Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
Ches Smith — The Bell (ECM, 2016)
So many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.
Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)
Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.
The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game, developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”
Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.
The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.
The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.
Ron Stabinsky — Free for One (Hot Cup, 2016)
Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.
As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:
Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.
“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.
One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.
You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.
Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka (feat. Marco Eneidi) — Rhapsody of the Oppressed (Dimensional, 2016)
Now based in Mexico after a decade in Vienna, saxophonist Marco Eneidi has found two solid bandmates to help forward his cause of light-footed improvised jazz.
Itzam Cano is a terrifically energetic bassist, full of agile, cross-currented ideas. And Swiss drummer Gabriel Lauber brings the energy level and inventiveness that provides the right setting for Eneidi’s higher-energy improvisations. Formerly compatriots in the trio Zero Point, they’ve teamed up with Eneidi to form Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka, a trio (sometimes quartet) that’s simmered for a few years and has now put out their first album.
The bulk of Rhapsody of the Oppressed consists of some mid-length improvisations and a handful of miniatures, short declarations about a minute long. Many of the titles hint at the themes of social injustice and inequity that have pervaded Eneidi’s work and thinking over the years — a fire that still burns bright.
The album’s major statement is the 27-minute “Liberation.” It builds at a measured clip, first with springy bass and mournful quips from Eneidi as a warmup. After about 7 minutes, the band hits full stride, with drums at maximum energy and Eneidi pacing himself with a mid-to-high-energy discourse. It’s a well considered mini-epic with a slow middle segment that gives Cano a good chance to show off his improvisatory skills.
Often, Eneidi sets the overall energy level while the bass and drums run at high throttle. As an example, “Language Is Never Neutral” (a quote from Paolo Friere, whose work was based on the premise that education can’t be neutral either) plunges directly into an angry (or perhaps joyous) blast. But “A Child Walks in a Dream” feels more sublime but is really no less intense.
Certainly Eneidi takes center stage during much of the longer stretches. But when he goes through segments of short phrasing, it’s fun to listen to the music in a “negative space” way — hearing the bass and drums as the forefront, with the sax becoming background color. It probably works with all manner of trio music. But I like the effect in this particular case.
The miniatures on Rhapsody aren’t just trifles; they’re full statements that just happen to be short. “In Us Free” is another great bass showcase for Cano, springing and bouncing along with a colorful drum-kit accompaniment. “Exoridum” opens the album like an electrical burst, introducing the slashing, unfettered playing that dominates the album.
The group has also performed with guitarist Juan Castañón, as you can see here. But here’s a look at the trio, by themselves, in 2012.
Nashville Electric — Orson’s Folly (Edgetone, 2015)
This long-form performance of electronics and electric instruments was created in 2015 as a live, improvisational soundtrack to a long-lost Orson Welles silent film. (The film wasn’t silent by choice — more on that in a bit).
It’s a continuous journey of sound and activity, with a foundation of howling-wind synthesizers setting up the background for brighter guitar and violin sounds — small curls or wide washes, heavily treated to add to the electronic mesh.
Everything is done for texture and effect; it’s a noise piece, in essence, with a prevailing mood built from lots of small details. It’s foreboding but not entirely dark. I imagine the music putting an eerie cast over the silent black-and-white footage.
The piece — two major sections recorded in the studio, plus a “closing credits” segment recorded in concert — starts out with an anthemic buzz of synths and electric guitar, with the occasional electric-violin tone drifting past for a dash of color.
Part 2 tends to be more sparse, with the string instruments playing more individualized roles. One attractive segment focuses on a traceable guitar riff, as if played at the end of a distant corridor. A choppy violin takes the foreground later, again in a distant, filtered vein, behind a deep electronic pulsing.
As with any soundtrack, the music is inspired by film — and, as a result, our listening of the music can be colored by the nature of that film, even if we can’t see it. I listened to the album first, then researched the Orson Welles film in question, “Jangadeiros” (“Four Men on a Raft”). Knowing what happened really does cast the music in a different light.
“Jangadeiros” was part of a larger project called It’s All True — a movie that Welles eventually decided was cursed, based partly on an anecdote involving a voodoo needle driven through a script.
A fictionalized quasi-documentary that evolved in a convoluted process after Pearl Harbor, It’s All True was meant to be a trilogy of stories filmed in Brazil. But, as explained on the Edgetone Records site, the film wasn’t the feelgood exercise that RKO Studio and the U.S. Government (a backer of the film) were expecting. Welles’ budget was slashed to a single black-and-white, silent camera, and the project deteriorated, never to be completed.
“Jangadeiros” survived in footage that was discovered in 1981. It’s actually meant to be a happy and triumphant story about four fishermen who rafted for 61 days — 1,650 miles without a compass — to protest to the goverment, in person, about the feudal nature of their industry. They were being forced to deliver half their catch to raft owners, leaving the fishermen themselves in poverty. The protest worked; Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas didn’t come through on all his promises, but the fishermen were at least granted the privileges of unionized workers.
The tragedy came later. Using the original four fishermen, Welles was filming a re-enactment of their arrival in Rio de Janeiro harbor. (Rio was the capital at the time.) But the raft overturned, and the fishermen’s leader, Manoel Olimpio Meira, was lost.
So … back to Orson’s Folly. The mood doesn’t strike me as full-on ominous. But it’s not exactly happy, either. There’s the eerieness that comes with the dredging-up of old, dead history; the heavy tragedy of Meira’s death; and the doomed nature of the project itself.
“Jangadeiros” happens to be available on YouTube, so you could play the album alongside it for the full effect. The footage is shadowy, but it’s professionally edited and does tell a fictitious story related to the four fishermen. I gave it only a minimal try. I think I prefer to let the visuals and the mood build in my imagination.
Alexander von Schlippenbach — Jazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)
Alexander 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 — The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey, 2016)
When 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.
Human Ottoman — Farang (self-released, 2015)
First, 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.
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.