Posts tagged ‘free jazz’
With the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.
During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.
You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.
The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.
James Zitro — Zitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.
Sonny Simmons — Music from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.
New Ghost — Live Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.
Ellis Marsalis — Ruminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.
Ornette Coleman — Town Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.
In addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.
Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.
“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.
Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.
Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.
You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:
“Spontaneous compositions,” Adam Lane calls them, rather than group improvisations, and the way these pieces build, the term seems to fit. Some of these improv-jazz pieces feel like they’ve got the blueprint of a composition behind them.
Take the very gradual buildup at the start of “Absolute Horizon.” When Darius Jones enters with his trademark sax wailing (the microtone-packed faltering that comes close to a human voice), he parses out the melody obeying bars-of-four patterns from bassist Lane and drummer Vijay Anderson. The group stops for a Lane bass solo that eventually becomes the intro to a slower, more tense group segment — a nicely planned trajectory that wasn’t formally planned.
Here’s a bit of that weepy Jones sax:
“Run to Infinity” could been a monumental ’60s free-jazz classic, if you hadn’t told me who was playing. The early improvising builds up to a fast bass/drums rhythm, over which Jones chooses to play a slow, serious melody — shades of free speech and radical ideas coming up through the ages — sounding meaningful even as he starts digging and swinging hard. This is free jazz getting down to business, picking a spot to groove and letting the music ride from there.
I’ve always used the word “fluidity” to describe Lane’s bass playing, and you get plenty of that effect here. On the cautiously quiet start to “Apparent Horizon,” you can really savor Lane’s bass against Jones’ sax. He plays in faster modes — both improvising and really fast bebop-bass walking — during the breezy, fast first half of “Light.” He also gets to play rock star in spots; “Stars” pulls out some electric effects that turn the bass into a staticky maelstrom battling the other two players.
Jones himself — who’s previously included Lane in his band — is at home on this album with his storytelling style of sax improvising, freely flowing and emoting in solos that seem more like conversations. Anderson is his usual hyperkinetic self, hammering out blindingly fast, precise rhythms, even when playing with abandon.
“Apparent Horizon,” after its quiet intro, dives into a serious groove around a Lane bass riff. Here you get Jones soloing in a more traditional free-jazz role, with Anderson clattering away on sturdy toms and tapped cymbals.
On “Light,” Anderson and Lane mess with playful beats, letting a couple of upbeat, rhythms (one that’s almost silly) develop into toe-tapping segments. It’s nice material for Jones to work with, and it makes for a bright closer to the album.
Every other Monday at Duende, the musicians’ collective of the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society takes over over the restaurant’s music loft — a continuation of a series formerly held at The Layover. They present some outstanding local music along with some jazz vinyl DJ’ing before the show and between sets.
The vinyl part shouldn’t be underestimated. I didn’t look through the crate they brought, but it seemed like a pretty deep cut of history. Between sets on the night I attended, the musicians were marveling at the early, early Rahsaan Roland Kirk LP that was spinning.
Overall, the evening has the vibe of a cozy jazz hangout, complete with really good food and wine downstairs. I’m glad I finally made it out there a couple of Mondays ago.
Both bands that night played improvised music in jazz settings. The first set was by the BAG Trio — Vijay Anderson (drums), Sheldon Brown (sax), and Ben Goldberg (clarinet), who have been playing in this configuration for a while.
Anderson set down an aggressive groove while Goldberg and Brown wandered jointly, often pushing each other’s energy level up to a breaking point, then receding. One of these surges ended in both of them playing long, shrill tones — kind of a guitar-hero climax that was followed by babbling quick notes to bring the mood back to earth. I found myself paying the most attention to Anderson, though, his quick hands doing some impossibly fast clacketing to lay down those aggressive rhythms.
The second set, by the Darren Johnston Quintet, was just what a late-night set ought to be — maybe less white-hot, but still intense, with David Boyce’s sax and Johnston’s trumpet jamming over vibraphone harmonies. The music settled into more traditional patterns of soloing, including one nice stretch where just Boyce and Jordan Glenn (drums) took over, really digging their heels in.
Johnston pushed the sound outward with a lot of extended tricks — squeaks, air-through-the-horn, plunger-mute antics. It was great stuff, and I found myself thinking these guys would have been a great listen on a more inside, composition-based gig as well.
You can follow the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society on Facebook or just keep checking the Duende calendar for upcoming shows. Darren Johnston reappears on Dec. 9, this time with a trio; Michael Coleman’s Sleepover (led by pianist Coleman) will perform as well. And Vijay Anderson’s trio (is it really his trio, or more a collective thing?) performs on Dec. 23 along with the Aram Shelton Group.
Han Bennik Trio — Parken (ILK, 2009)
Daniele D’Agaro, Bruno Marini, Han Bennik — The Tempest (Artesuono, 2008)
I sometimes wonder if other musicians think Han Bennik‘s clowning around dilutes the seriousness of the music — or, more properly, the substance of it. Maybe the audience is watching him too gleefully to really hear what he’s playing. But I think the avant-garde world needs messengers like him, players who can cross audience boundaries. And I enjoy a good musical clown act. I think he’s terrific, albeit exhausting.
On record, his presence is still manic but more subtle. You just don’t get to see him, say, run backstage and invisibly pound on a piano back there. (That happened during one Mills College concert. It was pretty funny.) Parken is a good example, and like many Dutch jazz albums, it presents a good blend of the jazz tradition with well constructed improvisation.
“Music for Camping,” though freeform, is rooted in swingy piano and clarinet. And “Lady of the Lavender Mist” is a lovely ballad with some light clarinet melody. Bennik is content to linger in the background on brushes while the clarinet takes its slow riverboat ride through the piece.
“Fleimsche March” is more overtly “out.” The piano sputters out high notes like a paint sprayer gone mad. Joaquim Badenhorst’s clarinet offers squashed curls of sound, a warped non-Euclidean melody. And Bennik just goes nuts behind it all, of course. “Reedeater” is a slower piece that rambles nicely until it builds into a dark improv jam. Then there’s the two-minute seizure titled “Myckewelk.”
“Isfahan” is more what you’d expect, in terms of abstract improvising. It’s a slowly creeping piece, pushed along by the crackling bursts of Bennik’s drum work. Badenhorst lurks on clarinet, and Simon Toldam keeps the piano quiet for a time, before taking the lead with some nicely jazzy runs.
The final track, “Parken,” is a lovely slow song that features a (Dutch?) female vocalist. I don’t know who; that’s the handicap of using eMusic.
Speaking of eMusic — imagine my surprise at surfing around there and finding what I thought was an ECM release with Han Bennik on it. Turns out it’s on the Artesuono label, and — surprise again — it’s not the darkly moody, introspective material I’d expected after seeing that album cover. No, it’s an old-school organ-jazz trio, doing a hopping set of tunes based (apparently) on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
And while they do break the mold in several places, the old-school segments go hardcore old-school. The lead horn is Daniele D’Agaro’s clarinet, which is certainly different, but the album opens with swingy organ splashing from Bruno Marini on “An Evening at Prospero’s,” turning the grand wizard into more of a jazz-club-owning hep cat. That’s followed with the less traditional “Caliban,” which crackles with post-bop energy and spattering clarinet lines, a free-jazz good time.
“Goodbye” and “So” are slower, warmer numbers. You can totally picture the ’50s album cover with the sweater girl listening to her hi-fi. “Ariel in Clarinetville” gets into a more free-form kind of improvising, but when the chord-heavy organ solo starts up, watch out! You’re plunged way back into ’50s TV territory.
As for Bennik, he’s content to slip into a sideman’s outfit and do his part to swing along, maybe with a little extra activity bubbling beneath the surface. Even his drum solo on “Claribel, the Queen of Tunis” fits right in the pocket. Another solo, on “Caliban,” is full of quietude and subtlety — it’s delicious stuff, playful but not audacious.
It’s true that you often can judge a CD by its cover. Marketing people and artists do a great job conveying the mood of the music. But every now and then, as on The Tempest, you get a pleasant surprise.
Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland — Thee Unhip (Edgetone, 2012)
The Outsound New Music Summit is a labor of love for all volunteers but especially for Rent Romus, who not only runs the whole shebang but does an aces job raising funds and gathering sponsors. It’s been a while since he’s booked himself to play at the festival, though.
Lords of Outland will be part of the final night’s performance, Saturday, July 27, a show subtitled “The Axiom” and running with the theme of blended composition and improvisation. (It will include Kyle Bruckmann’s large-scale, Pynchon-influenced piece, as previously mentioned.)
Originally a jazz band with Romus channeling late-era Coltrane on his sax, Lords of Outland has developed a dark side in the past several years, delving into electronics and sound-experimentation for a more ghoulish atmosphere. Ray Schaeffer’s down-in-the-mud electric bass certainly helps on that front, but outright electronics and the occasional ferocious free-for-all make for a more overtly ghoulish atmosphere.
Jazz is not dead in these tracks. “If Ornette Grew Cacti” opens up with an appropriately prickly take on what could have been one of Ornette’s danceable themes. From there, it goes into a speedy free-jazz attack — Philip Everett’s drumming fills the air with joyous cymbal clashing, and Schaeffer jams madly on bass. There’s also the tuneful and almost traditional “Temple of Dolphy, which shows off Romus’ sax soloing in a relatively light and uncluttered setting.
Throughout the album, C.J. Borosque shows some great work on trumpet. She’s positively screaming on “If Ornette Grew Cacti” and opens up “Planet of the Plutarchs” with some terrific improv, starting with vocalized growls and moving into bright, quick riffs. That track blooms into a bright free-jazz jam, with the bass adding a touch of psych here and there.
The free jazz and noise sides converge all over the place but are used to particularly good effect on “Dedicated to Lord Kraken off Titan off the Shores of Saturn,” where Romus cuts through thick electronics with somber, reverent sax in long tones, a ceremony of respect. In the end, it all explodes into a free-jazz celebration.
This final concert of the Summit should be a doozy. In addition to the Lords and Kyle Bruckmann, the bill includes Lewis Jordan’s Music at Large, a quintet bolstered by guitarist Karl Evangelista and violinist India Cooke. Here’s the Outsound “In the Field” video introducing Jordan, a veteran of the Bay Area jazz scene.
(See also: Vinny Golia Meets Lords of Outland.)
But it’s also because he returns to the Bay Area from Vienna a little more than once a year, and it always feels like an event worth noting. His current visit includes only one show that I know of: Thursday, June 27 at Duende (Oakland), as part of the trio Shattered: Eneidi, Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Vijay Anderson (drums). It’s the same group that played last September.
Often compared to Jimmy Lyons for his speed and fluidity, Eneidi tends to improvise in long arcs, like a master monologuist. But where Evan Parker might do that with a fluttering, studious air, Eneidi gets more gutteral, spewing calculated musical ideas at high speed.
Here’s a segment from an album I’ve always favored: Cherry Box (Eremite, 2001). It’s a trio with William Parker (bass) and Donald Robinson (drums), so Eneidi’s playing really stands out. In this segment, you’ll hear him use repeated phrases to build on an idea. After about a minute, he settles into focus on one idea, trailing a long convoluted thought like a Faulkner sentence — then he uses a suddenly mellow long tone to announce the shift into a new statement.