Friday, February 12, 2021

A quintet of OC Quartets

By Stef Gijssels

Possibly the best common line-up in free jazz is the "Ornette Coleman Quartet" (OC Quartet), with sax, trumpet, bass and drums. In 1959 (when your humble servant was born) Ornette Coleman released "Tomorrow Is The Question" with Don Cherry on trumpet, Percy Heath or Red Mitchell on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. On his first album "Something Else!", Walter Norris played piano. With his sophomore album, Coleman wanted to liberate jazz from the complex harmonic structures and chord progressions that had become the backbone of jazz music in the fifties. Jazz had become a genre for virtuosi, so he did away with the piano, the harmonic instrument in the ensemble, in order to create more musical freedom and focus on the melody or theme as the core anchor for improvisations. The initial reactions were very negative among the jazz lovers and critics. His music was accused of being incoherent, harsh, impossible to listen to and much more. When listening today, you wonder what all the fuzz was about. Which by itself demonstrates that Coleman's influence on today's music has been more than significant. One of his early opponents, Charles Mingus, already came with a similar line-up two years later with the album "Presents Charles Mingus" with Eric Dolphy,  Ted Curson and Danny Richmond. Today, the format is thriving, and we have already reviewed many last year, starting with "From Wolves to Whales" and the strong "Nox", also with Nate Wooley. 

Luis Vicente, John Dikeman, William Parker & Hamid Drake - Goes Without Saying, But It's Got To Be Said (JACC, 2020)

The rhythm section of Hamid Drake and William Parker is indeed 'something else', to the extent that they have their signature interplay, and that they bring out the best in other musicians, in this case Luis Vicente on trumpet and John Dikeman on saxes. 
The performance was recorded live at the Galeria Zé dos Bois in Lisbon, Portugal on the 19th July 2020, in the middle of the corona crisis and the racial incidents in the United States and the ensuing "Black Lives Matters" protests. These two events explain the title of the album. In the long liner notes, John Dikeman explains his views on racism and music, and William Parker addresses the pandemic and music. They say what they think because it has to be said, even if it sounds obvious. They link their anger also to the power of music:

"It goes without saying that we are completely indebted to African American music and culture. I hope! At least within this community. Among the people who listen to this music. Among the people who have been inspired for decades by true love warriors, as Cornel West would call them, like William Parker and Hamid Drake, as I know Luis Vicente and I have. I hope it goes without saying that we stand for the equality of all people of all races, sexual orientation and religions". ( John Dikeman) 

"When it comes down to it I have to go with free improvisation playing without thinking but not thoughtless. only feeling and directed towards the spontaneous. Hear a sound respond react fast against slow unpredictability water phone or iron bell who knows. This is the excitement for me. Everybody should do what they find exciting and thrilling." (William Parker)

But now back to the music. This is an exceptionally beautiful album.

The first track is a half hour joy to hear, with all four musicians giving their best, listening well, co-creating, stimulating each other, energising each other, led by Parker's unwavering solid bass with many rhythm changes and shifts in emphasis and Drake dancing around this on his drum kit, creative and full of variation and sonic presents for the ears. Dikeman and Vicente surpass themselves. Dikeman is lyrical, jazzy, compelling, with at times phrases and timbres reminiscent of the most powerful Ethopian jazz. Vicente is soaring, emotional and spiritual at the same time. The shorter second piece continues in the same vein, with Dikeman and Vicente's horns spiralling their phrases around each other, and with a too abrupt cut at the end. 

The third piece starts with Hamid Drake singing in Arabic supported by Parker's gimbri and Drake's hand percussion. Nothing new here, I hear you think, we've heard it before, but now it sets the scene for what I think is the most beautiful improvisation I've heard in a long time.

It goes without saying, but it has to be said: this album comes highly recommended. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Anna Kaluza, Artur Majewski, Rafal Mazur & Vasco Trilla - The Night Of The Swift (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2020)

Anna Kaluza is a German altoist who performs here in a quartet with Polish trumpeter Artur Majewski and acoustic bass guitar wizard Rafal Mazur, with Spanish drummer Vasco Trilla to complete the ensemble. The performance was recorded on 5th of December in 2017 at Auditorium of University of Zielona Góra, Poland. This quartet is in a way a continuation of "Tone Hunting", their debut album on Clean Feed from 2013, and the two horns and the bass also performed on Majewski's "Unimaginable Game" from 2016. Majewski and Mazur have performed together often, and Trilla we have reviewed frequently over the years. Kaluza is a little bit of the mystery here. Nine albums in twelve years, with the Hanam Quintet, Splatter, and a few others. And actually, that's a shame, because the altoist is really good, performing solidly with the three men, adding her bright high tones to the heavier sounds of the other instruments. 

The six tracks on the album are sufficiently long to develop and improvise around some core concepts, with often exploratory free improvisation. The music is fresh, open, light-hearted and fun to listen to. 

They have a kind of dual approach to their music, one that it is wayward, stubborn, somehow suppressed in its short bursts of sonic energy, alternating with more solid powerplay. The second track offers both, starting slowly with arco bass, then shifting halfway into more voluminous interaction. But their natural habitat is best illustrated by the fifth track, a kind of dark parlando conversation between the instruments, animal-like, strange and eery. 

Music with character and personality. A real treat. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Jaimie Branch, Rempis, Flaten, Østvang - Tripel​​ Dubbel (Aerophonic Records, 2020)

Some people complain about the lack of female musicians, and without wanting to re-open a whole debate that was raised again with the recent NPR Jazz Critics Artists' Poll article on the subject. No problem on this blog and no problem in this post. Trumpeter Jaimie Branch is in the company of Dave Rempis on saxes, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Tollef Østvang on drums, or an American-Norwegian ensemble. The album gives one long set of a live performance by the quartet on March 10, 2018 in Antwerp, Belgium at the Oorstof and Sound In Motion festival organised by Christel Kumpen and Koen Vandenhoudt. Kudos and sympathy for the organisers of concerts. We wish you all the best in these dire times and hope you'll be able to present us fine concerts again soon.

Despite having travelled from Austria the night before and having barely slept, the performance is very powerful, credited to the "the energy of the remarkable audience at De Studio revved the band back to life in no time". The title of the album refers to the stronger "trappist" beer varieties that are available in Belgium: tripel means that the yeasting processes continues in the bottle, and makes for stronger alcohol content (and blond colour). "Dubbel'" means 'double' and make for a stronger than usual alcohol content (and often brown colour). 

They bring us a real free jazz outing, fully improvised in one long performance, with the sound quality of a live performance, not optimal but reflecting the context, of unstructured in the moment interactions, strong collective interplay, and a go-for-it mentality, with boppish undertones and rhythmic moments and repeated phrases, with sometimes complete reinventions of the piece, which is understandable in the 40-minute long stretch: some paths are left behind and completely new directions are explored. The middle section is more quiet with room for individual soloing without accompaniment or a trumpet-bass duet that leads us back to the band in full force. 

I wasn't there that night, despite the short distance. And it's only now, in lockdown times, that I can blame myself for not having been there. Once the concerts are back, I'm sure the rooms will be packed. Make sure you're fully rested by then. We'll cheer you on!

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Russ Johnson, Rempis, Abrams, Spencer & Cunningham - Harmattan (Aerophonic, 2020)

I agree, this is a quintet, with Russ Johnson on trumpet, Dave Rempis on alto, tenor and baritone, Joshua Abrams on bass and the double drum section of Isaiah Spencer and Jeremy Cunningham. It just takes some time before you actually realise that this is not a quartet. The performance consists of one long track, a concert at The Whistler in Chicago on February 12, 2019. 

It starts slowly, cautiously, with warm and bluesy phrases, creating a wonderful collective piece of music, as if planned and rehearsed. Especially Rempis is calm and even starts playing some joyful phrases on his baritone, echoed by Johnson. Abrams limits himself to a solid functional support to the horns and it is only a good seven minutes into the improvisation, when the intensity increases, that the double drum kit becomes noticable, and once it does, Abrams gets his solo moment, quietly and respectfully encouraged by Spencer and Cunningham, one of the many highlights of the piece, fun, coherent and inventive, and when a steady rhythm, a compelling vamp is achieved, the drums get into a subdued and nervous dialogue, and when Rempis joins, the intensity and fierceness of the piece increases to reach a high point, like a force of nature unleashed. 

The fun part of this performance is that it brings together musicians of a different nature and stylistic preference. We knew Russ Johnson from his modern jazz performances, but on this album he shows his improvisational skills even more in a free environment. I wish we could hear more from him. 

In all, the more than fourty minutes move from quiet moments to high volume and back, with both individual and collective demonstrations of what music is all about: connecting, creating, instrumental mastery, expressivity and the joy of playing. 

Don't miss this one. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Liz Allbee, Ignaz Schick, Mike Majkowski & Oliver Steidle - Salz (Zarek, 2020)

For those of you who may be acquainted by the music of Liz Allbee (also sometimes Luz Alibi) will be surprised by this quartet with Ignaz Schick on alto, Mike Majkowski on bass and Oliver Steidle on drums. Her usual noise experiments and explorations of sonic environments and objects, is replaced in relatively accessible free jazz quartet performance. The music is open, light-hearted and fresh, with Schick offering the more melodious aspect of the band's sound. They are not afraid to integrate silence into their music, as an integral element of their musical vision, including long solo moments without accompaniment for all musicians in the band. The quartet manages to offer lots of variation, and even moments of higher volume and intensity. Possibly not the most memorable album, but clearly worth checking out. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

In summary, Ornette Coleman would have appreciated all this music, even if some of them go beyond what he intended. He opened a musical door that many entered and they opened a magnificent musical space behind that door. Despite of what some might think, the space is huge, as the reviewed albums testify. Be there and listen. 

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