Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Tyshawn Sorey’s Epic

Tyshawn SoreyThe Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi Recordings, 2016)

Quoting George Grella on Sequenza21 and The Big City (link temporarily unavailable):

Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: [Tyshawn] Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis.

That’s the explanation of why Sorey’s album landed on Grella’s 2014 Best-of list for post WWII composition. Grella goes on to discuss Alloy‘s curious lack of time, likening Tyshawn Sorey to John Cage or Morton Feldman but with a compositional persona of his own. The music floats, guided not by Sorey’s drum kit but by Cory Smythe’s patient, drifting piano.

sorey-innerJazz fans know Sorey for his thunderous drumming in a variety of bands, but his own albums reveal he’s a serious composer. Serious enough that he’s on track to earn a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University in 2017. Serious enough that Wesleyan University has already hired him to replace Anthony Braxton, who recently retired.

Sorey’s latest, The Inner Spectrum of Variables, uses piano, drums, and a quartet of strings to invoke the frills of traditional classical music, the sawing and hard-digging enthusisasm of new classical, and even, yes, elements of modern jazz. Spanning six-plus movements and more than two hours, Inner Spectrum is an epic not only in length, but in feeling. The music is a journey, and the weight of it builds up as you go.

Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing in one sitting — and I didn’t, I admit — you should listen to it in order. You’ll catch the contrast between the oh-so-classical elements of “Movement II” — tropes such as weepy violin vibrato (Chern Hwei Fung) and piano trilling (Smythe) — and the more modern atmosphere of “Movement III,” with Smythe and Sorey hammering out piano/drums Morse code with a backbeat.

You’ll also get to feel the transition from the surprise ending of “Movement III” to the dour, heavy viola (Kyle Armbrust) to kick off “Movement IV.” And you’ll hear “Movement V” in its proper place, with a grand string segment that makes for a climactic moment in the narrative, a mid/heavy pulse layered with forceful improvising. It’s a majestic mid/slow segment that’s just a little heavy, just a little sweet, and it works best if you’ve been along the entire journey up to this point.

“Movement VI,”is a slow heavy conclusion that’s appropriate for Inner Spectrum‘s scope — but the whole thing wraps up with a reprise of “Movement I,” which I’ll let you discover for yourself. That theme is a surprise at the beginning — not at all the mood I was expecting — and it’s a welcome visitor at the end.

Wedged in there is an unnumbered “Reverie” moment that is as dreamy and surreal as the title suggests, opening with a corridor of gongs and building up to a frenzied violin cadenza.

Inner Spectrum is less experimental than Sorey’s previous albums. The challenge he seems to have set for himself is to amalgamate some older styles of Western music into his work. The results are colossal, and worth hearing.

September 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Yoni Kretzmer Five

Yoni KretzmerFive (OutNow, 2016)

kretzmer-fiveLike a lot of musicians, saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer spans a range of styles, including some intriguing free improv and the strings-laden jazz of his New Dilemma band.

But it’s nice to hear him in a good old free jazz format. With Five, he’s assembled an all-star quintet that delivers brisk, exciting music across five tracks.

A taste of ’60s influence runs throughout the compositions. “Quintet I” launches you right into it, as drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Max Johnson kick off a fast-patter attack, quickly followed by a pulsing lead line from the horns. From there, it’s off to the races, with solos backed by bits of composed riffs and long passages of Johnson and Taylor delivering the heat.

Most of the compositions consist of a few riffs played as demarcation points that define a mood and a context, but the rest is left to the players, a nicely brewing stew of improvisation.Kretzmer himself is in fine form, with blazing, burning solos full of expression and variety. He’s an expert storyteller on his horn — tenor sax throughout this album. And he’s recruited top-notch bandmates in Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet).

“Feb 23” is another quick-paced study: Kretzmer dealing a raspy, buzzing solo over Taylor and Johnson, the brass entering with a sneaky, simple whisper and a nod to spy jazz. It also includes a nice mental break, with the two brass horns and Johnson scribbling happily, occasionally accented by small sounds from Taylor. That leads into a Johnson solo and a serious, surging, slowish theme for a big, big ending.

Rounding out the five tracks: “July 19” opens the album with nearly five (!) minutes of criss-crossed group improvising. “Quintet II” starts with a quiet experimental crouch before launching into a boisterous free-jazz tumult. The theme comes at the end, a playfully halting back-and-forth swing.

And “For DC” ends the album with a slow, ritualistic composition, against which Kretzmer monologues fiercely. Swell’s trombone solo, late in the piece, plays up the drama — a big climactic scene before the piece winds down.

I’m particularly taken by Kretzmer’s solo in “Quintet II.” He’s pumped full of energy and builds up to an appropriately dramatic ending. You also get a little bit of a feel for the quintet’s full interaction. Have a listen.


August 23, 2016 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Anew

ThumbscrewConvallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

thumbscr-convMary Halvorson’s chiming, calculating guitar; Michael Formanek’s earthy, free-grooving bass; Tomas Fujiwara’s colorful, almost melodic drumming. It’s not that Convallaria is predictable. It’s more that the result is. You know this mix of colors is going to be vibrant and creative.

Which makes it good to see this trio of veterans reconvene as Thumbscrew to follow up their 2014 group debut. Convallaria is a creative panorama centered on compositions contributed by each group member. Graced with a two-week residency to hone the material, they’ve come up with a solid album and a collective voice that flows smoothly.

“Sampsonian Rhythms” lives up to its name with a burly, melodic foundation laid by Formanek. It’s an upbeat track with a peppy sense of swing — in terms of attitude, rather than formal rhythm. Definitely a highlight.

On the title track, Halvorson delivers long runs of fingerwork, complete with the glitchy note-bending that’s become a hallmark of hers. That gives way to a rich Formanek solo nicely grounded in a jazz sound, enhanced by Halvorson’s faint chording. Then it’s Fujiwara‘s turn, with a solo that starts with feather-light, rapid-fire snare and builds into a tumult of toms and cymbals.

Just as you’re getting used to the trio’s upbeat demeanor, Halvorson pulls out the effects for a shadowy mood on “Trigger” and “Screaming Piha.” The latter turns into almost an industrial improv piece, a gray sheen of guitar noise with Fujiwara’s drumming furiously coloring the scene. He keeps up the ferocious pace as the piece suddnly shifts into a calm guitar-and-bass conclusion.

Even with moments like that, the album does have a welcoming feel to it, an overarching sound full of controlled intensity and camaraderie. In terms of other bag-of-tricks moments, Halvorson turns on a bit of echo box to add to the tumbling chaos of “Tail of the Sad Dog.” And “Danse Insense” includes a fun percussion solo with Fujiwara testing out what seems to be a kit full of bowls and blocks.

Thumbscrew will be on the west coast on Oct. 16 for an appearance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. According to Formanek’s website, they might pop around for a few other west coast dates as well.

August 21, 2016 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Chambers

With Bobby Hutcherson having passed away at age 75, jazz fans everywhere might be spinning Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch or turning toward Hutcherson’s 2014 Blue Note swan song, Enjoy the View. Me, I’m remembering his first Blue Note album and, coincidentally, the first Hutcherson album I ever bought: 1965’s Dialogue.

This was early in my explorations of the freer side of jazz, when I was hesitantly dipping my toe in Cecil Taylor waters. Hutcherson seemed like an alternative that was safer but still deep enough, but Dialogue‘s title track, written by Joe Chambers, turned out to be a full-on plunge into highly improvised jazz. It’s composed, but in a way that allows free association among the players, with no particular lead instrument, something that was new to me.

(Actually, there is a notable lead-instrument moment. Around 7:14, bassist Richard Davis moves from avant-garde twanging into a robust little duet with Andrew Hill’s ocean-waves piano behind him. Very nice.)

While we’re at it, though, let’s pay some respects to a living musician as well: Chambers, who was a consistent presence on Hutcherson’s late-’60s Blue Note records.

As a composer, Chambers was quite interested in this kind of openness and freedom, and he got to display his ideas on Hutcherson’s next album, Components. Every song on Side 2 is a Chambers composition, starting with “Movement,” which is “like a six-part theme constantly in motion, held together by a pulse,” as Chambers told liner-notist Nat Hentoff.

“Air” is the most adventurous of the pieces, almost entirely improvised. And “Juba Dance” has a catchy, 22-bar theme but also slides into a long stretch of spare, untethered improv.

Chambers would go on to release albums such as New World (Finite, 1976; rereleased by Porter, 2008), a mostly fusion-based date that also includes prog-like experimentalism (“Chung Dynasty”) and a pretty Wayne Shorter tune (“Rio”).

chambers-landscapesNot only is Chambers still with us, but he’s even released a new album: Landscapes, on the Savant label. It’s a faux-quartet date, with Chambers overdubbing drums and vibraphone, supported by Rick Germanson (piano) and Ira Coleman (bass). The overdubbing is eye-opening on tracks like “Samba de Maracatu,” with its rapidly tumbling drums and the tight unison of the piano/vibes lead. Neither part sounds like an easy after-the-fact addition.

Landscapes might not be particularly avant-garde, but who said it had to be? It’s a fine album and a nice display of Chambers’ skills, and it’s great that he’s still swinging at age 74.

Yes, I just morphed a Hutcherson obit into a Chambers celebration. Living musicians matter. We expend so much energy, rightfully so, on the jazz masters who are departing this world one by one, marking the passing of a great era. But the cats who are still around deserve their due, too. I think Bobby would understand.

August 17, 2016 at 11:56 pm Leave a comment

Splinter Reeds

Splinter Reeds performs at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.

Splinter ReedsGot Stung (self-released, 2015)

splinter-stungThe five members of Splinter Reeds are classical musicians who can play the heck out of their instruments. But “3 Songs, 3 Interludes,” a small suite on their debut album Got Stung, shows their irreverent side.

The first of the songs, “Bee,” opens a capella, all five members chanting a somber melody that begins with the line, “Got stung by a bee in the heart.” One by one, each voice drops out, replaced by a woodwind playing the backing chords. Eventually, you’re left with nothing but reeds, which then shoot off into countermelodies like vines entangling a wall.

It’s a fun effect, although the song isn’t necessarily cheery, and the band is certainly no novelty act. Claiming the title of the Bay Area’s first professional reed quintet, Splinter Reeds has been performing for three years around Northern California and spent a week-long residency at Stanford.

Their focus is on newly commissioned compositions, so everything on Got Stung is freshly written; it’s no stodgy “repertoire” album. You can get a taste when the quintet opens their 2016-17 season on Aug. 16 with a concert at San Francisco’s Center for New Music.

Oboist Kyle Bruckmann plays frequently in jazzy and experimental contexts, and his major project Wrack recently recorded his homage to Thomas Pynchon, titled … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire. The other band member I’m most familiar with is Jeff Anderle, who’s been part of the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet.

So, you could say the usual things about the blending of genres and all that, but Got Stung is a modern-classical album at heart, presenting the compositions with focus and verve. Elements of scenic melody and mood pervade the album, along with lots of fun, choppy bottom lines from bass clarinets and bassoon.

The instrumental “interludes” of “3 Songs, 3 Interludes” (composed by Erik DeLuca) show off different uses of the quintet — an ambient metallic sheen; a softly poking and curious quasi-melody; a study of long, sparse tones. It’s a fan-out of musical strategies. In fact, the last of the songs, “Want,” follows the opposite path of “Bee,” starting off instrumental with vocal parts joining gradually.

The eight-movement suite “Splinter” (Mark Mellits) is a highlight of the album, often florid and downright beautiful, played with intense focus and verve throughout. It feels like storytelling, in moods ranging from the brisk hocketing and bright, jazzy chording of “Scarlet Oak” to the beautiful, florid calm of “Weeping Willow.” The bass clarinet sounds especially nice on the fast-paced movements such as “Cherry” and “Red Pine.”

“Splinter” is the most classical-sounding of the pieces on Got Stung. Elsewhere, the band lets its avant-garde side show. Bruckmann’s piece, “Mitigating Factors,” is a slow-moving exploration of that territory, with touches of electronics shadowing the organic grumbles and air-rushes of the horns.

You might call “Wood Burn” (Ned McGowan) an active form of minimalism. Against a hard-digging bass clarinet line, the other reeds spin Morse-code pops and twirling riffs of melody. Jordan Glenn’s composition “My Bike” is peaceful at heart — it even has bird songs in the background — but halfway through, the piece starts adding some stern and shrill harmonies for a dose of attitude and even belligerence.

As a statement of purpose, Got Stung shows off a strong variety of Splinter Reeds’ interests. It’s exciting to see a group intent on bringing new works to life. Let’s hope they can continue building on this great start.

August 13, 2016 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

The OKO Leap of Faith

OKOI Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe, 2014)

oko-loveBack in March, Tim Berne got invited to Dublin to play with the electronica band OKO. Asked by the Irish Times about his musical plans for the gigs, he said he had no idea. OKO hadn’t revealed a strategy, and it sounded like Berne had been given only surface details about what the band even sounded like.

But the Irish Times article dropped a few hints. Oko plays with electronic and acoustic instruments. They’re experimental and cross-genre — well, yeah, the press loves to put those labels on bands that turn out to be bland and monochromatic.

Ah, what the heck. In the spirit of the Berne concert, I downloaded I Love You Computer Mountain and gave it a shot.

Turns out the Irish Times wasn’t far off.

okoposter“Shoehorns & Axelgrease” opens the album with a nine-minute tour of the quartet’s collective digs. It starts mysteriously, with cavernous gloopy noises accompanying light ambient chords and faint electronic blips. The music eventually surges into a sprawling, cymbal-splashing slow groove, then takes a sharp turn into a kind of prog-jazz jam of electric piano, snappy rhythmic bass, and colorful drumming.

“Under Over” brings a madcap beat lead by rubbery bass, over which Darragh O’Kelly jabs out some funky electric piano before switching into a scrambling, odd-time-signature riff. We’ve gone from oh-so-hip electronics to a good old prog/fusion festival.

You could describe the overall album as “chill,” but it gets a lot of mileage out of some hard-driven bass and drums. The former comes from Shane Latimer on eight-string guitar — a compelling, lively sound, even when he’s playing in linear eighth-note pulses. Shane O’Donovan lays down solid beats and colorful fills on the drum kit.

O’Kelly’s keyboards, principally electric piano, provide the lead voice and are responsible for defining mood. It’s all augmented by samples and whatnot from DJackulate for a touch of hip atmosphere.

Tracks transition neatly into one another for a kind of cerebral dancehall experience. You travel from room to room like one of those amusement park rides — through the reggae-infused cooldown of “Axelgrease;” the impossibly slow fog of “Oblong,” with Latimer laying down some other-wordly guitar against blurry gray backgrounds; and the snappy yet low-key yet spastic “Magnet Paste.” It winds down sublimely with a pretty tune called “Unbelievable Sushi.”

Tim Berne would be an obvious match for the more abstract tracks, but I’d bet it was amazing to hear him on the more locked-in and composed pieces as well. He’s no stranger to more conventional music, after all — check out his work with bassist Hugo Carvalhais’ band a few years ago. If you happened to catch any of the shows, I’d love to hear what you thought.

July 9, 2016 at 12:15 am Leave a comment

Bill Noertker’s Visual Jazz

Noertker’s Moxie & The MelancoholicsCurious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck (Edgetone, 2016)

Noertker’s MoxieSimultaneous Windows (Edgetone, 2015)

noertker-curiousNoertker’s Moxie is an atypical jazz band. Bassist Bill Noertker wields plenty of jazz ideas in his writing, but his chamber-like compositions are often built less like jams and grooves, and more like dioramas.

They feel like scenes, and that’s probably because he draws direct inspiration from visual artists, such as Picasso and Miró — and including architect Antoni Gaudi. His earliest albums, a series titled Sketches of…, were inspired by great artists and cities of Europe.

Noertker’s approach seems well suited toward soundtracks, where he could write musical sketches of the visuals and moods. He’s done it at least once before. When David Beck, a former bandmate in a jazz outfit called The Melancoholics, made an 8mm film of his own sculptures, Noertker provided the musical backing.

Now there’s a movie about Beck and his sculpting, by filmmaker Olympia Stone, and she’s tapped Noertker to do the soundtrack. It’s a combination of Noertker compositions and resurrected Melancoholics pieces.

A few tracks are brief, in the usual soundtrack manner, but most are fully formed songs, with lengths ranging up to nine minutes. Old-timey Jazz forms pop up throughout.  “Dona Del Cantir” has a romantic, sepia-toned feeling with jangly piano and a nostalgic flute/sax melody. It has the feeling of a circus slowly closing down.

“Little Jester in a Trance” follows a perky, offbeat swing rhythm like the 1920s with a modern fracture in the theme. “Meet Me at the Edge of Noon” and “Way Gone, Cool Cat” feature smoky barroom tenor sax.

The overall mood is sweet and wistful. Even a track like “Moth En Stereo,” with its crackling drum work behind calm sax lines, feels like a subtle smile toward its subject.

Noertker’s chamber-like writing manifests itself on tracks like the “Curious Worlds” series of snippets that revisit the same theme — a pleasant little bounce that makes for a nice scene-setter — in different clothing. The “L’opera” version, in particular, is an upbeat snippet dashed with oh-so-European charm.

“In Blue” is a cool four minutes of straight contemporary jazz with late-night piano chording and and some mild twists in the solo.

a2697060908_16Curious Worlds is a fine introduction to Noertker’s world, but for a more typical taste of his work, there’s Simultaneous Windows, put out by Noertker’s Moxie late last year. “Insula Dulcamara” is what I think of as a Noertker specialty — chamber jazz with a Euro-cafe touch — and “Red Waistcoat” is an upbeat number straight from a ’50s jazz club (with more modern soloing, especially by Jim Vaughn on alto sax).

The title track is a sinewy chamber-music journey, made more mysterious by the inclusion of oboe as a lead. “St. George,” with its improvised horn blaring, has the feel of two or three marching bands each trying to start different songs. And criss-crossing flute and sax mark the opening of “Caliban,” a track that develops into a sparse free improvisation.

The album also includes “Little Jester in a Trance,” which was picked up for Curious Worlds.

July 8, 2016 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

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