drama and sadness, well balanced with the more cerebral explorations of new sounds and sound combinations. The most beautiful piece is the long title song, the album's pièce-de-résistance, on which the oud's warm plaintive phrasings is supported by the hypnotic and melancholy strings. Despite the typical sound of the line-up, for some ears the breadth of the musical journey this quartet takes may still be too far-reaching, ranging from the ancient traditions of the middle-east to the very abstract, at times dissonant modern music, but Grdina manages to use that scope to his advantage, laying bare an austere yet emotionally expressive aesthetic that unites the various genres on this album. A strong achievement and a nice listening experience.

The Gordon Grdina Trio - If Accidents Will (Plunge, 2009) ***

The Gordon Grdina Trio is a different story. Accompanied by Tommy Babin on bass and Kenton Loewen on drums, the guitarist demonstrates the wealth of idioms he masters, but a little too much. True, each piece of the album is well-played and has musical merits of its own, but it is very difficult to find the commonalities between a 12-minute long oud improvisation - beautiful though it may be - with the harsh, raw and burning modern electric guitar trio tunes with which the album opens. And then we get the compulsory slow blues, and yes we like the blues, but what is it doing here? And then you also get treated to a more melodic post-bop piece to end the album. All nice, but no coherence. The trio can play, no doubt about it. But mixing it all up is confusing to this listener. The album starts full of promise, but then you get the impression that inspiration got lost, and that the band fell back on the more beaten track. The good news however is that with every release, Grdina seems to come closer to creating his own voice. And that's good progress.

© stef

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forgiving July - Live At Novara Jazz Festival (Amirani, 2009) ****

Don't be misled by the art work. Although it gives the impression of featuring a dixieland or swing band, what you get here is pure improvisation between three musicians who know their instruments and their jazz legacy. Gianni Mimmo plays soprano, Angelo Contini trombone and Stefano Pastor violin. The performance was recorded live at the Novara Jazz Festival in 2008. The quality of the improvisations is absolutely excellent, and the three musicians' spontaneous interaction can only be the result of knowing each other quite well, and having a solid common understanding of the music they're playing. The sounds are abstract, quite definitely, but lyrical at the same time, drawing their inspiration from nature (at more than one moment, you have the impression that birds are having a dialogue), modern classical (in terms of phrasing and harmonics), jazz (and it does swing at times), and from the imagination of the moment, in rapid-speed reaction to the others. As said in an earlier review, Pastor's violin tone sounds warmer and reedier than you would expect, often bringing his timbre extremely close to that of the soprano. This trio is not the one for expansive playing, or for cerebral programmatic breaking of boundaries, but rather for pretenseless joy in the moment of music making with full disregard of constraints or patterns, but always looking for the new angle, the interesting addition, the creative challenge. Musically interesting avant-garde, fun and relatively accessible, a rare combination.

© stef

Friday, September 11, 2009

James Carney Group - Ways & Means (Songlines, 2009) ****

Written as "a virtual film score", this album is the sequel to a commissioned soundtrack that pianist James Carney worked on, and which offered interesting options, yet was too restrictive in terms of pace and musical options : the movie dictated the music. The advantage of a virtual film score is that you can keep the same cinematic approach without the restrictions. Regardless of the explanations, this is a very imaginative modern jazz album, which brings together some of the best musicians of the moment : Peter Epstein on soprano and alto, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Tony Malaby on tenor, Josh Roseman on trombone, Chris Lightcap on bass and Mark Ferber on drums, with Carney on piano and synth. You can debate about the story that evolves before your mind's eye (what is this virtual movie about?), yet it works in a way. Musical dialogues conjure up pictures of people arguing, pleading, or mourning their fate during the solos, or dramatic moments when the speed and the tension increase, the improvised pieces adding dimensions of distress, but luckily it has the musical flow you expect from good music, rather than the sudden twists and turns of silent movie soundtracks, or the repetitive shallow nature of the more modern scores. This is music with ideas that get time to be developed and explored. The downside of this "virtual film score" knowledge is that you listen to this music differently than usually - you try to picture what is taking place, and I'm not sure I always like this, because you stop listening to the music for it's own sake. So, forget about this movie angle (sorry I mentioned it), and just enjoy the music for what it is : creative modern jazz, played by great musicians, who are fully dedicated to the project at hand.

© stef

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bobby Bradford - Varistar (Full Bleed Music, 2009) ****½

Ten years after it was recorded, this music is finally released, and with reason: the trio, with Bobby Bradford on cornet, Tom Heasley on tuba and Ken Rosser on guitar, brings not only an unusual line-up, but their music finds a perfect balance between tunes rooted in jazz composition, chamber jazz, and avant-garde explorations, and the album evolves in that direction, starting with abstract music, improvising with high intervallic jumps, with Rosser's guitar sounding like a jazz guitar, and the tuba acting as a bass and solo instrument simultaneously, while at the end the electronics and the atmospheric soundscapes start building the background for Bradford's more melancholy lines that evolve not too far from a singe tonal center, and the tuba ads warm depth to the slow flow, while the guitar has more Rypdalesque rock-influences. Bradford of course has a long standing in free jazz, having worked with Ornette Coleman, John Carter, and David Murray amongst many others, and with quite an impressive list of own albums, especially qualitatively, but this album is something else. It doesn't swing and it's not bluesy or soulful, but at the same time it does and it is. There are some moments of drama ("Ohio"), but also of fun and playfulness ("Crooked March"), a long sad blues ("Not Forgotten") with acoustic guitar accompaniment, but then the album changes with "Practically Sensible" acting as the pivoting point, the structure becomes more lose, the tones longer, the intervals shorter, yet it all remains quite intense and closely-knit in terms of interaction. It is quite difficult to describe the music, because it's so full of paradoxes and contradictions, it's accessible and not quite, it's varied yet focused. This may have been the reason why it took ten years to be released, but what a pleasure that it finally happened. Some of the pieces are at times a little too lengthy, but otherwise, quite a treat.

© stef

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Fonda Stevens Group - Memphis (Playscape, 2009) ****

The Fonda Stevens Group is a band that's been around for more than 20 years in various line-ups, but always with the solid foundation of Joe Fonda on bass and Michael Jefrey Stevens on piano, and Harvey Sorgen on drums, and with most of the time Herb Robertson on trumpet. The great thing about the band is its human warmth and musical openness. They can play AACM-like music ("In The Whitecage"), post-bop ("For My Brother"), blues , Stanko-esque melancholy ("Whole Majesty"), free improvisation ("Yes This Is It") as spontaneous chants ("Memphis Ramble"), as long as it sounds well, it is fun, musically entertaining and interesting. The interaction is great, with four musicians who have come to know each other so well that it all sounds so easy and smooth, with shifts and turns being taken almost simultaneously, smoothly, flowing between forms, soloing and group playing, between genres and subgenres, as if the whole jazz catalogue is just there for the taking and seamless improvised integration. True, they stay away from the boundary-shifting approach (don't expect the Robertson you think you know, you've rarely heard him play so "in-side" as here), but the lack of adventure is more than easily compensated by the warmth and musical joy.

Watch a performance in Philadelphia last year

© stef

Sunday, September 6, 2009

DCIC with Greg Osby - Live At The Warehouse (Self Published, 2009) ***½

DCIC stands for DC (Washington) Improvisers Collective, a band with changing line-ups. For this album, it consists of Ben Azzara on drums, Daniel Barbiero on bass, Jonathan Matis on guitar, Mike Sebastian on tenor and saxello, and with Greg Osby as a special guest on alto. The album consists of three long improvised pieces, with especially Barbiero's arco bass setting the overall tone for the first piece. The music flows nicely and freely, and especially on the first piece, the focus seems to wander a little bit, giving the impression at times that the band as a whole is at a loss of what will come next, yet there are some truly beautiful interactions from all musicians. It has the pros and cons of many live recordings, the audience is close and present during the show, the sound quality, and especially the relative volume of the saxes suffer at times. If the band was more selective in the way it tries to present its music, the overall effect would become more powerful and less non-committal.

Listen and buy from the band's website.

© stef

Friday, September 4, 2009

Nuts - Symphony For Old And New Dimensions (Ayler, 2009) *****

This is the second release by the wonderfully free band "Nuts", and the first release was in my opinion among the best albums of last year, with a double trumpet front line, two drums and the bass of Benjamin Duboc. Rasul Siddik and Itaru Oki play trumpet and flugelhorn, Didier Lasserre and Makoto Sato play the drums. Duboc's philosophy is that music has no center anymore, it is created by the context of players, of the moment, of the creative inspiration. And that's how the music sounds: shifting phrases, floating on an evolution of ideas and inspirations of the moment, moving forward, yet without a clear path but still focused. The first part is close to twenty-five minutes long, the second fourty-three minutes, and they were recorded live at Le Carré Bleu, in Poitiers, France on February 5, 2009. And what you here is music flowing, with variations in the levels of intensity, without rhythms or melodies, yet utterly musical and lyrical. There is nothing harsh, abrasive or violent, just this interesting development of creative interaction. The band is one of the best developments in the musical lineage that was started by the AACM, but the title suggests other sources as well : Don Cherry's "Symphony For Improvisers", "Old & New Dreams", and "OtherDimensions In Music". All among my favorite albums and bands. Creative beauty, sensitive lyricism, controlled freedom, respectful dissonance, and moments of magical expressivity. Let's give them a five star rating again.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Broken research

I recently reviewed two new LPs by the avant-garde label Brokenresearch. Here are some more releases, but then CDs. I am usually not a great fan of the too minimalistic approach on which instruments barely lift notes above or just below a surface of drones. Yet the label's approach is of interest because of the strong unity in musical vision it brings, even if the settings are very varied. Daring, courageous and visionary. But it's not jazz.

Psalm Alarm - Like Machine, Like Voice (Brokenresearch, 2009) ***½

The music on this album is played by Zach Wallace on bass, Ben Hall on percussion, Chris Riggs on electric guitar and Hans Buetow on cello, but the listener who can discern these various instruments on the album should receive an award. The music sounds like endless notes played with slight variations around a tonal center over which the other instruments add texture and superimpose sounds basically, functioning like ripples on water, extending, broadening, disappearing. The overall effect is eery, dark, frightening, industrial almost, but also sophisticated. It is not noise. Noise repels the listener. Here the music has some strange appeal, something fascinating that lures you out of your daily routine, wakes up the dark side of your subconscious. That's the power of this music. Despite the minimalism, and the organized sound that to many listeners will not qualify under the term "music", it has a strange emotional power and intensity, and one that is kept throughout the album. But it is not jazz, for sure.

Chris Riggs - Achievement Is It's Own Reward (Brokenresearch, 2009)

Chris Riggs plays solo electric guitar. Again, as with the other albums, it does not sound like an electric guitar. It sounds primarily like percussion, with some whistling sounds at the beginning. Could it be that the wrong disc ended up in the CD sleeve? Is this guitar? Since none of the CDs contain any information at all, that might well be possible. Each of six tracks is exactly five minutes long, exactly, making this also a short album. I am at a loss of what to think of it, and that's good. Avant-garde that meets expectations does not really meet expectations.

Chris Dadge - I'd Drive Yr Ass Across The World If I Had To (Brokenresearch, 2009)

In the same series, Chris Dadge plays solo percussion, in two pieces adding up to approx. 30 minutes. You get normal percussive sounds, but also scraping, rumbling, clattering sounds and all variations around that. In stark contrast to most jazz, and much in line with the other music of the label, it's all very downtempo, with the musician taking his time to explore and expand and create an atmosphere that shifts expectations of what drums and music should sound like.

It is not really my thing. In all, utterly bizarre stuff, but worthwhile. Surely, it will not be to everyone's liking, but then, who cares? At least the musicians don't seem to care.

© stef