Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Wadada Leo Smith: America’s National Parks

Wadada Leo SmithAmerica’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)

wadada-parksOn KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.

In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.

Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.

The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.

Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on  America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.

America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.

The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.

The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.

“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet

The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.

January 22, 2017 at 10:47 am Leave a comment

Anna Webber: Strange Shapes and Sounds

Anna Webber’s Simple TrioBinary (Skirl, 2016)

webber-binaryI’m partial to the art of surrealist Yves Tanguy, a contemporary of Salvador Dali’s. Whereas Dali used familiar objects contorted into dreamlike shapes, Tanguy’s worlds were entirely alien. His sense of shape and color pointed to other planes of existence: blobby figures that suggested living beings in sparse landscapes under grimly discolored skies.

You could think of Binary‘s cover art as a hypermodern take on Tanguy. But what really brought the painter to my mind was the track “Tug o’ War,” with the piping register of Anna Webber’s flute and the tick-tock percussion from John Hollenbeck. I think it’s supposed to conjure images of a malevolent toy shop, but what sprang to my mind were the puzzling, misshapen objects of Tanguy’s landscapes.

Strange, unexpected logic blossoms all around Binary, with Webber’s flute and saxophone tracing fluid curves and squiggles. Matt Mitchell’s piano sometimes matches the flow, as on the brief, dancing “Meme,” but in other cases, he goes for a blocky, stormy attack.


Yves Tanguy, Day of Intertia (detail).
Source: Melt.

The latter strategy turns Mitchell into an accomplice to John Hollenbeck’s pounding drums, creating some highlight-reel moments during the 14-minute “Impulse Purchase.” Hollenbeck also uses his teletype Claudia Quintet style to lend a crisp, modern air to tracks like “Underhelmed.”

The title track is a particularly nice piece of work, patiently building into waves of soulful saxophone against stormy piano chording. It’s an emotional and severe piece, but also downright pretty.

Then there are the “Rectangle” series of miniatures, each packed into a couple of minutes “Rectangles 3b” is all rigid geometry and stiff lines. “Rectangles 3c” is a strident hurry-up beat, minimalism on caffeine with a skip in its step. “Rectangles 1a,” by contrast, starts slowly and builds into an abrasive climax, a complete short story in its own right. Little windows peeking into different worlds, much like paintings in a gallery.

January 19, 2017 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

François Tusques ‎and the Spectrum of the ’60s

It was a passing mention on Avant Jazz News that got me to seek out François Tusques’ 1965 album, Free Jazz:

I had not previously heard of Tusques, a pianist, but he was clearly part of the “new thing” going on in the sixties, and he’d carved out something particularly engaging here.

“Description Automatique D’un Paysage Désolé” has sturdy jazzy chords, calming flute, and mysterious bass clarinet. But it’s played in a loose, wandering structure — nothing so abrupt as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, but certainly something being built in the name of the new freedom. I was hooked.

tusques-freejazzSince that discovery, catching up on Tusques’ history has been quite an adventure. He is still active, it turns out, although he veered away from the wildly improvised stuff not long after Free Jazz, as noted in an All About Jazz profile.

He did release another album of the “new thing,” in 1967. Titled Le Nouveau Jazz, its improvising is more fierce than that of Free Jazz, and the compositions play a stronger role — but it lacks its predecessor’s magic. I think the more cautious approach on Free Jazz yielded more rewarding results; it had a shape, a coherent non-structure, that didn’t fully translate into a second album.

That said, Le Nouveau Jazz is still a keeper. It’s been rereleased on vinyl by a UK label called Cacophonic. Check Finders Keepers Records in the UK for information (and downloads).

A 1971 album called Intercommunal Music, released on the Shandar label, is less successful. As Clifford Allen writes in that All About Jazz article, the album was planned as a quartet session including Sunny Murray on drums. But Murray showed up late, and with a crew of friends. With rental time running out on the studio, they blasted out whatever unrehearsed sound they could. The results are fun, as you can hear on YouTube, but not particularly coherent. You can hear Tusques falling into patterns occasionally, as if trying to carve a direction for the music, but he goes unheeded.

Even as Tusques veered away from free jazz, he stuck to the revolutionary spirit. Check out this 1971 track, “Nous Allons Vous Conter,” which is soulful and rhythmic but still rings with a spirit of ’60s protests, down to the spoken rhetoric being barked out. (You’ll find it on a compilation called Mobilisation Generale.)

There’s also “Le Musichien,” probably a play on words involving chien, or “dog.” It’s a lovely, straightforward tune with piano chording drenched in that ’70s peace-and-love spirit. For me, having grown up in that era, it’s wonderfully nostalgic — although the vocals get a little questionable, and much as I love the simple chord cycle, it can be wearing over nearly 20 minutes. (This one’s available on another compilation, Freedom Jazz France.)

So, Tusques’ catalogue spans the spectrum of music inspired by the revolutionary ’60s, from outright chaos to soothing, optimistic tunefulness.

Tusques performed at Vision Festival 18 in 2013, and, as Avant Music News was noting, he’s got a new album, Le Chant du Jubjub (Improvising Beings, 2015), an experimental-leaning project with accordion, trumpet, spoken word, and song. He’s still around, and he’s still seeking.


January 15, 2017 at 1:35 pm Leave a comment

Andrew Cyrille: Time Stretched Apart

Andrew Cyrille QuartetThe Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM, 2016)

cyrille-declarationThe quieter tracks here are about as “ECM” as it gets. The Declaration of Musical Independence is full of meditative space and loose, floating structure.

This orbit reaches apogee in “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” an homage to silences. Most of the track features small scribbles of improvising bordered by bubbles of emptiness. Even the crashing segments, where the entire quartet gears up to make some noise, carries a meditative quality.

It’s the kind of track where the musicians will insist there’s no “lead” player, but I think of Cyrille having the floor. He shapes the piece with slow gong strikes or the sparse clacking of wood blocks, declaring authority inside the field of silence. His patient approach reminds me of his playing on Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997), the jazz trio album by koto player Miya Masaoka.

The album does include tunes that are more directly jazzy, written by the other players: Bill Frisell (guitar), Richard Teitelbaum (piano/synths), and Ben Street (bass). Teitelbaum’s “Herky Jerky,” for instance, is a busy track featuring knotty, active improvisation — you’d hear it and point directly to “free jazz.”

Much of the album, though, carries that sense of time stretched apart. “Say…” written by Street, has the four players following their own slow, unspoken rhythms. The tangible melody of Frisell’s guitar sort of sets a tempo, but it’s not certain that the others are in step; the magic is in letting the music drift past, absorbing the “whole” that the four are individually creating.

“Coltrane Time” is the track that’s drawn the most attention. Written but never recorded by Coltrane, and down through Rashied Ali to Cyrille and Milford Graves, the composition appears to be a long snare-drum line. Cyrille, according to the liner notes, repeats it while playing with the tempo and adding accents on the rest of the drum kit.

What I said about stretched time goes for “Coltrane Time” too, but it might be harder to notice, because it’s the noisiest track on the album. I think it’s Teitelbaum on synthesizer who’s doing the screechy, guitar-hero-sounding solo, with Frisell calmly arpeggiating and sprinkling crystal harmonic notes. But despite the central role of the snare, there’s no clear “center” to the rhythm.

Frisell’s presence on the album took some getting used to. That makes me a bad jazz fan, I know, but while his toneful Americana guitar adds a beautiful shimmer, it’s sometimes a distraction.

He’s still got a touch for the abstract, as you can hear in his squiggles and blips on “Manfred” and the deliciously disconnected improv, “Sanctuary.” (He did come from the ’80s downtown NYC scene, after all.) But I found myself longing for a less chummy sound. I also don’t agree with the inclusion of his composition “Kaddish,” a straight-up sad tune with solid melody; it’s played with a mood befitting the album but is still quite the anomaly, like a beginner’s guide to the rest of the album.

Cyrille remains active, which is good to see. Proximity (Sunnyside, 2016), a duo album with Bill McHenry came out concurrently with Declaration and is getting a lot of press. His Route de Frères (Tum, 2011), recorded with a quintet called Haitian Fascination, is a quintet date with some Caribbean influence. (Side note: It features saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who’s now facing retirement due to health problems.) And of course, Trio 3, with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman, is still going.

I’ve recently delved into Cyrille’s past with Metamusicians Stomp (Black Saint, 1978) by the band Maono, which included Ted Daniel on trumpet and a young David S. Ware. And I’m not done; I think my next Cyrille exploration might be the piano trio led by Søren Kjærgaard, who’s employed Cyrille and Street for a series of albums on Danish label Ilk Music.

January 14, 2017 at 4:53 pm Leave a comment

The Pitter-Patter of Pianos

Daniel Brandt, Hauschka, Paul Frick, Gregor Scwellenbach, Earl Sarp, John Kameel Farah — Steve Reich: Six Pianos & Terry Riley: Keyboard Study #1 (FILM, 2016)

reichriley600x600The storms smacking the Bay Area today turned out to be the perfect weather for Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos.”

I hadn’t heard the piece before. I just happened to spot the new recording — on a CD by Berlin label FILM, paired with Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” — in the front-page carousel on eMusic. I gave it a try, and the endless percussive rattling of pianos became a fitting accompaniment for the bright gray sky and the splattering of raindrops on the window.

Why buy this version of “Six Pianos” as opposed to an older one? Here’s one reason: It was a way to thank FILM for their web page, where they let you hear the six individual piano parts and bring them into and out of the mix. (It might work only on the Chrome browser, however.)

It’s an enlightening chance to hear the simpler “viola chair” parts that get hidden in the fabric. (That’s my attempt at a viola joke. Don’t take it seriously.) I would assume each piano gets a share of the intricate stuff eventually, but in the first several minutes, Paul Frick and Erol Sarp are definitely working on the simpler parts.

In concert, even the smaller parts probably take immense concentration amid the shimmering repetition of the piece. (See Einstein on My CD Player.) But for this recording, it turns out each pianist recorded his contribution separately at home.

riley-film-recordings“Six Pianos” felt right for a rainy day, but of course, our brains can twist music to fit whatever setting happens to be around. Sultry jazz ballads seem great for a snuggly winter day, but they also remind me of the heavy air of a summer afternoon. “Six Pianos” might represent the bustle of Manhattan streets, as Pitchfork suggests, but today, it’s about the rain showers outside and the quietude inside.

Having said that, not every piece of music can fit every mood. Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” is more frenetic to my ears, and it’s missing that clean shimmer that a Reich piece produces. It’s an impressive and fun piece –performed solo by Gregor Schwellenbach, presumably with overdubs — but it didn’t accompany the storm as well as “Six Pianos” did.

January 8, 2017 at 1:12 pm Leave a comment

A Not-So-Abstract Piano Trio

Side A (Ken Vandermark, Håvard Wiik, Chad Taylor)In the Abstract (Not Two, 2016)

vandermark-abstractI’m loving the sound of the clarinet and piano together on this atlbum. I don’t mean that in an audiophile way; I mean it in a simpler and very literal way. It’s a great sound, magnetically clean and studious.

Truth be told, In the Abstract isn’t all that abstract; in fact, it outright swings. Ken Vandermark (reeds), Håvard Wiik (piano) and Chad Taylor (drums) are presenting a set of chamber-jazz pieces, some of which really cook.

But the moments I’m enjoying most feature the clarinet in an almost academic atmosphere, music you might hear at a gallery opening of abstract paintings.

I’m thinking of moments like this stretch of “29,” where the clarinet notes are richocheting at odd angles. In this segment, you get a feel for the track’s pointillistic swing followed by the more free-form soloing section.

“Dhill” is a quieter clarinet piece with a more studious demeanor. The same is true for the first half of “Semiology,” but then Vandermark switches to baritone saxophone for a burly and more jumping finish.

The baritone generally drives the more lively moments on the album. “BMC” shuffles and swings almost like a straight jazz tune. And “4 from 5 to 6” is a standout for me. The band gets cooking on that number, with Vandermark bubbling smoothly on the sax.

As for Wiik’s piano playing, it helps feed those pensive segments I mentioned, but he can jam hard too. He gets a showcase during the jaunty opener, “Cadeau,” a track that includes the clarinet in some sharp-angled composed themes and a gnarled, furious solo.

So, yeah, In the Abstract is upbeat overall, with more than its share of busy segments. But it’s got some thoughtful “abstract” leanings, too, and that’s what really makes the album stand out for me.

January 7, 2017 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

An Improv Trio, Making Up the Rules

Sound Etiquette — Sound Etiquette (Orenda, 2016)

a2542493565_16Oakland-based trio Sound Etiquette starts with the ingredients of fusion and soul — electric piano, sax, and drums, and an open spirit. What they create, though, are improvised pieces across an impressive spectrum of moods ranging from jazzy to jamming to abstract.

The music might appeal to the jam-band crowd, but it feels closer to the realm of hardscrabble free jazz. Each of the pieces on Sound Etiquette’s debut album sticks to one core idea. They set the rules as they go, sticking with them until the song has played itself out.

All the tracks clock in at less then 9 minutes, and most have some grounding in a traditional mindframe of jazz or rock. “Entrance,” for example, does groove, flashing the swagger of jazz electronica. It’s a friendly piece that shows off the band’s charisma.

“A Clearing” builds from conventional jazz patterns: a smoky, bluesy saxophone entrance leading into a coolly swinging piece. And “First Steps” moves like a drunken would-be jam, with Nick Obando creating a mad babble on saxophone backed by Eli Wallace’s stuttering keys — but along the way, you’ll also encounter moments of soulful jazz chording and straightforward rhythm.

Not every piece has to groove. “The Tides” is a sinister simmer, crawling slowly with pulsing electric piano and abrasive, nearly subliminal tones on sax, propelled by whisper-fast drumming.

“Escape Velocity,” on the other end of the abstract spectrum, might be my favorite track: an all-out blowout, with Wallace and drummer Aaron Levin raining fire. Obando’s saxophone is bright and scribbly, building up to some passionate skronking to wake the dead.

December 30, 2016 at 12:10 pm Leave a comment

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