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

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:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Wadada Leo Smith - The Great Lakes Suites

Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suites

Wadada Leo Smith - Trumpet
Henry Threadgill - Alto sax, flute, bass flute
John Lindberg - Double bass
Jack DeJohnette - Drums

Wadada Leo Smith is undergoing a creative renaissance, with involvement in what seems to be an unprecedented amount of projects over the past few years. Ten Freedom Summers, Occupy The World and the collective that just released the album Red Hill are just a few of the projects that he’s spearheaded or been a part of.

Occupy and several other albums from Mr. Smith have been released by Tum Records of Finland, and now that label gives us The Great Lakes Suite, six compositions by Smith spread over two CDs.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this when I learned who was on it, an all-star quartet with Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette. But beyond the players, it’s the strength of the compositions, particularly the three suites that comprise the first CD, that grabs one’s attention. 

The opening Lake Michigan has an unusual and arresting stop-start theme, with a structure that leads to a couple of false endings over its length. Lake Ontario, which follows, makes excellent use of Threadgill’s arid flute. There’s a sense throughout that the musicians are really taking their time to explore each composition, so that the mind doesn’t really record whether the tempos are fast or slow; everything flows in an organic fashion through to the final suite, the music shuffling off like a freighter moving out to the horizon.

Mr. Smith’s trumpet has always had a majestic quality, with a little hint of Miles, and that is still the case here, but now there’s an additional richness, an emotional resonance, that I don’t remember hearing from him before. I was looking forward to hearing Threadgill in a context other than his own groups, and he doesn’t disappoint. His solos seem to be more about juxtaposing interesting textures and building blocks of sound in interaction with the other players, rather than providing strict linear narratives.

It’s a treat to hear Lindberg and DeJohnette, both of whom just kill throughout Suites. I don’t know why we don’t see more of Lindberg, but I’m glad Smith uses him regularly, and DeJohnette is all over his kit, bringing to mind his hyperactive work with Miles during the Fillmore days. 

Overall, the first CD is the slightly stronger of the two, mainly due to the aforementioned first two compositions, but that’s a minor quibble. There’s a lot that will keep you coming back to The Great Lakes Suite.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

RED Trio & Mattias Ståhl - North And The Red Stream

RED Trio & Mattias Ståhl
North And The Red Stream

Rodrigo Pinheiro - Piano
Hernani Faustino - Double bass
Gabriel Ferrandini - Drums
Mattias Ståhl - Vibraphone

I have to admit its taken me a while to fully warm up to the RED Trio. What I had heard of their previous releases, particularly those with guest artists John Butcher and Nate Wooley, had seemed a little too “pointillist” for my tastes. But I liked what I heard from individual members’ contributions to records such as Clocks & Clouds with Luis Vicente, and now the Trio has released a fabulous recording of a 2013 live concert with vibist Mattias Stahl.

What I’ve come to appreciate about the RED Trio is this great sense of architecture they bring to what they create in the moment. The performance as released consists of three pieces ranging from 16 to 20 minutes each, and it’s fascinating to hear how each develops. One moment the group will be engaged in intense interplay, then turn on a dime to sparse sections with what sounds like prepared piano and percussive interjections from Ferrandini. For a small group, they create an impressive set of textures. 

The more intense sections of this performance remind me of The Feel Trio. Pinheiro’s playing has some of Cecil Taylor’s markers, but he’s developed his own vocabulary that contains more use of space and silence than any of Taylor’s work, along with the way he dampens his strings to generate percussive effects. Guest Stahl fits right in with a metallic flavor to his vibes, and sounds like a permanent member of the group.

The RED Trio is known for their democratic interaction, and they don’t disappoint here. As I write this, I realize it’s somewhat useless to single out any one member’s contributions, as one might when listening to a traditional piano trio. Every time I listen to North, and no matter how hard I try to focus on one member at a time, I end up perceiving the totality of the performance. There are a lot of trios that emphasize “leaderless” group interaction, but the RED Trio takes this to another, unique level.

You can now officially count me as a fan. Now to catch up with all their previous output…(sigh)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Patrizia Oliva/Gustavo Costa - FROGS

Patrizia Oliva/Gustavo Costa

Patrizia Oliva – Voice, stir xylophone, bamboo flute, water, leaves
Gustavo Costa – Drums, cymbals, bells

Here’s one that’s a little outside of my usual listening habits. Oliva and Costa have recorded a continuous 26+ minute track “next to a small lake in Luminasio (Marzabotto, Bologna, Italy).” There are definite elements of a field recording present in the soothing sounds captured in nature, and the two musicians have added vocals and percussion in real time without overdubs. As suggested by the locale, FROGS proceeds in a generally placid, meditative nature until Ms. Oliva adds intensity with her wordless vocal effects.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Anna Webber - SIMPLE

Anna Webber
Skirl Records

Anna Webber - Tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute
Matt Mitchell - Piano, prepared piano
John Hollenbeck - Drums, percussion

SIMPLE is at once an apt and a misleading title for this CD. Saxophonist/flautist Webber, a new name to me, has attracted a couple of A-listers in Mitchell and Hollenbeck for her project, and upon listening it’s easy to see why they wanted to be on board – there’s a lot to sink your teeth into.

Ms. Webber uses only the three instruments to fulfill her compositional vision over the seven tracks of the album. However, she deploys an impressive variety of approaches to the material, from quieter minimalist passages to themes stated in unison to knotty full-bore free improv.

Using only woodwinds, piano and drums creates a lot of open space in the music, and Webber plays in and around the compositions, suggesting they could unspool infinitely. Her tone on tenor is malleable, bending and stretching notes in a way that calls to mind the spirit, if not the exact style, of a young David Murray.

Shifting effortlessly and seamlessly from composed to improvised sections, intricate is the word that best sums up her approach, and if that seems to be contrary to the title of the album, somehow it all fits. She makes the complex simple, which as we all know is harder than making the simple complex.

As soon as SIMPLE had finished, I started over and immediately listened to it again. Now that’s the sign of a good record!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hafez Modirzadeh - In Convergence Liberation

Hafez Modirzadeh
In Convergence Liberation

Hafez Modirzadeh - Saxophones, flute, clarinet, percussion
ETHEL - Cornelius Dufollo: violin; Ralph Farris: viola; Dorothy Lawson: cello; Mary Roswell: violin
Mili Bermejo - Vocals
Amir ElSaffar - Trumpet. vocals, sanfur
Amir Abbas Etemadzadeh – Tonbak, daf, dohol, bells
Faraz Minooei - Sanfur

Sometimes it takes a set of circumstances to make an album click. Driving home from work in the early evening after an exhausting week, I put on In Convergence Liberation and let it take me where it wanted to go.

Something about the solemn melody of the opening track, La Angustia de Los Amantes (“Lover’s Agony”) and Mili Bermejo’s soulful rendition in Spanish of a 13th century Persian poem made a connection with me, speaking some truths about life’s struggles, breaking through barriers of culture and language. It transported me out of that specific time and place, and gave me a perspective beyond my immediate concerns. I suppose that’s one of the main reasons we listen to music.

With In Convergence Liberation, Hafez Modirzadeh has accomplished an extremely skillful blending of jazz, avant-garde classical, and Persian as well as Iberian music. The record proved somewhat difficult to wrap my head around, and write about, because with its diversity of approaches and instrumentation, along with its length over 18 tracks, Liberation at first sounds like two or even three different albums.

It was when I began focusing on the strings that I realized that they serve as the unifying thread throughout the record. Far from a “reeds with stings” date, the writing for the ETHEL string quartet is complex and deftly woven into each piece. In fact, the 4-part Suite Compost solely featuring the quartet is one of the highlights of the entire album.

In addition to the strings, Modirzadeh blends his reeds, the trumpet of Amir ElSaffar, Ms. Bermejo’s voice, and traditional Persian instruments such as the tonbak (goblet drum) and daf (frame drum) into a unified whole. Certain tracks, such as the aforementioned La Angustia bring more of the Persian musical influence, and others, such as Number That Moves featuring Modirzadeh’s plaintive alto, will remind one of Ornette Coleman.

Even with all I’ve described, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Hafez Modirzadeh’s musical world, which also includes gamelan music, motifs from Beethoven and string quartet music from Mozart to Bartok. Through all these connections, Modirzaheh makes connections with life, with the beauty in art and with the human experience that connects us all.

Here's a performance of Number That Moves, excerpted from a July, 2011 performance in San Francisco with ETHEL and Amir Abbas Etemadzadeh:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Alvin Fielder/David Dove/Jason Jackson/Damon Smith - From-To-From

Alvin Fielder/David Dove/Jason Jackson/Damon Smith

Alvin Fielder – Drums, Percussion
David Dove – Trombone
Jason Jackson – Alto, Tenor & Baritone Saxophones
Damon Smith- Double Bass

Damon Smith is a bassist who in recent years has migrated from Northern California to Houston. He runs the Balance Point Acoustics label, which has several releases with a mix of American and European musicians. 

From-To-From brings together three talents from the Houston area with 78-year-old drumming legend Alvin Fielder. The six tracks appear to be all freely improvised, ranging from a 3 minute blowout to an episodic 20+ minute piece.

Unlike some free improv albums, this record is not just about textures, and the frontline of trombonist David Dove and saxophonist Jason Jackson aren’t afraid to mix it up in extended periods of interaction. What is unexpected are those quieter sections where the horn players engage in some West Coast cool school counterpoint, Jackson waxing lyrically on his alto.

Smith provides a framework for the other musicians, and reminds me a little of Barry Guy in that he will let fly with some rapid phrases, and then recede into a supporting role. Fielder, for all his avant-garde credentials, has a solid foundation in all forms of jazz, so it’s refreshing to hear him create a nice gangly free-bop groove at different points, with the horns taking advantage, diving in and out of the waves of rhythm he creates.

David Dove, head of Houston’s Nameless Sound organization, acquits himself well on trombone, with a garrulous sound somewhat reminiscent of Steve Swell. Jackson’s star is seemingly on the rise, as he is now a member of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten’s Young Mothers and has made guest appearances with Dennis Gonzalez’s Yells At Eels.

The Texas jazz scene is the richer for Damon Smith’s presence, and here’s hoping it leads to more concerts and more albums.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Schwingungen 77 Entertainment - Act I: Notes In Freedom

Schwingungen 77 Entertainment
Act I: Notes In Freedom

Andrea Massaria – Guitar, objects, live electronics
Enrico Merlin – Guitar, kaospad, live electronics
Alessandro Seravalle – Guitar, toys, electronic substratums, samples, live electronics

Just when I thought I somewhat knew what to expect from the Setola Di Maiale label, along comes a curveball, at least for my ears. Act 1: Notes In Freedom contains elements of musique concrète, spoken word, massive amounts of signal manipulation, and occasionally some recognizable elements of electric guitar. 

The writer and poet Edmond Jabes’ quote “Banality is not harmless: It drives you furious” is featured on the CDR sleeve, and one would never call this record banal. Notes on the label website state that the work is inspired by Italian futurism, and I get the sense that the twelve tracks have a conceptual link, an aural equivalent to a Dadaist play.

This recording is well outside my frame of reference – I wouldn’t say it comes within a country mile of jazz, or even what most of us think of as free improv - but if you’ve got open ears and want to keep up with developments in guitar music, this is something you should check into.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stephen Gauci/Kirk Knuffke/Ken Filiano - Chasing Tales

Chasing Tales

Stephen Gauci – Tenor saxophone
Kirk Knuffke – Cornet
Ken Filiano – Double bass

I like to pull for the underdog, and I suppose that's why I like to check out what Stephen Gauci is up to from time to time. I'm not sure why I feel that way about him; perhaps it's because he came to music as a profession relatively late in life (I’ve read that his first studio session was at age 35), or perhaps because you don't see his name a lot. 

Stephen Gauci
Gauci has put out some albums on the CIMP label, displaying promise but also falling victim to the drawbacks of the CIMP aesthetic: A seeming lack of preparation and a tendency to let ideas run past the point of diminishing returns. But he was impressive on 2010’s SKM (Clean Feed) with Kris Davis and Michael Bisio, and now he’s part of another drummer-less trio on Chasing Tales

Six of the tracks are completely improvised, while Gauci contributes three compositions, and Knuffke and Filiano one each. The composed tracks have interesting arrangements and are crisply executed, with enough air in them to encourage dialog between the players. It’s a tribute to the group that the quality is consistent across all the tracks, whether composed or improvised.

Kirk Knuffke
Gauchi has sometimes come across as tentative to these ears, perhaps thinking a little too much, but he sounds confident and in control here, more fluid than I’ve ever heard him. Knuffke is so consistent; I sang his praises on Max Johnson’s The Invisible Trio, and he delivers here as well. Like Gauci, he doesn't feel the need to use a lot of extended techniques to make his point.

A few years ago I was on the fence about Ken Filiano, but he seems to get better and better. I still think Dreams from a Clown Car (Clean Feed) was criminally overlooked, and he's the glue for this record, whether walking under the other two players with a full, rich tone, adding his commentary, or playing unison phrases.

This album makes me smile, and who can't use a little of that in their lives? Great spirit, great interaction, mutual respect. It's the little record that could.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rodrigo Amado - Wire Quartet

Rodrigo Amado
Wire Quartet 

Rodigo Amado – Tenor saxophone
Manuel Mota – Guitar
Hernani Faustino – Double bass
Gabriel Ferrandini - Drums

Rodrigo Amado is a free jazz musician whose sound harks back to the classic saxophonists of the jazz tradition. His thick tone, bluesy in quieter moments and containing an R&B edge, brings to mind players like Gene Ammons and Lockjaw Davis. When things get heated, his tone takes on a grainy quality that reminds me of a young Gato Barbieri. 

His Wire Quartet is composed of bassist Faustino and drummer Ferrandini of the RED Trio; Ferrandini is also part of Amado’s Motion Trio with cellist Miguel Mira. Guitarist Manuel Mota completes the group.

The initial and longest track, Abandon Yourself, alternates between sections where everyone plays nice with each other, in sort of a free jazz version of a ballad session, and moments when things come to a full boil. Probably the most fascinating part of this track, and the record overall, is the tension of the interaction between Amado and Mota, where Amado’s rational explorations of thematic elements are juxtaposed with Mota’s frenzied finger-picking and bursts of noise.

The two shorter tracks that follow are even more compelling than the first, each providing a clearer arc of tension and release with a little more economy of expression.

You would expect the bassist and drummer of the RED Trio to be hand-in-glove, and they are, but this is Amado’s and Mota’s show. This round is a draw, and it’ll be interesting to see how things settle out should they tangle again.

Here's a video from 2007 of the group in concert, with Peter Bastiaan in place of Ferrandini.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fail Better! - Zero Sum

Fail Better!
Zero Sum

Luis Vicente – Trumpet
Joao Guimaraes – Alto saxophone
Marcelo Dos Reis – Electric guitar
Jose Miguel Pereira – Double bass
Joao Pais Filipe – Drums

What makes a free improv record successful can be an elusive thing to define. I think it comes down to how well the musicians listen to each other, how skilled they are at interacting, and if they generate some sort of forward momentum. I may be old school in my love of jazz, but for me merely exploring textures doesn't cut it. I still want a sense of the music starting at one point and traveling to another.

I started to wonder about Zero Sum as I began listening to the first track, but my fears were soon allayed. I'm happy to report that the collective known as Fail Better! has documented a successful live concert, one that gets stronger as the record progresses. 

The group is good at creating structures in real time. Even though it's free, there are places where each musician has a chance to shine out front, as it were, of the rest of the band. I recently reviewed Clocks and Clouds from a different group also featuring Luis Vicente, and he again impresses here, asserting the trumpet’s natural leadership position while still leaving space for contributions from the rest of the musicians. The other group members were unknown to me, but all acquit themselves well; Dos Reis shows an intriguing approach, using spare single note lines, but also developing monolithic slabs of feedback to ratchet up more intense moments. 

Zero Sum is yet another example of the extremely fertile Portuguese jazz scene.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tesla Coils - S/T

Tesla Coils
Tesla Coils

Blaise Siwula - Soprano, Alto, Tenor Saxophones
Harvey Valdes - Electric Guitar
Gian Luigi Diana - Laptop/Real-time Sampling , Sound Manipulation

This is the final installation in my four-part series on new Italian jazz from Stefano Giust’s Setola Di Maiale label. Previous reviews can be found here, here and here.

Tesla Coils is a trio exploring “real-time electronic orchestration.” My experience with records featuring real-time sampling/signal processing is mixed. At times I think it works really well, such as on Evan Parker & his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble’s The Moment’s Energy, and at times it’s used in an overly harsh way, putting a heavy layer on top of the music. Tesla Coils is one of the best examples of this type of digital manipulation that I’ve yet heard. The sampling adds to the dialogue and never seems arbitrary or random.

Valdes has a spikey approach to his guitar that at certain points reminded me of Mary Halvorson, but he also mixes in other tactics including a crunching, metal-influenced component. He’s a good listener too.

When I first encountered this CD my thought was, “Oh yeah Blaise Siwula, I see his name around, I’ve heard him on a couple of things.” At the end of the first track I was thinking, “Wow, I had no idea this guy was such a great soprano sax player!” And as it turns out, he’s not too shabby on alto or tenor either.

Siwula plays his reeds “straight” for the most part, with a full tone on soprano and an at times luxurious, almost Hodges-ian tone on alto. Unlike a lot of these types of records, things never get to the point where you can’t tell who’s playing what, and that’s actually refreshing. The tension between the jazz-influenced saxophone and the edgy contributions from the other two musicians ends up being fertile ground to explore.

This is my sleeper album of the year so far; don’t sleep on it.

Here's a 32+ minute clip of a Brooklyn concert from December, 2013:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guido Mazzon/Roberto Del Piano - Il Tempo Non Passa Invano

Guido Mazzon/Roberto Del Piano
Il Tempo Non Passa Invano

Guido Mazzon - Trumpet
Roberto Del Piano - Electric bass guitar

(This is the third in a series of reviews spotlighting new releases from the Setola di Maiale label. The previous reviews are here and here.)

Il Tempo Non Passa Invano (Time Fails, or Time in Vain?) is a really nice duet album that begins In a Milesean Way with somber muted trumpet from Mazzon. The duo explores twelve short pieces, mostly under four minutes, some sounding composed and some improvised, with Mazzon on both open and muted horn, using both traditional and extended techniques. 

Mazzon’s name didn’t register with me, but he’s a founding member of the Italian Instabile Orchestra and a veteran of the Italian free jazz scene since the 70’s. Del Piano is a monster on electric bass, with tons of technique, but not used for its own sake; he meshes with Mazzon even in the quieter passages.

The mood of the opening track comes back around near the end of the disc in a slightly different way on "Se qualcuno si innamorera di me" (“If someone falls in love with me”), a sorrowful, elegant theme that could only come from the soul of an Italian jazzman. It’s a nice bookend to a rewarding dialogue.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Alessandra Novaga - La Chambre des Jeux Sonores

Alessandra Novaga
La Chambre des Jeux Sonores

Alessandra Novaga - Electric Guitar

Continuing our survey of new releases by the Italian label Setola Di Maiale, we come to guitarist Alessandra Novaga’s La Chambre des Jeux Sonores (“House of Sound Games”). On it, Novaga performs five graphic scores composed for her by two American and three Italian composers.

This type of record is somewhat uncharted territory for me. Novaga herself describes her music as experimental, rather than as jazz or free improv. However, she does indicate that a large degree of improvisation is involved in the performances.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that sense of anticipation, even unease, persists throughout the album. It plays out as a series of textures, or episodes, that somehow hang together to form a narrative. There are passages of minimal gestures and there are passages that seem sinister and alien. A sort of hazy calm sets in by the end of the last track. Novaga gets all manner of sounds out of her electric, from feedback to bell-like percussion to piano-like sounds. 

She will be performing the works that comprise this CD in concert at Spectrum in New York City on August 26.

Here’s a clip of an NYC performance from 2012:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Transition – At Mibnight Jazz Festival

For the next few days, I’m going to turn my attention to new Italian jazz, specifically several new releases from the Setola di Maiale label of drummer Stefano Giust. Solos, duos, trios and a quintet are all represented, along with a variety of approaches from through-composed music to totally free. 

At Mibnight Jazz Festival 

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

First up is a live recording from the 2012 Mibnight Jazz Festival in Bremen, Germany from the trio known as Transition. This is another great release from them, following their self-titled record, which I reviewed previously

With a lineup of flute, piano and drums, one might expect a pastoral approach, but that’s hardly the case. The trio generates plenty of heat, with the interaction between Guazzaloca and Giust recalling the epic battles of Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley. Nils Gerold is pushing the boundaries of the flute as an improvising instrument, and he deserves to be mentioned alongside Nicole Mitchell as one of the top flautists in today’s music. 

Within the three pieces, which sound completely improvised, the group exhibits great range, “transitioning” if you will from terse exchanges to very dense passages. The live sound is crisp and clear, and with the absence of audience noise, Mibnight sounds very close to a studio recording.

Definitely one to seek out if you’re a fan of free improv or the flute in new music.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Steve Lehman Octet - Mise en Abîme

Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abîme 

Steve Lehman - Alto Saxophone and Live Electronics
Jonathan Finlayson - Trumpet
Mark Shim - Tenor Saxophone
Tim Albright - Trombone
Chris Dingman - Vibraphone
Jose Davila - Tuba
Drew Gress - Bass 
Tyshawn Sorey - Drums

Mise en Abîme
 returns the same personnel as Lehman’s breakout 2009 album Travail, Transformation and Flow. Since then, he’s partnered with Rudresh Mahanthappa for Dual Identity and released an under-appreciated trio album, Dialect Flourescent, on which he radically deconstructed some standards. Mise features a mix of Lehman’s own compositions alongside three Bud Powell tunes and a nod to hip-hop on one track.

The title Mise en Abîme appears to be a play on words combining two concepts, "mise en abyme", a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, appearing to recur infinitely, and “abîme”, the geographical term for a vertical shaft that opens into a network of subterranean passages. The connotation clearly is one of layers spreading in many directions, perhaps a reference to Lehman’s fascination with spectral harmony. 

Spectral harmony organizes overtones of different instruments according to their frequencies as opposed to the intervals of a musical scale. Using this technique, along with harmonic movement to different tonal centers, Lehman constructs a shimmering, vibrating sound that incorporates elements of new music, jazz and electronic music.

The combination of Lehman’s ascetic alto, the intricate yet melodic compositions, and the overtones created, particularly by the vibraphone, creates a signature sound. Vibist Chris Dingman plays a key role, prominent in the mix, his dense ringing overtones a continual presence in both solo and ensemble sections.

There’s always been an element of emotional distance in Lehman’s music, but it serves here to create an air of mystery. The combination of the geometric arrangements and ringing vibes create a feeling of suspended animation. The last track, Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription, features Lehman playing over what sounds like samples of distant voice and piano, and comes across as a throwaway compared to what has come before. But it doesn’t distract from the quality of the seven previous tracks.

The fact that Mise is a consolidation of Travail shouldn’t be considered damning with faint praise. It’s a confirmation of Steve Lehman’s talents as conceptualizer and composer, synthesizing influences such as Jackie McLean, Anthony Braxton, spectral composer Tristan Murail, and M-Base. There’s no other group out there that sounds like this.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Charlie Haden 1937 - 2014

Jazz lost one of its greatest bassists this past Friday. Mr. Haden was 76, and evidently had been ill for some time. There have already numerous articles, blog posts and forum entries paying tribute to the man, so rather than retell the facts about his career, I wanted to mention a couple of performances that particularly resonated with me when I had just discovered jazz as a teenager.

I think my first exposure to Mr. Haden’s music was his contribution to Ornette Coleman’s Crisis, which was also my introduction to Ornette. For some reason that Impulse LP was still lying around in the bins of my local record store in 1974 when I picked it up. Here’s Haden’s Song for Che from that album:

As great as that record is, Haden really caught my attention with his work of Paul Motian’s Tribute, released in ’74 and still one of my favorite records from ECM’s “classic” period, when the label released gem after gem. Tribute is a great example of Haden’s monster, fat sound and his ability to simultaneously support and drive the music being made. There are parts of this record where he gets as funky as I’ve ever heard him.

Truly one of the very greatest bassists of any period of jazz, his death is a profound loss. Thank you, Mr. Haden, for helping a teenaged kid discover the magic that’s inherent in this music.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Luis Vicente/Rodrigo Pinheiro/Hernani Faustino/Marco Franco - Clocks and Clouds

Luis Vicente/Rodrigo Pinheiro/Hernani Faustino/Marco Franco
Clocks and Clouds

Luis Vicente – Trumpet
Rodrigo Pinheiro – Piano
Hernani Faustino – Bass
Marco Franco - Drums

On Clocks and Clouds, Portuguese trumpeter Luis Vicente is joined by two-thirds of the RED Trio, pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro and bassist Hernani Faustino. Marco Franco, who started out drumming in metal bands, takes the place of Gabriel Ferrandini.

Clocks and Clouds refers to Ligeti’s composition of the same name, which itself was a reference to philosopher Karl Raimund Popper’s essay “On Clocks and Clouds.” Popper wrote of natural processes that can be measured exactly (“Clocks”) and those that are indefinite and can only be described in approximation (“Clouds”).

Based on my limited experience with the RED Trio’s music, I thought Clocks and Clouds was going to be a minimal, lower-case affair. Boy was I wrong, but gladly so, because this is a free improv record that has some muscle. 

Vincente does a nice job expressing himself through both traditional and extended techniques, with the open horn and with a mute. Pinheiro sounds like two piano players at times, exploring the extremes of both the lower and upper registers of his instrument. The RED Trio is a group that’s never really clicked for me for some reason, but with Franco in the driver’s seat things really take flight. The whole group engages in lightening quick reactions to each other, and sounds animated and more assertive than I expected. Now I need to go back and reassess RED Trio’s catalog, especially their recording with Nate Wooley, Stem.

Based on Popper’s definitions, Clocks and Clouds is probably more “Clouds”, an indefinite, in-the-moment process, but the structures the group creates in the moment work. If you’re looking for free improv that’s not afraid to get boisterous at the proper times, Clouds and Clouds is for you.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Catching Up With Brandon Evans

Saxophonist and composer Brandon Evans is probably best known for his work with Anthony Braxton beginning in the 90’s. Braxton’s Small Ensemble Music (Wesleyan) 1994 is the first album I’m aware of on which his name appears, and he’s also on the four volumes of Ninetet (Yoshi’s) 1997.

Evans also collaborated with Sonny Simmons on several albums issued on Evans’ Parallactic Records label. He produced and directed a documentary in 2003 about Simmons called The Multiple Rated X Truth

Evans seemed to drop out of site for several years, and releases on his label became highly sought after by collectors, such as the excellent 3 CDr set of duets with Anthony Braxton, Elliptical Axis 15.

In recent months, however, Evans has uploaded all the Parallactic releases to his Bandcamp page. And now, there’s even better news: All of these albums are available for download for free, or “name your price”, during the month of July. One of these is a new release entitled Harbors

I encourage everyone to download one or more of Evans’ albums; I think you’ll be pleased by what you hear.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York - Shiki

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York

Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss – Alto sax
Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby – Tenor sax
Andy Laster – Baritone sax
Natsuki Tamura, Herb Robertson, Steven Bernstein, Dave Ballou – Trumpet

Curtis Hasselbring, Joey Sellers, Joe Fielder – Trombone
Satoko Fujii – Piano
Stomu Takeishi – Bass
Aaron Alexander - Drums

Shiki is Satoko Fujii’s ninth album with her Orchestra New York, and for the occasion she’s brought back her collection of downtown all-stars. It’s a testament to Ms. Fujii’s tenacity and vision, and the regard with which the musicians must hold for her, that she’s been able to keep a core group intact for eighteen years.

The album continues in the vein of its predecessor, Eto, in that the title composition plays more of a supportive role rather than standing out for its theme. Shiki, which means “four seasons”, presents a series of long simple motifs that rise and fall like the swell of waves, constantly building and releasing tension. The composition serves as a backdrop, framing a series of explorations by individual soloists. Just when you think the band has lost its way, Fujii re-introduces a thematic thread to pull the performance back together. 

Gen Himmel, which was the title track from Fujii’s most recent solo album, is a beautiful composition, given a somber, processional feel by the band, with aching interjections by a trumpeter, I assume Natsuki Tamura. Here his extended techniques work well to convey what comes across as profound grief for the loss of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, a member of Tamura’s Gato Libre quartet. The shortest of the tracks at less than seven minutes, it left me wanting more.

Bi Ga Do Da by Natsuki Tamura is a tribal romp, with slightly deranged vocal exhortations by the band of the rhythmic words that make up the title. Here the band is front and center, as opposed to any particular soloist, although Fujii does contribute some of her signature fractured piano runs, something that is kept to the background for most of the album. 

Shiki, both the composition and the album as a whole, comes across as the trumpet section’s showcase, given the solos on the title track by Herb Robertson and Steve Bernstein, and for Natsuki Tamura’s contributions. They use a lot of extended techniques, and I found myself wanting to hear a good “clean” trumpet sound for at least part of a solo, but that’s about my only quibble with the album.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ideal Bread - Beating the Teens

Ideal Bread
Beating the Teens

Josh Sinton – Baritone Saxophone
Kirk Knuffke – Cornet
Adam Hopkins – Bass
Tomas Fujiwara – Drums
“Like a baker makes his bread, I make music...If I make the same bread tomorrow, that bores me...I have to remake it, I have to do better...I’m always looking for...the ideal bread.” – Steve Lacy

Beating The Teens is Ideal Bread’s track – by – track interpretation (Josh Sinton calls them "recompositions") of the Steve Lacy set Scratching The Seventies that appeared on the French Saravah label. The songs are presented in a different order than the original, and the 3-CD set has been compacted to two discs, with most tracks clocking in at under five minutes. 

Scratching the Seventies comprised five different albums and several different groupings of musicians, including solo works, so the fact that one group is playing this music makes the presentation more homogeneous on one level. But the instrumentation of the group and their original approach to the arrangements take the material in a whole new direction. 

Lacy frequently incorporated texts into his music, either overtly or as inspiration, and this speech-like quality is brought out on Teens; it’s like listening in on a conversation between four old friends, with arguments, laughter and passionate debate. 

Josh Sinton has matured as a player since their prior release, Transmit, gaining expressiveness and facility on his horn. Kirk Knuffke is the perfect trumpeter for this project, quirky and original, yet still letting Lacy’s voice and style come through. The rhythm team of Adam Hopkins, replacing Reuben Radding, and Tomas Fujiwara contribute their voices as well, and even lock into grooves at times, something else that sets this apart from most of what I know of Lacy’s music. 

Beating the Teens plays like a jazz concept album. It’s not about the individual solos, or even the individual songs, but the gestalt of the whole set. With this album, Ideal Bread has taken a big step forward in developing a distinct voice and a distinct take on the music of Steve Lacy.

Note: In the interests of full disclosure, I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund this release.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Star Pillow - The Beautiful Questions & Via Del Chiasso

The Star Pillow
The Beautiful Questions
Setolo Di Maiale/Taverna Records

Paolo Monti – Electric Guitar, Electronics
Federico Gerini – Acoustic Grand Piano

The Star Pillow is a duo consisting of guitarist Paolo Monti and pianist Federico Gerini. Stefano Guist’s Setola Di Maiale label has jointly released these two albums with Taverna Records, founded by Monti. Setola Di Maiale, profiled in a previous post, is frequently home to satisfying, unexpected music in high quality CD-R format and these releases are no exception. 

The Beautiful Questions could best be described as ambient. It’s a quiet, ruminative affair, with the musicians establishing soundscapes that float in the air. There’s an ornery side to their musical personality, though, as one or the other will throw in a curveball to disrupt the flow, before returning to a more placid state. There’s intent and purpose here, but as this is not a genre I listen to, it’s hard for me to judge the extent of their success. As the musicians state:

“The time dilates, the instinct is left free to roam, to follow unusual routes, to get lost in the sound and in the time of a note or a noise, and then become dissonant and disturb the quiet calm created.”

The Star Pillow Meet Bruno Romani
Via Del Chiasso
Setolo Di Maiale/Taverna Records

Paolo Monti – Guitars & Effects
Federico Gerini – Acoustic Upright Piano
Bruno Romani – Alto Sax, Flute, Ethnic Flute

Via Del Chiasso is a very different affair. The Star Pillow add Bruno Romani on sax and flute, and this brings out the free improv side of their personality. The three musicians work well together, generating a nice dialogue between them.

The music on Via Del Chiasso seems to have some pre-determined themes, generally introduced by Gerini, that frequently have a darker, pensive quality about them. Gerini plays an upright, which intentionally or unintentionally is a little out of tune: Think Cecil Taylor’s piano on Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Guitarist Monti can pick some jazzy single note lines or generate electronic effects as commentary. The closing track, In Rosso, features the most traditional jazz piano of the whole album, working well with Romani’s cool-toned alto to end on an upbeat note. 

You can order either CD via the Setola Di Maiale website.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Vertigo Trombone Quartet - Developing Good Habits

Vertigo Trombone Quartet
Developing Good Habits

Nils Wogram - Trombone
Andreas Tschopp - Trombone
Bernhard Bamert - Trombone
Jan Schreiner – Bass Trombone

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Not a startling revelation, I know, but that’s how I came to hear a sample from Nils Wogram’s new group, an aggregation I could have easily overlooked. For despite the fact that Wogram is an excellent musician, whose 2012 album Complete Soul I’ve previously reviewed, a trombone quartet would normally have been low on my list of groupings to investigate.

That would have been my loss, for Developing Good Habits is an engaging, multi-textured record. It’s fascinating to hear how lines get introduced, extended, blended and developed between the four players. Some of the record brings to mind a swaggering Ellington brass section, and some of it a classical chamber quartet. The group doesn’t get into a lot of extended techniques, but they’re not missed, as the quartet generates a nice full, rounded sound with intricate arrangements that support solo passages. 

There’s a lot of life, joy and humanity in Nils Wogram’s music, and it’s present on Habits in abundance. The music is forward-thinking, but it doesn’t lose the connection to the emotional reasons why we listen to jazz. The Vertigo Trombone Quartet strikes a nice balance between accessibility and adventure.

Developing Good Habits is available as a CD or download from Nil’s NWog Records site.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Peter Epstein Quartet - Polarities

Peter Epstein Quartet

Peter Epstein - Alto & Soprano Saxophone
Ralph Alessi - Trumpet, Cornet
Sam Minaie - Bass
Mark Ferber - Drums

I was very interested when I read that Peter Epstein had released his first album in several years, Polarities. I remember discovering him at my local Tower Records (remember those?) when I ran across the series of CDs he put out on ma recordings in the late 90s. They were artfully packaged and featured great players such as Jamie Saft, Scott Colley, and Jim Black. He also had a beautiful solo sax album on that label called Solus.

It turns out that Epstein has been teaching for the past several years at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is now director of their jazz studies program. He put out a record on Songlines back in 2005, Lingua Franca, and one on Origin called Abstract Realism, but has had a lower profile in comparison to his New York days.

Epstein has always had flawless technique, but he tended to be a little too laid back over the Polarities. There's a nice variation in mood and tempo, and he brings the heat when needed. It's a controlled burn, certainly, and Epstein never loses the lyricism that defines his style. He’s good on both horns, but on alto is where you can really hear his unique voice.
course of an entire album for my taste, and his improvisations could wander a bit. I'm happy to report that he's fixed those minor flaws on

Epstein has the perfect front line partner in Ralph Alessi, who can play in or out with equal skill. They work well with each other, trading lines and overlapping in that tight yet loose way that seems to define today’s more adventurous jazz albums. I wasn’t familiar with bassist Sam Minaie, but he and drummer Ferber hook up to provide a seamless ebb and flow to support the horns. Together, the four musicians pull off a neat trick for a group with this lineup: They don't immediately make you think of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet.

Welcome back, Mr. Epstein. It’s good to make your acquaintance again.

Sound clips are available on the Songlines website.