I often forget that my kids are still developing the vocabulary to talk about music. Genres aren’t clearly defined to them; just as I can’t tell wines apart, they don’t fully grasp the differences between, say, country, folk, and Celtic.

They have to invent their own words on the fly, and it makes for some interesting insights.

“This is like piano-talk,” my 16-year-old daughter said in the car, as the opening improvisation of Marc Hannaford’s “We Talk in Jests” floated by.

She wasn’t far off.

That got me thinking about pieces that deliberately mimic the inflections of human speech. There are plenty of them — and I have to admit, they don’t usually “work” for me.

I’ll pick on Eric Revis here. I’ve enjoyed his albums and his composing, and I’ve been wowed by his bass playing. On his album Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed, 2016), the composition “Bontah” is based around the intonations of an infant’s words. The kid, who I’m presuming is Revis’, is trying to be quite serious, and it’s adorable. The resulting theme is intriguing as well.

But the voice is played back at least five times, and by the third time, I find it’s already getting on my nerves. I hesitate to say that, considering this might be Revis’ own kid, and he should be rightfully proud of his child being part of this project. But the repetition gets to me.

Actually, it’s more than that. Jason Moran once released a similar “spoken composition” track, if I’m remembering correctly from my KZSU days. I don’t believe it repeated, but I remember having a similar reaction: I liked the idea — molding the infections of speech into the closest 12-tone equivalent to see what happens — and I liked the resulting composition, but I didn’t really enjoy the sound of the two overlaid.

Most musicians, I suspect, would consider the overlapping to be vital, because the whole idea is to explore the musicality of language. In a world where so many of the “obvious” compositional tropes have been exhausted, it must be an exciting way to compose. It’s a way to make discoveries, much like Joni Mitchell using alternative guitar tunings as a way to avoid old habits.

I think it doesn’t work for me because I’m just not that “into” the sound of the human voice. I’m more interested in the piano or saxophone or violin that’s tracing this oddball melody, and less interested in hearing the spoken patterns that the composition is tracing.

What would it be like if the composer didn’t show you how the words and music match? Drummer Jeff Ballard has a track called “Western Wren (A Bird Call)” that might have used birdsong as the source for its theme. I don’t know, because the track doesn’t include a sample of a bird’s call — and I find I prefer it that way.

As for the Hannaford piece, it does eventually shift into a more structured flow that’s more like “jazz” than “piano talk.” By the way, the band on there is Hannaford (piano), Sam Pankhurst (bass), and James McLean (drums).


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:

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.