Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green Apex (Pi Recordings, 2010)

This was one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, pairing a bright young alto saxophonist with a lesser-known veteran of jazz. No pressure or anything.

As if realizing the weight of expectation, Mahanthappa and Green open the album with “Summit,” delivering the bobsled run that listeners would be hoping for. They trade lightning-quick lines on alto saxes, then combine on a bubbling little theme. Brief solos follow, starting with Green’s, and you’re opened to another layer of depth, as he throttles down just slightly for a more sophisticated kind of communication.

What’s nice about the album is the sense of team spirit. Mahanthappa is in the left channel, often favoring lower registers on his alto, and Green is on the right — but you don’t get a formulaic sense of “Here’s my solo, here’s yours.” They mix it up, and they fully showcase their powerhouse band, which includes pianist Jason Moran and drummer Damion Reid. Reid adds a stormy power surge that helps accent the strong sax work. He turns “Eastern Echoes,” a slower song, into a big, crashing wave, and he’s a propulsive force on “The Journey,” a suspenseful, dynamic Green composition. (UPDATE: Actually it’s DeJohnette playing on “The Journey.”)

I’d mentioned before that Green’s “regular jazz” compositions often get contrasted with outward-bound soloing. That’s apparently on his “Rainer and Theresia,” where Mahanthappa, in particular, tears it up with his solo. But on “Little Girl I’ll Miss You,” a Venice-canal-style ballad which seems to be Green’s trademark composition, his fast, breathy solo sticks closer to the chords, something he doesn’t always do (see 2008’s The Salzau Quartet: Live at Jazz Baltica on Traumton).  It shows how much adventure can be unearthed from a song while still coloring within the lines.

But of course, that’s not the story of the album. Much of the soloing is fast, crazy, and delightful — particularly on “Who?,” which spins ferociously against what starts as a skittery backdrop. Everyone gets a solo, except maybe bassist François Moutin — they make up for that by giving him space for an incredible solo to start “The Journey.”

I also liked Mahanthappa’s “Soft.” It opens slowly, loosening the boundaries for some interesting sax exploring, then abruptly shifts into a gallop that showcases the choppy, percussive style I associate with his and Vijay Iyer‘s previous work.

Am I quibbling if I say that Green hits the occasional very-high note that I’m not in tune with? Part of it is technique — he scrapes against that highest-note barrier with a tone that’s a bit ragged, although that might be on purpose (or an effect of the effort it takes to get to that note). Part of it is personal choice; in soloing on “Soft,” he grabs for a couple of long, high notes where I’d have hoped for a different direction. Quibbles. That Green is 75; still making music; still soloing with such intensity, accuracy and feeling; and getting this much publicity — it’s all cause to celebrate. This is a terrific album that very much delivers on the promise of its all-star lineup.

Speaking of which — Mahanthappa’s brief liner notes offer some insight into how they compiled this band, which includes Jason Moran (who was soon to become a MacArthur Fellow) on piano and Jack DeJohnette (drums) on four tracks. The short story is: They’ve all known each other for a while — and Green and Mahanthappa have a relationship that goes back 20 years, although they’ve only recently done any work together. To those of use who know these guys only through their records, these connections are invisible. As they strengthen over the years, they can produce some amazing results.

For more about the album, check out Pi’s preview video from this summer:

Bunky Green II

You’re about to hear a lot more about Bunky Green.

In a genre (free jazz) where undiscovered greats are the norm, Green has been an even newer discovery than usual, for me at least.  He’s 74, so he’s no tenderfoot.  Yet, he escaped my radar until early this year, when a Do the Math blog post by Ethan Iverson all but dared listeners like me to seek out Bunky Green.

I’ll repeat the quote: “Steve Coleman wouldn’t exist without him.” *

Later this year, Green is going to get some serious publicity, following an album he’s releasing with Rudresh Mahanthappa on the Pi Recordings label. Mahanthappa and Pi are darlings of the college radio and NPR sets. Their stuff doesn’t exactly make the background music playlist at Target, but it gets heard and gets distributed. It gets found.

I can understand why some mainstream audiences might not like Green. He sets up a club-jazz backdrop: airy piano chords, richly grooving bass — traditionally progressive stuff — and then blasts diagonally across it all with some ferocious soloing. It’s quiet-night-out music with an asterisk. A chill-out lounge with labyrinth wallpaper.

Green’s solos are a delight. He’s lightning fast and deadly accurate, with a pillowy, breathy sound articulating each note in every impossible run — a masterful, light touch amid the bluster.  Not everything dimension-jumps into futuristic, Steve Coleman territory. Green plays by the regular rules when it suits him, and it still sounds like him.

I managed to learn a little bit about Green by thumbing through the KZSU vinyl library. He’s not an avant-gardist per se; he’s more an adventurous, hard-thinking straight-jazzster.  His album Testifyin’ Time, from 1965, is quite straight and swingy.

Places We’ve Never Been, from 1979, has more of the tilts, angles, and surprises I’d expected.  I remember the opening track, “East and West,” being a treat. But the album also has “April Green,” a mellow flight in that ’70s kind of chill vibe that I just can’t take.

Overall: Thumbs up on Bunky Green, as a musician and as a discovery. Can’t wait for that CD. Meanwhile, I’ve also listened to his 2008 Salzau Quartet recording on Traumton, which deserves a separate blog entry.

(* The exact Do the Math entry isn’t available as of right now; Iverson’s done some housecleaning in moving the blog to a new home.)

The Bunky Green Challenge

I’m going to accept the challenge Ethan Iverson puts forth on his Do the Math blog.  I’m going to find out more about Bunky Green.

Iverson’s thoughts on Green’s 2006 album, Another Place, which includes Jason Moran on piano: “Wow!  They still make jazz records like this, full of this kind of grease and fire?”

Then there’s this, about Green himself:  “He turns 75 in two days and Steve Coleman wouldn’t exist without him.”

And I like that Iverson uses the word “futuristic,” the same word I use to describe that kind of other-plane soloing Coleman is known for. (And Green, apparently.)  The kind that’s not simply outside the changes; it’s using an unorthodox math to create a specific, deliberate sound, a new structure around the changes. Iverson’s choice of the word makes me feel a little bit proud, like I’ve gotten the answer right on a hard quiz.

From the sound snippets on Do the Math, taken from Green’s work on the Elvin Jones album Time Capsule, Green and Coleman do have a lot in common — the major difference being their eras. Green plays against rich, post-bop backdrops, traditional sounding stuff until his solo opens the dimensional portal and lets all the aliens in.  Coleman benefitted from a 1980s era obsessed with new things and new technology, where M-base could thrive and define some of its own rules. I remember getting so happily lost in Coleman’s Black Science album — funky, driven, and complex, but without a compass during the improvised sections.

Another descendent of Green and Coleman might be the geometric, steel-and-glass sounds of musicians like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. And hey look — the thing that started Iverson talking about Green was the band Apex, which includes Green and Mahanthappa and apparently recorded last week, a session to be released in the fall on Pi Recordings. Check out Ben Ratliff’s review of their show in the New York Times.