Von Schlippenbach Swings

Alexander von SchlippenbachJazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)

avonschl-nowAlexander von Schlippenbach is one of the holes in my jazz education. I’ve heard his music, including the Globe Unity Orchestra, his colossal improvising unit of the ’70s. But I’ve never explored his music very deeply.

I’m also aware that he recorded Monk’s entire catalogue. Like many of the great European improvisers, he traces his musical roots back to the swing and bebop of old.

Still, when I grabbed this quartet concert album on a whim, it was surprising to hear how “straight” most of the playing is, from the romantic strains of Herbie Nichols’ “12 Bars” to the thrilling pace of “Miss Ann,” with nice solos from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall floors it and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.

It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise — more the kind that makes you smile slowly at first, then more and more broadly until you’re grinning.

You do get generous doses of the outside jazz that I was expecting, mostly in the form of Von Schippenbach’s own compositions. “Tropi” features a kind of broken swing, with a theme that’s traceable but not a simple 4/4; it then dives straight into group improvising, in a fast post-bop vein.

Von Schlippenbach’s “The Bells of St. K” and the opening of Monk’s “Epistrophy” both feature free improvisation, with angular, spiky bass clarinet. (Side note: The band is a traditional quartet with the bass clarinet as the only horn. It’s novel and a little Dolphy-esque.) Von Schlippenbach’s solo on “Epistrophy” is a tasty hybrid of free and straight playing.

The Herbie Nichols tunes are a treat — and it’s kind of sad that I’m still taken by surprise when his name comes up on a song credit. (Nichols was a contemporary of Monk’s whose music isn’t as well cemented in the public consciousness.) “The Gig” comes across as a complex swing — it’s got an easy rhythm but a tangled melody where Mahall gets to show off some dexterity.

One detail I left out: The concert is recent, recorded in March 2015. That’s what inspired me to listen in the first place. There’s a wealth of material from these great improvisers — Destination: Out sells quite a bit, from the old FMP catalogue — but it’s good to also check out what musicians like von Schlippenbach are doing in the here-and-now. The deep knowledge of the Monk-era songbook, mixed with that Euro-improv pioneering spirit, all wrapped up in the comfortable hands of age and experience — it adds up to some wonderful results.

Tortoise’s Grand Return

TortoiseThe Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey, 2016)

tortoise-catastWhen I arrived at KZSU in 1998, Tortoise was ascendant. I was on the lookout for non-“jazz” items to add to my radio show, elements of rock or electronica that might blend well into an avant-jazz program, and Tortoise quickly caught my ear. It’s a well I went to several times.

I can’t say I really got acquainted with the band, though. I was aware of the connections to the Chicago jazz scene, especially the presence of guitarist Jeff Parker. But I didn’t take time to learn more; I didn’t even listen to complete albums of theirs.

So, I don’t have a full sense of comparison between The Catastrophist and Tortoise’s main body of work, which 1994 to 2009. With fresh ears, I’ll say The Catastrophist is an solid album of instrumentals, featuring a heavier layer of cartoony synths than I was expecting and a vibe that’s bouncy yet relaxing — it’s easygoing, but it certainly won’t put you to sleep.

Tortoise has a lot in common with a type of instrumental music that I tended to label “post-rock.” I don’t think that’s the right term, but anyway — I’m talking about low-key rock instrumentals built upon simple ostinatos (repeated riffs that serve as the backdrop for melody or soloing) and a calm demeanor. Dig up music from a band called 33.3, and you’ll see what I mean (and you can tell me if I’m using the term “post-rock” correctly).

On The Catastrophist, “Tesseract” has the kind of sound I remember. It isn’t easygoing or slow, but it feels soothing — a glossy layer of bass and some lush guitar chording.

The album’s most obvious detours are in the vocal tracks — an amusingly slow cover of “Rock On” and a sublime “Yonder Blue” — but I’d rather talk about the musical paths I wasn’t expecting. “Hot Coffee” has a funky soul-jazz sound that was a pleasant surprise. And “Shake Hands With Danger” has an appropriately dark air and some sinister melody, despite an overall bright sound.

What interested me in this album was, I admit, the novelty — it was neat to hear they’d gotten the band back together. But it also seemed like a nice chance to discover what they’d really been up to all those years, when I was only half-listening, and to see if I liked what they did. Success, on all counts.

Tortoise is still touring The Catastrophist. They’ll be at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on May 1.

Human Ottoman: Cello & Vibes Get Amped Up

Human Ottoman plays March 18 at The Starry Plough (Berkeley) and March 19 at Art Boutiki (San Jose).

Human OttomanFarang (self-released, 2015)

human-farangFirst, because I don’t want it lost too far in the shuffle: Jordan Glenn’s trio, Wiener Kids, is playing at The Starry Plough (Berkeley) on the abovementioned March 18 show. Their sax-sax-drums combo is always a treat, mixing whimsy with serious improvising — I wrote about it back when. Always a treat to see them.

That’s what caught my eye at first. But it turns out that another act playing that night is Portland, Ore.-based Human Ottoman, and that’s what this post is about.

I found out about Human Ottoman in 2014 via the music-review blog A Closer Listen. A cello-vibraphone-drums trio with occasional rock distortion and a jazzy vibe? I was intrigued enough to give their album Power Baby a try, and I liked it.

With Farang, Human Ottoman has turned the corner to become an out-and-out rock band. Jazz was always an arm’s reach away on Power Baby, with a straight vibes sound, cello-as-bass rhythms, and the occasional world-music turn. The distortion, the aggressive drums, the occasional vocals — they were all there on Power Baby, it turns out, but my brain kept slapping a “jazz” label on the music (albeit modern, attitude-laden jazz).

Farang leaves no doubt, as the distortion, the vocals, and Susan Lucía’s hard-pounding drums are all unleased to do maximum damage. Half the album, including the two opening tracks, consists of out-and-out rock songs with lyrics and everything. “Infernal Mechanisms of Commerce” has Matthew Cartmill (cello) and Grayson Fiske (vibes) turning up the distortion for a dark, driven sound that reminds me of the two-cello indie rock band Rasputina. Their instruments darken with curls of synth or guitar smoke.

Lucía’s dominates many tracks — the insistent pounding of “Denim Enigma” or the world-music influenced “Painting” and “YDKWH.” The latter track, relentless and in-your-face, is a good taste of the band and their attitude. Check out the video.

The jazzy side of Human Ottoman really does exist, though. I didn’t imagine it. Modern, indie-style jazz is still in the mix, in the odd-time prog/jazz beat of “3(5)+4” or the tumbling, uptempo rhythms of “Codename: Fulano.”

Finally, note that Human Ottoman’s March 19 show is in San Jose, at a comic book store near downtown. It’s a neighborhood that’s seen occasional attempts at starting something cool and artsy. I haven’t visited in a while, and I’m anxious to see what Art Boutiki has going on.

Ellery Eskelin’s Trio New York

This looks wonderful, but I’m not sure it’s the most efficient way to promote a concert:

By Niklaus Troxler, a 2007 promo for the Ellery Eskelin Trio

That’s a 2007 poster by Niklaus Troxler, then the organizer of concerts in Willisau, Switzerland. You’ve seen Willisau namechecked on countless albums; the small town has been a mainspring for European-style improvised music and jazz.

Connect the dots, and you’ll see the poster is advertising a concert by the Ellery Eskelin Trio.

As Eskelin wrote in an October blog post, he’s a frequent visitor to Willisau, and his most recent visit resulted in a recording for his Trio New York, his standards-influenced band featuring Gary Versace on organ. The plan is to parlay that session into a CD on hatOLOGY in the spring.

eskelin-3ny-crop.jpgTrio New York is an interesting proposition, an organ-sax-drums combo that improvises freely but does so in the context of traditional jazz. Tracks on the band’s two CDs are even named after standards. I’m thinking the tunes are actually in there somewhere, but I’m not trying very hard to find them; it’s more enjoyable to just let the music drift by, like a bank of clouds on a lazy day.

The band’s concept is close to Eskelin’s heart, partly because his mother was a professional organist, playing under the name Bobbie Lee. No wonder that Eskelin lets a romantic, nostalgic tone pervade the music, although he’s still quite adventurous within those boundaries, and Versace is willing to wrest some spacey sounds from the organ for the occasional effect.

It was a pleasant surprise to watch this band germinating at a 2010 restaurant show in Times Square — a very unexpected venue for Eskelin — and it’s been good to see that Eskelin has kept the concept rolling.

On Kamasi Washington

Kamasi WashingtonThe Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)

It turns out that while I was obsessing about the Los Angeles project called The Gathering — it’s a shame that their Kickstarter didn’t get funded — the central L.A. jazz scene had already gathered some serious national attention. It wasn’t until I began writing the last of my Gathering posts that I finally caught up with the buzz around Kamasi Washington.

Washington comes from the same Leimert Park district that Horace Tapscott, Jesse Sharps, and others had nurtured as a musical nexus. Washington made a splash early last year with The Epic, a three-CD collection of Coltrane-infused music with McCoy Tyner-style chords: a big and truly epic sound, backed in places by an orchestra and/or a 10-person choir.

The news here is about more than Washington himself. He’s part of a collective, the West Coast Get Down, that plans to release seven albums, of which The Epic is the first. With the media attention that The Epic has received, you could say this is the very L.A.-jazz insurgence I was hoping The Gathering could ignite. Washington represents a new generation of players with electronica and R&B influences, but the music is grown from the same jazz roots.

Parts of The Epic aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s all toward a good cause. The crowds that Washington is drawing represent a new audience for jazz. Most of them won’t venture any further, but somewhere in those dancing, hollering masses are a few souls who will read the press around Washington and pick up on references to John Coltrane and to albums like Transition.

With any luck, they’ll catch the bug. And maybe they’ll even glean the secret — that while Coltrane is the master and the leader, it’s McCoy Tyner who powered the sound of that quartet.  I love the way Ethan Iverson phrased it on his “Do the Math” blog: “One doesn’t offhand think of McCoy Tyner as unrecognized, but as far as I know, no jazz critic gave Tyner credit for inventing a language of jazz at the time. To this day, John Coltrane gets all (or at least most) of the credit.”

Elsewhere, Iverson makes an insightful comment about The Epic: “I wonder what Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it was fresh — hell, they helped invent the style.”

One thing I like about where West Coast Get Down are coming from, though, is their sincere love of making music. Here’s Miles Mosely, being interviewed by No Treble about the West Coast Get Down appearing on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album:

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve done really great jobs with creating electronic music. That’s also very difficult to do and has its own sound, but it’s nice to hear the sound of musicians making decisions on a record again, because that’s gone away. Everything has been very polished. What made Motown and Stax so special was great musicians making informed decisions on great songs.

Emphasis mine. I just love that phrase, “musicians making decisions.” Hadn’t heard it put that way before.

By Jeremy Tarling on Flickr, CC2.0 license.

The biggest tracks on The Epic are those Tyner-esque ones, but the album crosses into other territory as well — soulful, peaceful grooves such as “Isabelle”; the quick-handed “Miss Understanding,” like the classic Miles Davis quintet on speed; the overkill of “Henrietta Our Hero” (which is a tender and moving song, but smothered in Broadway treacle).

The highlights are Washington’s breathtaking, infinitely tumbling sax solos (and his not-so-subtle use of overblowing, which is impressive but could use more finesse). But the rest of the band is aces as well. Every track springs an excellent improvisation from somebody, not just Washington. I especially like the rich, high-throttle bass solos on “The Magnificent 7” and what I think is an electric bass solo (it might be guitar) over the optimistic gallop of “The Message.” Whichever bassist it is (the record has two: Miles Mosley and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner) just has a great sound on those strings.

So, what’s not to like?

Well … it’s the pop attitude to some extent, but it’s also the frills. The choir and orchestra do their job of building an epic feeling to the album, but how necessary are they?

Take a track like “Changing of the Guard.” I think it suffers from those extra layers. They’ve been added after-the-fact, and it shows: They cross the solos unevenly and weigh the track down. During the piano solo, particularly, I want to hear the piano and bass free-wheeling over the vaguely sketched chord changes — but the strings, in this case, enforce those harmonies, creating strict borders on a solo where the lines should be only loosely drawn.

Put another way: One towering aspect of late ’60s jazz, to me, is that while it’s chord-based, the players drift outside that lane frequently. With all its embellishments, The Epic draws those lane lines in thick Sharpee pen, and it’s too distracting to the sense of freedom that can make this music truly great.

It’s similar to the problem bands have when they play live with pre-recorded tracks or even a click track. What makes a live performance great is the ability to play to the moment. Subtle tempo changes, impossible to wrangle when backing tracks are involved, are part of The Moment.

Yes, it’s a matter of taste; the embellishments aren’t much different from the overacting and overdramatizing found in pop music. I don’t deny these musicians’ talent, their true intentions, or Washington’s gravitational charisma. There’s good music in here; I just think they overdid it.

Overall, I’m glad The Epic happened, partly for the L.A. representation, partly for putting jazz on the map for a lot of people who assumed they didn’t like jazz. And the occasional bombastic gesture isn’t my style, but it adds a sense of fun to the business.

For a more direct reading of Washington’s saxophone attack, you could try out Throttle Elevator Music’s Jagged Rocks. It’s essentially and album of indie-rock instrumentals, with Washington unleashed to romp all over the music. Sometimes the fit is awkward, but mostly, it just plain grooves — as if Washington is off the stage, out of costume, and just kicking back in someone’s garage.

Melford Takes Manhattan

Myra MelfordSnowy Egret (Enja/Yellowbird, 2015)

melford-snowyThis week, Myra Melford has been performing at the Village Vanguard in New York, showing off her four-year-old working quintet, Snowy Egret. It’s her first stint at the Vanguard as a bandleader — a nice milestone in a career that’s already varied and accomplished. And it’s a nice follow-up to her recent residency at The Stone, which yielded a series of videos and a free digital EP.

The band is a nice choice for the Vanguard, too. Snowy Egret, the band’s self-titled debut album, is a good showcase for the snappy creative jazz that Melford has been perfecting since her piano-trio days in Chicago.

The compositions are engaging and thought-provoking as always, and the instrumentation makes for some intriguing sounds. The writing seems tailor-made for the clipped syllables of the trumpet, executed by Ron Miles. Liberty Ellman‘s guitar adds a liquidy quality; on “Ching Ching/For Love of Fruit,” it mixes with Melford’s harmonium (an accordion-like instrument that once caught her eye in India) for a folksy sound that’s hard to identify at first.

Tyshawn Sorey‘s drumming, varying from subtle shading to vicious attack, is stellar as always. He has a way of saying a lot with even the lightest of touches.

Here’s a good trio moment from “The Kitchen,” with Melford soloing, backed by robust acoustic bass guitar from longtime compatriot Stomu Takeishi.

Like all great artists, Melford has a wide variety of influences and has taken her music in many directions. But I’ll always have a soft spot for her crisp, articulate “jazz” playing. Snowy Egret has that in spades.

Snowy Egret, the band, will be at the Village Vanguard through March 6, and will also tour in Europe starting in late October.