A Voice from Mexico

Remi Álvarez and Mark DresserSoul to Soul (Discos Intolerancia, 2010)

It’s through recordings that a musician can find an audience beyond local boundaries. That’s probably true even in New York (one’s resume can be covered in gigs and band appearances there, but the recordings are a more convenient calling card). But it’s especially true if you’re outside the accepted free-jazz capitals.

Remi Álvarez is from Mexico City, and it’s safe to say I never would have found him were it not for this recording, his first in eight years. And he’s a terrific find, a saxophonist with a personable touch and a sharply creative mind.

I love the plain sound of his sax. He’s well miked here, with some echo that might just be the sound of the room. Playing lower registers, fast or slow, he’s got a warm sound, with a light and flexible fluttering to long runs of notes. It’s like a kite being steered through a stiff breeze.

Most of the album, which  includes tracks of up to 15 minutes, follows an improvised-jazz course.  Mark Dresser on bass is the better-known musician, and his variety and creativity hold up to the standard you’d expect. Álvarez is right there with him, building a seemingly effortless, conversational mood, lively and intimate.

“Eternal Present” opens the album with a sensitive, sweet air, but the scene gets tougher later on, both in this track and in the scrabbling, heart-pumping track that follows, ironically titled “Do Nothing.”  On only one track, “True Self,” do they spend lots of time in sound-exploration territory, with lots of buzzes and creaks from Álvarez, and Dresser sticking to high, squeaking bowing.

Álavarez teaches for the Escuela Nacional de Música at Universidad Autónoma de México (ENM – UNAM), and I would guess he gets occastional stateside gigs through connections with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez and with the Houston creative music scene. Odds of his making it to the Bay Area are pretty darned slim, though.

Yoni Kretzmer: Shades of Tim Berne

Yoni Kretzmer’s New Dilemma — s/t (Earsay, 2009)

First, the story. Every now and again, I do a news search for Tim Berne — partly to see if he’s up to something that I don’t know about, but also to find like-minded artists. Berne’s name comes up often when a creatively-minded musician’s influences get listed, and he doesn’t get tossed around as lightly as John Zorn. (Zorn is apt but tends to be a go-to guy for music journalists who aren’t really into this stuff.)

Thus did I find the name of Yoni Kretzmer, an Israeli saxophonist. A search on the Downtown Music Gallery site revealed a CD of Kretzmer’s. On a visit to NYC, I asked about it; DMG had mostly sold out of the copies he’d left them while on tour, but proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter, who knows the store better than I know my disheveled office, tracked down a stray copy in the back. It was a lucky break, because as with a lot of creative musicians, Kretzmer’s strongest distribution network is his own two feet. DMG wasn’t expecting another shipment any time soon.

Kretzmer is a tenor saxophonist with a flowing, agile style that certainly shares some colors with Berne. You can hear it early on in this CD, with an exciting, darting solo alongside Daniel Feingold’s drums on “2-700,” just the two of them, bright and joyous.

The rest of the band is a string trio: cello, bass — and, yes, viola.   They’re the rhythm section, defining the unusual and very enjoyable sound on the album.

Their parts truly are closer to a jazz rhythm section than a string quartet. Listen to the wandering, upbeat composed line on “2-700,” twisty and pleasant. You could easily picture a downtown NYC band performing with a sax and guitar. It does remind me a bit of Tim Berne’s music.

I don’t mean to make it sound like Kretzmer is a Berne clone. He’s not. It’s just a side effect of the way I discovered the CD. Plus, the artwork reminds me of Steve Byram, Berne’s artist of choice.

Look, here’s a non-Bernian moment: “Drunken Morning,” a flowery composition where the strings take the lead, opening with some elegant cello soloing and a gossamer sax accompaniment. It’s elegant, respectful, and mellow — and yet has an undercurrent of attitude. Little tricks between the cello notes — tiny glissandos or liberties taken with timing — show off a jazzy bent.

If none of this sounds out-there enough for you, “Mess in A” sometimes lives up to its name — in a good way. The track ends up in a space with viola and cello playing a deliciously tense set of chords, the backdrop for Kretzmer’s soloing and some spare but swinging bass comping by Ehud Etun.  “She Knows” starts off with a stark improvisation — slashing strings, wandering sax, quietly rumbling drums. To me, it’s the first track that really captures the stark grayness of the album cover. It gives away to a calm tune that drifts across a slow march rhythm.

I know I just said the strings don’t play like a classical quartet, but some of their best moments come from that kind of precision.  One crescendo in “Harder” includes the viola and cello sawing away at chaotic high notes, but doing so in lock step.

I like Kretzmer’s playing a lot, too. I like his control and his creativity, his attention to melody, and the careful placement of rasping or buzzing notes, just enough to add edge.

He’s playing at Downtown Music Gallery on Oct. 10. If you’re in New York, maybe you can hit him up for some CDs then.

More about this particular CD at All About Jazz.  Kretzmer can be found in a more conventional setting with the quartet Rats, hearable on Myspace and, in samples, at CD Baby.

UPDATE: Well, according to this, Kretzmer has moved to NYC and has a trio album available. So, now you’ve got no excuses.

David S. Ware Returns

David S. Ware — Saturnian (AUM Fidelity, 2010)

Like closure and a new beginning all in one: This is the concert that Ware performed on Oct. 15, 2009, his first show after a life-saving kidney transplant.

The recording, roughly 39 minutes, consists of three pieces, each played on a different type of saxophone.

Track 1: The saxello, fleet and darting. It lacks the wonderfully blusterous punch of the tenor sax but it’s still a delight, opening the concert with an energetic vibe like the sound of good health and grateful  joy. I guess there’s no reason to assume Ware’s sax playing would have suffered — it’s not like he had arthritis or asthma — but it’s still nice to hear, quickly, that he’s in top-notch form. He goes nuts with a high swirling riff near the end — it’s a repetitious passage but inserted at the right point to make what’s effectively a climactic moment followed by a long conclusion.

Track 2: Stritch, a.k.a. Beuscher straight alto.  Lower register, still blurry fast in its phrasing. But this time, Ware settles into a generally calmer demeanor, more conversational, or maybe more like a monologue, with fewer of the quick-flip runs of tough-to-discern harmony. Wraps up nicely.

Track 3: Finally, that tenor sound!  Rich and throaty, starting with a few introductory notes, a tap on the shoulder, before touching on deeper sounds and fast-running phrases. There’s a raspy soulfulness to the quick flurries of notes, with low barks to punctuate phrases. It ends in an ecstatic upper-range squeal and a brief, spoken thank you from Ware.

It’s interesting to hear Ware against a blank backdrop; he seems to use the space differently than he does with his quartet, which is dominated by that grand, reverent, towering sound (as on this video clip from the Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival 2004).  And the concert is a nice snippet of history.

So good to hear Ware back in action and back to health.  Now, if I can only manage to see him play live someday.