Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Top Jazz Releases of 2014

I was asked again this year to take part in Francis Davis’ Annual Jazz Critics Poll, which is being hosted by NPR Music for the second consecutive year. There was a lot of good music released in 2104, and some right at the end of the year that will have to be lumped in with next year’s output. It was actually surprisingly easy to come up with the handful of albums that really stood out for me.


Top 10 (in order)


Steve Lehman – Mise en Abime (Pi Recordings)

Anna Webber – SIMPLE (Skirl)

RED Trio & Mattias Ståhl - North And The Red Stream (NoBusiness Records)

Max Johnson – The Prisoner (NoBusiness Records)

Jorrit Dijkstra’s Pillow Circles - Live Bimhuis Amsterdam (Driff Records)

Samuel Blaser/Benoit Delbecq/Gerry Hemingway - fourth landscape (Nuscope Recordings)

Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suites (TUM)

Stephen Gauci/Kirk Knuffke/Ken Filiano - Chasing Tales (Relative Pitch)

Luis Vicente/Rodrigo Pinheiro/Hernani Faustino/Marco Franco - Clocks and Clouds (FMR Records)

Anthony Braxton – Trio (New Haven) 2013 (New Braxton House)


Honorable Mentions
(in alphabetical order)


Rodrigo Amado - Wire Quartet (Clean Feed)

Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad Quartet – Silver Cornet (Nessa Records)

Anthony Braxton – 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (New Braxton House)

3d: Tomasz Dabrowski/Kris Davis/Andrew Drury – vermillion tree (ForTune)

The Danny Fox Trio- Wide Eyed (Hot Cup Records)

Ideal Bread – Beating the Teens (Cunieform Records)

Tyshawn Sorey – Alloy (Pi Recordings)

Reissues (in order)


The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 – New York Concerts (Elemental Music)

Miles Davis – Miles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 (Columbia/Legacy)

Howard Riley Trio – Angle/The Day Will Come (Hux Records)

Debut Recording


Tesla Coils – S/T (Setola di Maiale) Their first as a group, although at least one member has other albums out, so I don’t know if this counts as a true “debut”.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tyshawn Sorey - Alloy

Tyshawn Sorey
Alloy

Cory Smythe – Piano
Chris Tordini – Acoustic Bass
Tyshawn Sorey - Drums

Alloy is an album that draws you in with its introspective beginning, and an almost deceptive simplicity. But the four compositions Tyshawn Sorey has prepared for the listener reveal greater depths with each listen, and end up traversing a great deal of territory – from minimal gestures, to a lovely statement of a classical theme, to hip-hop rhythms, to intense lower-register excursions on the piano.

I’ve always admired the fact that Mr. Sorey’s music isn’t about the drums per se, his primary instrument, but is always in service to the composition and the group as a whole. His previous album on Pi, Oblique-I, seemed overly indebted to M-Base and was too much of a good thing – I wore out before the entire CD was finished. But on Alloy his structures support superb interaction between the trio, and I think I know which sections are composed, but I’m not sure – not that it matters in the end.

No matter how egalitarian a piano trio, it’s hard not to focus on the pianist, and Cory Smyth demands the spotlight by conjuring a remarkable range of expressiveness, from wee-hours-of-the-morning quietude to a rumbling attack that will remind one of Cecil Taylor. He can play with real economy and restraint when he chooses, without losing the thread of the narrative he’s creating. In these moments he shows a kinship with Craig Taborn’s ECM output. 

If an alloy is composed of two materials such as two metals, then this Alloy is a compound with no distinct boundary between compositional and improvisational materials. In creating a new alloy, Mr. Sorey has taken his art a step further.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lana Trio - Live in Japan

Lana Trio
Live in Japan

Kjetil Jerve – Piano
Henrik Munkeby Norstebo – Trombone
Andreas Wildhagen - Drums

One gets the sense that the Lana Trio looks at things a little differently upon inspection of the cover of Live in Japan. Sharing space with images of Japanese food and someone wearing traditional garb is a shot of fishermen on a dolphin hunt. Couple that with the name of the Norwegian label that released it, Va Fongool, an Italian phrase that translates to “Go f_____ yourself”, and things could get bumpy.

The CD, the band’s second, was recorded during a tour of Japan in the early part of this year. The concert in question took place at Jazzspot Candy in Chiba, outside Tokyo, and contains both sets in the order they were played.

Although the Lana Trio is a free improv group, it turns out things never get totally out of hand. The members of the trio traverse territory ranging from sparse, minimalist ruminations to sections of high intensity. Each of the three lengthy tracks gives the band time to cautiously set up structures and increase the heat as they proceed.

There are some really nice sections where Jerve and Wildhagen engage in intense dialog, the pianist mixing traces of Bley with some of the dissonance and lower register work of Cecil Taylor. Live in Japan is good, no-holds-barred free improv, even if some of the “lower case” stuff doesn’t work as much for me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue

I haven’t had the time or the energy to closely follow the debate about MOPDK’s Kind of Blue recreation that’s been raging online. Bassist Damon Smith’s Facebook post favoriting Jimmy Cobb over Kevin Shea has so far generated over 1,200 comments, and over at Organissimo, a post about Blue has resulted in almost 4,700 views. I can’t recall such heated debate about a jazz-related topic since the days of Wynton’s ascendency as the de facto spokesperson for “jazz” in the eyes of the unwashed.

When I heard about the project, I thought it was probably one of the following:
  1. An idiosyncratic but loving tribute to an iconic jazz album that everyone hears at some point in their lives, even if they’re not a jazz fan
  2. A commentary on the state of jazz, particularly mainstream jazz, where recreations of bop and Blue Note happen with regularity
  3. A clever piece of self-promotion, guaranteed to get a response. As they say, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
  4. All of the above
Whatever the band’s original intent, they have certainly succeeded at #3. I frankly don’t care how well the band “succeeded” at the project; by definition it will be different, no matter how hard they tried to ape the original. In a weird way, I admire their resolve, because it’s one thing to say, “Hey, let’s practice and record as close a copy of Kind of Blue as we can” and another to actually go do it.

One unexpected side effect of listing to MOPDK’s version is it made me want to go back and listen to the original, something I hadn’t done in years. I bookmarked certain passages in my brain, interested in how Miles and his band had played them. So if nothing else, perhaps MOPDK has done us a service, by causing us to focus again on the genius of that group in that time, and making us realize that, as in all things, time marches on and so must the music some of us still like to call Jazz.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble - Saturated Colour

Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble
Saturated Colour 

Erik Hove - Saxophone, flute, clarinet
Anna Webber - Flute
Krisjana Thorsteinson - Oboe
Bradley Powell - Clarinet
Andy King - Trumpet
Josh Zubot - Violin
Thomas Quail - Viola
Jane Chan - Cello
Remi-Jean Leblanc - Bass
Evan Tighe - Drums 

Erik Hove is a Canadian musician that came to my attention via Anna Webber, who plays flute in his Ensemble, and who recently released an excellent disc of her own, SIMPLE. His ten-piece group features a jazz rhythm section married to a small contemporary chamber ensemble, and as he states, “explore(s) a synthesis of contemporary compositional concepts with current ideas from jazz and improvised music…” 

Hove composed all the selections and plays woodwinds on Saturated Colour. It took me a minute to get used to the unusual harmonies he uses, but once I acclimated I was all in. It reminds me a little of Steve Lehman’s Octet, and no wonder, as both Lehman and Hove have been influenced by the spectral techniques of composers such as Murail. Both Hove and Lehman play alto, and both have a tart, angular style. But Hove definitely has his own take on the spectral school, with more pastel shading to his music and a more impressionistic approach vs. Lehman. 

The spectral influence does result in that unique shimmering sound that I noted in my review of Lehman’s Mise en Abîme, and as I listened to Saturated Colour I had the feeling of being held in suspended animation. Hove makes beautiful use of the combination of woodwinds and strings in the arrangements, such as on the track Ascending. There’s a slight third-steam influence here as well, which I really dig, but without the stiffness or stuffiness that is sometimes ascribed to that movement.

This is an intriguing CD whose subtle charms reveal themselves through repeated listens. At times it sounds as if it might veer off into Gil Evans-influenced big band territory, but then Hove will throw in a curve ball to prevent things from getting too comfortable. 

Enigmatic, in a good way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bradford/Gjerstad Quartet - Silver Cornet

Silver Cornet
Bradford/Gjerstad Quartet
Nessa Records

Bobby Bradford – Cornet
Frode Gjerstad – Alto sax, clarinet
Ingebrigt Haker Flaten – Double bass
Frank Rosaly - Drums

Silver Cornet was recorded in March of this year at the Windup Space in Baltimore, the last stop on the Quartet’s North American tour. I had the pleasure of attending their Dallas performance a few night’s earlier; Yells At Eels' Dennis Gonzalez had coaxed them up between their Austin and Houston dates.

When I walked in to the concert venue, I saw a man with a cornet in his lap, sitting alone in a corner. Thus, I was able to actually meet Mr. Bradford and soak in his tales of growing up in Fort Worth and the legends he had played with. Later on I was able to meet the other members of the group; definitely a wonderful experience that I documented on this blog.

The instrumental line-up and Bradford’s history would suggest that their music would be heavily influenced by Ornette, but at least as a listener that’s not really the case. In fact, the Quartet really reminds me of Other Dimensions In Music in the way the music rises and falls in a very natural way.

Bradford has what I call an “organic” approach to improvising; everything flows, nothing seems forced, and it’s very conversational. You really hear the history of jazz and free music in his playing. 

Listening to Frode is like what I imagine watching Pollock at work was like: At first everything looks random and disconnected, but over the course of time you see an arc, a progression. He infers, rather than states, and he’s a great foil for his front-line partner.

The acoustics of the Dallas show made picking up the bass difficult, so it’s great to hear Ingebrigt’s contributions so much more clearly. He’s all over his instrument, with a lightening-quick approach that reminds me of Barry Guy at times.

And Frank Rosaly? Well, I’ve never seen anyone play like he does. His approach involves rapidly taking various cymbals off their stands, placing them on top of drumheads, and striking or swiping them. It’s mesmerizing live, and what almost got lost was how well he can drive the band when needed.

Once the Dallas performance was finished, I had a vision in my mind that the music hadn’t really stopped, that it was a river that would keep flowing. Silver Cornet is proof of that.

Here's a clip from this Baltimore performance: