Sunday, December 22, 2013

2013 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

The results of Francis Davis' annual poll, which this year is being hosted by NPR Music, are now online. There's also a separate article by Mr. Davis with his thoughts on the results and his personal choices. Here are my comments, which I posted at the end of his article:

"I was surprised that Without A Net (Wayne Shorter) was the #1 album, but I suppose I shouldn’t be. I knew that a large portion of the jazz audience was looking backwards, but I didn’t realize so many critics were as well. It’s not a bad album, but it’s not anywhere near his best work or the best of what was released in 2013. As for the rest of the poll, there’s a lot to like, but I was also puzzled that Functional Arrhythmias (Steve Coleman) rated so highly, as I think Coleman’s last couple of releases were much stronger. In fact, I thought Jonathan Finlayson’s Moment and the Message was a better take on M-Base concepts. But kudos to Mr. Davis for some of his personal choices, particularly for calling attention to records from Myra Melford, Eric Revis, and Taylor Ho Bynum..."

The individual choices of each critic, including mine, have also been posted separately.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Top Jazz Releases of 2013

Here, in order, are my top 10 jazz releases of 2013. I kept my list to 10 in order to conform to the format established by Francis Davis, who graciously asked me to take part in his 8th annual jazz critics poll, hosted this year by NPR Music. For this blog I cheated and added an "Honorable Mention" list as well, below the list of my main choices.

My top 10 are:

Mary Halvorson Septet - Illusionary Sea (Firehouse 12)
Ms. Halvorson takes yet another step forward in an already remarkable career. In a lineage with Point of Departure.

Convergence Quartet – Slow & Steady (No Business)
Taylor Ho Bynum and Alexander Hawkins both figure again on this list, and along with Dominic Lash and Harris Eisenstadt, reinvent a traditional-sounding trumpet/piano/bass/drums lineup.

Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet & 7-tette – Navigation (Firehouse 12)
Fascinating to hear how he approaches recasting a set of materials over four performances outside of his work with Braxton.

Drew Gress – The Sky Inside (Pirouet)
Compelling compositions and arrangements from Gress, and compelling performances from his long-time collaborators. 

Craig Taborn – Chants (ECM)
A dark, complex record that with mysterious depths beneath the surface. 

Alexander Hawkins – Song Singular (Babel Label)
The record that puts Hawkins in the same league as Melford, Taborn, Fujii, etc. 

Ralph Alessi – Baida (ECM)
Alessi seems in total command of his horn and his approach, and he sounds like he’s having fun as well. 

Satoko Fujii Trio – Spring Storm (Libra)
Another winning trio record. 

Francois Houle/Havard Wiik – Aves (Songlines)
A beautiful dialogue between clarinet and piano.

Nate Wooley – (Sit In) The Throne of Friendship (Clean Feed)
Wooley has some pretty wild freer recordings, but I like him best when he balances composition with unique arrangements. 

Honorable mentions:

Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House - Strong Place (Intakt)

Gabriella Friedli Trio – Started (Intakt)

Samuel Blaser/Benoit Delbecq/Gerry Hemingway - Fourth Landscape (Nuscope)

Harris Eisenstadt – Golden State (Songlines)

Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Shadow Man (ECM)

Satoko Fujii – Gen Himmel (Libra)

Full results of Mr. Davis' poll will be posted in the coming days at

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gordon Grdina - No Difference

Gordon Grdina
No Difference

Gordon Grdina - Oud, Guitar, Bowed guitar
Mark Helias - Double Bass
Kenton Loewen - Drums
Tony Malaby - Tenor Saxophone

I was not familiar with Gordon Grdina’s music before No Difference, although I was aware of his long association with the Songlines label, dating back to 2006. The fact that he played the oud made me wary, I have to admit, because to my ears it has a more limited tonal range than the guitar. Also, it invariably means World Music influences, which too many times when combined with jazz only serves to water down each idiom instead of produce a compelling hybrid. The supporting cast on No Difference, however, helped dispel some of my apprehension: Drummer Kenton Loewen was also unknown to me, but Mark Helias and Tony Malaby are compelling players.

No Difference is an eclectic affair. The pieces, all by Grdina, are a mix of studio and live performances, ranging from duos with Helias to a trio track to quartet tracks with Malaby. Grdina has been quoted as saying he has tried to hear Wayne Shorter’s and Albert Ayler’s music through the guitar, but his single note lines and slightly distorted tone on the electric reminded me more of late 60s/early 70s fusion. Tony Malaby adds a lot to the quartet tracks, with gritty improvisations that retain a tie to the underlying melodies.

The part of which I was most unsure, the duets with Mark Helias and Grdina on oud, I probably enjoyed most of all. Helias offers the perfect level of support while providing his own melodic lines. Grdina’s Middle Eastern-influenced themes have an authentic feel and intensity as well.

No Difference has a split personality, but if you're a guitar fan or a fan of Middle Eastern music it won't matter to you.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drew Gress – The Sky Inside

Drew Gress
The Sky Inside

Drew Gress - Bass, Electronics
Tim Berne - Alto Saxophone
Ralph Alessi - Trumpet
Craig Taborn - Piano
Tom Rainey - Drums

The Sky Inside is the fourth release by Drew Gress with essentially the same group. He started with Spin & Drift (2001, Premonition), a release that looked good on paper but never really fulfilled its promise. 7 Black Butterflies (2005, Premonition) substituted Craig Taborn for Uri Caine and added trumpeter Ralph Alessi. I initially passed when it came out, but eventually came around and was very glad I did. He followed that with The Irrational Numbers (2008, Koch), another excellent record.

The Sky Inside shows that everyone has grown as mature, expressive players over the years. Tom Rainey is a modern rhythm master, able to accentuate the proceedings without calling undue attention to himself. Tim Berne and Alessi are both in the middle of probably the most productive periods of their careers, with their respective ECM albums and numerous guest appearances. Taborn shows himself to particularly good effect, whether helping hold down repeating rhythmic figures or providing key transitions in the compositions.

There’s always something interesting going on with Gress’s arrangements, a sense of motion and intricacy underneath while the horns play with and around each other. While his compositions strike a balance between melody and abstraction, In Streamline stands out because it is simply, unabashedly, beautiful. It reminded me of one of those perfect fall days when I lived in NYC, walking along brownstones in the afternoon sun, everything right with the world, if only for a moment. It’s the kind of performance that would be perfect on the soundtrack of a sophisticated, urban film.

As with the previous releases, there’s a very subtle use of electronic effects to enhance the arrangements in some places on the record. I usually hate any kind of studio manipulation, but the effects work here because they are so unobtrusive.

Distribution has been an issue recently for the label in the U.S., but you should be able to get it through Downtown Music Gallery, or through the Pirouet website.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Tim Daisy Trio - A Fine Day In Berlin

Back in August I posted about percussionist Tim Daisy's new label, Relay Recordings and reviewed his first two digital-only releases, both of which were excellent. He's now back with A Fine Day In Berlin, a trio recording with pianist Havard Wiik (Atomic/Side A) and bassist Clayton Thomas, with whom I'm not familiar. The recording is available as a digital download or a proper CD.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Catching Up With Hugo Carvalhais

Clean Feed 2010

Hugo Carvalhais – Double Bass, Electronics
Gabriel Pinto – Piano, Synthesizer
Mario Costa – Drums
Tim Berne – Alto Saxophone

Clean Feed 2012

Hugo Carvalhais – Double Bass, Electronics
Gabriel Pinto – Piano, Organ, Synthesizer
Mario Costa – Drums
Emile Parisien – Soprano Saxophone
Dominique Pifarely - Violin

I’ve been aware of the existence of these two CDs, but given the generous output of the Clean Feed label over the past few years, I’d never gotten around to exploring them until now. I’m glad that I did, as the core group offers an interesting take on the piano trio. In fact, with the sound they generate, “piano trio” doesn’t really come close to describing their approach. I really like the use of space on both recordings; it generates both tension at various points and a sense that the musicians are letting events unfold naturally, though not languidly.

On Nebulosa, Tim Berne again displays his ability to blend well with different situations, something I wouldn’t have expected from someone who has such an idiosyncratic approach. He takes a prominent role on the six tracks (out of ten) in which he participates, but doesn’t dominate, instead respecting the dynamic of the trio. In spite of my fondness for certain fusion groups from the bad old days, I’m hesitant when I see the word “synthesizer” on a CD cover. Pinto for the most part avoids the clichés, with his sparse approach working in his favor, the occasional texture from Mr. Gone-era Weather Report a little too prominent.

Particula grabs you from the opening notes, with sparse piano over a background of ambient sound. This is not a trio-with-guests recording; the whole unit is razor sharp, able to turn on a dime from what sound like group improvisations to solo spotlights. Parisien and Pifarely are excellent throughout, and the electronics are better integrated on Particula as well. Costa the drummer really makes this group. He reminds me a little of Gerry Hemingway in that he shapes the flow and energy, and can be forceful when that's required. 

Here's an entertaining video featuring some music from Particula:

I’m hoping there’s a next chapter.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Samuel Blaser Consort in Motion, A Mirror to Machaut

Samuel Blaser Consort in Motion
A Mirror to Machaut

Samuel Blaser - Trombone
Joachim Badenhorst - Bass Clarinet, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone
Russ Lossing - Piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer
Drew Gress - Double Bass
Gerry Hemingway - Drums, Percussion

A member of the Organissimo forum called the first Consort in Motion CD “a minor masterpiece,” and I would have to agree. That self-titled release on Kind of Blue had an ambitious concept: Adapt the early Italian baroque music of Monteverdi, Marini and Frescobaldi to a modern jazz ensemble. For the follow-up on Songlines, Blaser retains Russ Lossing on piano and brings in Drew Gress on bass and Gerry Hemingway for the late Paul Motian on drums. In addition, he adds a second horn in clarinetist/saxist Joachim Badenhorst.

Listening to A Mirror to Machaut without reading any background on the recording will lead one to ask why it shares the Consort in Motion label with the first CD, as the execution is much different. Not only is there the additional texture of the reed instrument, mainly clarinet, but Lossing adds Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano to the mix. On further inspection, the two recordings share the overarching concept of blending early music forms with jazz improvisation, this time around the late medieval music of French composers Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay.

The tracks featuring compositions by Machaut are brief, almost too brief at times. Douce Dame Jolie features some lovely clarinet that feels cut short by the abrupt ending. The longer tracks, all composed by Blaser, alternate between a restrained, moody chamber group feel and a more funky, electronic-tinged approach. When Lossing cuts loose with some distortion and Badenhorst comments on bass clarinet, echoes of Bitches Brew are evoked. Add the trombone and you’ve got definite comparisons on those cuts to the Mwandishi band and Julian Priester’s forgotten classic, Love, Love.

The individual performances on A Mirror to Machaut are flawless. Lossing has always been very cerebral on anything I’ve heard from him, so it’s fun to hear him cut loose a little. Badenhorst is lovely on clarinets, Gress is his usual superb, subtle self and Hemingway presents a nice mix of restraint and heavier tom tom action. A Mirror to Machaut is not as cohesive as its predecessor, but it’s a rewarding recording on its own terms. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

New Music From Italy

Stefano Giust
"What type of music can represent the contemporary world? Doubtless it would be modern music, the type of music that has its roots in the reality of daily life, that reports on social upheavals and the fact that the majority of the public couldn't care less about music. At the same time there would have to be — as is true of any truth — something sensational about it and to this aim it would suffice for it not to be false..." Fred K. Prieberg, Musica Ex Machina, Berlin, 1960. (From the Setola Di Maiale website)

I have Stef’s Free Jazz Blog to thank for introducing me to the Italian musician-owned label Setola Di Maiale and to Gianni Lenoci’s album Empty Chair in particular. Setola Di Maiale (which according to Google Translate means “Bristle Pig”) is a musician’s collective started in 1993 by drummer Stefano Giust to document work in a high-quality CDR format. As the website states, “Self-produced music and DIY attitude inevitably are the only way for (a) certain type of music to exist, in a market that either is clearly not there, or is stereotyped.”

Gianni Lenoci Hocus Pocus 4 + Taylor Ho Bynum
Empty Chair

Gianni Lenoci - Piano
Vittorio Gallo - Soprano Sax
Pasquale Gadaleta – Double Bass
Giacomo Mongelli – Drums
Taylor Ho Bynum - Cornet

For Empty Chair, Lenoci’s quartet is augmented by Taylor Ho Bynum, and the result is a stellar effort in which compositions, mostly by Lenoci, are interspersed with a series of duets between Bynum and each band member. The album is capped off with a collective improvisation. The compositions are intriguing, building episodically rather than in a head-solos-head manner. The duets fold in well with the composed pieces, and there’s a very cohesive feel to the whole album.


Nils Gerold - Flute
Nicola Guazzaloca - Piano
Stefano Giust - Drums

I’m generally steering clear of free improv dates these days, as I feel that there are relatively few musicians who can sustain interest in that format. This one, however, is an exception. I don’t know how long this group has been playing together, but they are a very close-knit unit. That they can turn on a dime from intense rumbling passages to sparse meditation has me wondering if maybe there are composed elements to this, or some kind of pre-arranged structure. At any rate, I like that there’s an underlying sense of purpose behind the music, it’s not just meandering about.

Guazzaloca uses dark, dense clusters that will remind you of Cecil Taylor, but he’s not a slavish imitator and has his own language as well. Guist alternates between a Cyrille-like fleetness and something heavier, almost tympani-like in places. Gerold concentrates on the “natural” sound of the flute rather than extended techniques and impresses as well. Here's a clip with some of the music:

Both can be ordered through the Setola Di Maiale website.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tim Daisy & Relay Recordings

Composer/Percussionist Tim Daisy has started his own label, Relay Recordings, and already that idea has morphed into four series: Relay CD-R, Relay New Music Series, Relay Live and Relay Digital. Here’s a look at the first two Relay Digital releases.

The Tim Daisy Quartet
Streets In Time

Taylor Ho Bynum -Cornet
Steve Swell - Trombone
John Hebert - Bass
Tim Daisy - Drums

This is a wonderful inside/outside session in which the compositions, all by Daisy, range from uptempo post-Bop to more ambient explorations in texture and timbre. There’s some nice intricate interplay between the rhythm and brass, with room for each instrument to stretch out. Daisy himself is on fire; I’ve never heard him better than on this record. And Swell, who I sometimes find overly garrulous, is also in great form. And of course, what more needs to be said about Taylor Ho Bynum and John Hebert.

When I read about a digital-only release, I wonder if perhaps it’s more of a casual session, less planned than a physical release. That’s not the case with Streets In Time; this is well-rehearsed, well-recorded and I wish it had been released in a CD or vinyl version. It’s definitely worth a $5.00 investment via Relay’s Bandcamp page, for it’s one of the best new things I’ve heard this year.

Hans - Peter Pfammatter + Tim Daisy
Different Names

Hans - Peter Pfammatter - Piano/Prepared Piano
Tim Daisy - Percussion

The first track threw me a little, because Daisy plays more of a “kitchen sink” style a la Lytton or Lovens than I’ve ever heard from him. Because of this, things are a little cluttered in the beginning, but soon we're into a very engaging set of improvised duets. Pfammatter, who I was not familiar with, balances traditional and prepared piano well. He occasionally brings forth a sound reminiscent of a toy piano, but no effect overstays its welcome. Again, a bargain at $5.00 for the download.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Floating On Wings

François Houle and Håvard Wiik

François Houle - Clarinet
Håvard Wiik - Piano

I first came across Francois Houle in the late nineties with In The Vernacular (Songlines), his tribute to John Carter, and his work on Hornet’s Collage (Nuscope), a trio recording with Scott Fields and Jason Roebke. He excels in a variety of settings; his recording Genera (Songlines) was an overlooked gem of 2012.

Havard Wiik is probably best known for his work in Atomic, a group that for me has never equaled the sum of its parts, for whatever reason. However, he’s impressive in the Jimmy Giuffre-inspired Free Fall trio, and he added an interesting layer to the Vandermark 5 on The Horse Jumps and The Ship Is Gone (Not Two).

Aves, a studio recording, came about after a successful concert at the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. There’s a lot of music to digest, almost 70 minutes across 14 tracks. Houle composed five pieces, Wiik three, and five are free improvisations. The remaining track, Letter to Gyorgy L., was composed by Benoit Delbecq.

There’s a nice variety of moods on Aves, from playful to somber, and Wiik and Houle are perfectly in sync throughout. Each finishes the other’s thoughts, and you feel that you’re being included in a private conversation. One of many nice aspects to this album is the space each gives the other for individual statements during the performances. When they come back together, it heightens the richness they create. Think of a perfect Fall day, when you can feel the crispness in the air and the seasonal colors are on display. That’s the imagery this CD brought to mind, no mean feat when it’s 105 degrees outside!

Houle’s tone and articulation on the clarinet are unmatched. My one quibble is the flute sound he achieves on one track, so close to the real thing I had to check the liner notes to make sure he wasn’t doubling. While it doesn’t reduce the impact of the overall album, it’s not particularly compelling either.

Wiik is a virtual encyclopedia of post-modern jazz piano, while nicely mixing 20th century classical influences. He’s lyrical one moment, jagged and angular the next. It never comes across as pastiche, however, just appropriate to the context.

It’s a credit to both artists that the free tracks stand up versus those based on compositions, and the whole recording is a cohesive body of music. For fans of the Giuffre trio or chamber jazz in general, this is as good as it gets.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ideal Bread Project on Kickstarter

If you love the music of Steve Lacy, then you need to know about Ideal Bread, a quartet that offers their own interpretations of Lacy's compositions. The group is composed of Josh Sinton on baritone sax, Kirk Knuffke on trumpet, Adam Hopkins on bass and none other than Tomas Fujiwara on drums. They've released two CDs so far: 2008's The Ideal Bread (KMB-Jazz) and 2010's Transmit (Cuneiform Records). Now they've got an ambitious new project up for funding on Kickstarter: "Recompose and reimagine" all 26 compositions on Lacy's 3-CD box set Scratching the Seventies. They're about a quarter of the way to the goal of $8,000, and they have until August 23 to make it happen. Take a look at the project description on Kickstarter and give till it hurts!

Update: The group more than met their goal, raising a total of $8,600 by the deadline. Congratulations!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jim Hall ArtistShare Project

Bassist Scott Colley emailed me with this message about guitarist Jim Hall's latest project:

I just wanted to share with you that I recently did an interview about guitarist Jim Hall that was published in his new 3-CD box set Jim Hall: Live! Vol. 2-4. This is a truly spectacular set of recordings from a legendary jazz guitarist, and a good friend. You can check out Jim's fan-funded live project on ArtistShare here.

I hope you enjoy this music from Jim, who is an inspirational figure for me.


It looks like the project is well on its way to being fully funded, so visit his ArtistShare page to order the single CD or the box.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Catching Up With Keith

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/ Jack DeJohnette

Keith Jarrett - Piano
Gary Peacock - Double Bass
Jack DeJohnette - Drums

I had avoided this group for most of its incredible 30 year existence because I was put off by the emphasis on standards. I mean, they've been done to death, haven't they? How many more versions of "All The Things You Are" do we need? Also, I had heard maybe one song a few years back and thought it was snoresville at the time, for some reason.

Well I stand corrected! I finally took the plunge and I am loving this CD. Jarrett finds a way to say something new with his approach to each composition. And perhaps because he has a reputation for being difficult, I'm surprised at how much wit and humanity he puts into his performance. Sometimes he'll play very close to the melody or resolve a phrase in a straight-forward way, if the situation calls for it. I think that actually takes some courage, when a lot of jazz musicians would try to go in a more abstract direction. The interplay between the three musicians is as good as advertised. I love the fire-breathing days of Jack DeJohnette, so it's interesting to hear how he adjusts his approach in this context. Somewhere has me thinking about a second Standards Trio purchase. (Sigh)

(Originally posted in the Organissimo Forum)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dark Poetry

Craig Taborn Trio 

Craig Taborn – Piano
Thomas Morgan – Double Bass
Gerald Cleaver - Drums

Satoko Fujii New Trio
Spring Storm

Satoko Fujii – Piano
Todd Nicholson – Double Bass
Takashi Itani - Drums

I’ve been listening to these two CDs side-by-side in my car changer, and on more than one occasion I’ve confused them in my head. Listening to them sequentially has proven to be instructive, because the two pianists do share some similarities in approach. Both blend classical and jazz influences in unique ways. Both have a brooding, sometimes foreboding style, darker hues with splashes of light. And both build tension through repetition.

Of course, they have their own voices. Taborn’s music takes on an elegiac quality, working phrases over and over, gaining ground slowly. Fujii jump cuts from motif to motif, resulting at times in a jarring transition, yet somehow making sense at the end. And in each case their cohorts are excellent partners, providing just the right colors and accents.

It’s been fascinating to see the progression in the careers of both artists. Taborn in particular has come so far since he was a member of James Carter’s band back in the day. Fujii’s style is more of a known quantity, but still exciting to listen to. These are both among the best new releases I’ve heard in 2013.