Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Michael Formanek Very Practical Trio
Even Better
Intakt CD335

Barriers tumble on this lively, intelligent, and altogether remarkable album by bassist Michael Formanek. The ideas flow so freely among the trio, which includes saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Mary Halvorson, that it’s as if they don’t belong to any one player, but to the music under construction. The selflessness of the group improvising is exemplified on tracks such as “Apple and Snake” and “Shattered” in which each note or phrase makes the piece sound better, deepens the feeling, or shades the mood in subtle ways. There’s no drummer, but plenty of rhythmic tension and release, creating a dramatic storyline that keeps you riveted to the music. On “Suckerpunch,” Formanek and Halvorson fill as much space as they can with short, energetic phrases while Berne calmly pursues his own melodic logic at half the tempo. The tension is palpable; It’s like watching a man walking in heavy traffic without getting hit. Formanek himself is a key to the rhythmic-melodic vitality of the music. He’s such an attentive collaborator that one hesitates to call what he does accompaniment because his lines have such stand-alone integrity. On “Life Statues” and “Still Here,” he provides rhythmic reinforcement and opposition, counterpoint, and embellishments that keep the music in a constant state of surprised elation. Formanek’s compositions are songlike without using song form and their twisty-turny post-bop paths lead seamlessly into the improvisations. In the end, distinctions between composition and improvisation and between individual and collective matter very little. Each performance is an organic whole – every note is essential, every moment fully inhabited and vibrant with possibility.
–Ed Hazell


Satoko Fujii + Joe Fonda
Long Song 2019

Although an unlikely alliance on the face of it at its inception in 2015, the combination of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii with American bassist Joe Fonda has proven one of the most inspired pairings in recent memory. If the addition of Italian saxophonist Gianni Mimmo on Triad (Long Song, 2018) accentuated the lyrical aspects of the duet, then the presence of Fujii’s spouse, maverick trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, on two cuts on Four emphasizes their rambunctious unfettered side. As a result, Fujii and Fonda don’t regurgitate the winning gambits from their first three albums, but nonetheless uncover novel avenues of interaction, even on the tracks where Tamura doesn’t appear.

Both principals possess an abundance of harmonic nous, rhythmic flexibility and melodic invention which they call upon with almost telepathic understanding. How they shift between those various elements, avoiding the obvious rejoinders, promotes the sense of cohesive opposition which is a significant part of their appeal. It’s apparent from the outset as Fonda’s gently rippling pizzicato opens “Painted By Moonlight” with a questioning inflection. When no answer arrives he reiterates more emphatically. Fujii’s eventual response is one of richly voiced semi-abstraction, like an opaque but ultimately revealing anecdote.

That sets the tone for the following four miniature masterpieces where each piece convinces as whole in itself. While concise, “Diamonds In The Rough” is packed with high drama, ending with sweeping glissandos and vocalized upper register bowing. In a change of pace on “Gift From Billy,” Fonda wields wood flute in simple folkish strokes while Fujii rubs the strings to create a tinny hum, while later stuttering arco and suggestions of ringing church bells emerge from the absorbing tonal dialogue.

Fonda, whose sound is superbly recorded so you can hear his instrument’s every last resonance, imparts a poetic edge even to the skittering sawing which introduces “The Wind As It Bends.” Fujii comes to the fore here. Her low rumble morphs into Cecil Taylor-like hammered motifs, before resolving into the sort of surging ostinato that might launch one of her charts at any moment, but which here instead decelerates to an early close.

Unexpected outcomes continue when Tamura finally enters on the long multifaceted journey of “Stars In Complete Darkness.” He joins after Fujii and Fonda’s initial darting outpouring transmutes into a series of ascending figures. Immediately he prompts an outbreak of flailing dissonance from Fujii, while Fonda maintains a wiry foundation. Thereafter the trumpeter’s deflating balloon whistle leads to diverse passages which touch on near-silent ambience, dense bustle, and rhapsodic vistas. On the punningly titled “We Meet As 3,” the further exchange of adventurous textures vies with more conventional discourse in yet another example of the productive creative tension which the duo exploits so well. It all demonstrates that there’s still abundant mileage in this serendipitous match.
–John Sharpe


Go: Organic Orchestra and Brooklyn Raga Massive
Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas
Meta Records/BRM 023

Like many performers and fans of improvised music, percussionist/composer Adam Rudolph is smitten with Indian classical music. As most readers know, Rudolph is also a longtime serious student of percussive and musical traditions from around the world. He’s often used his Go: Organic Orchestra as a vehicle for exploring those influences. On Ragmala, he puts the GOO together with Brooklyn Raga Massive for a joyous and consistently creative deep dive into Indian music. It’s two hours of large sound from a very large ensemble. You’ll recognize a lot of the names, including Hamid Drake, Harris Eisenstadt, Avram Fefer, Charles Burnham, and Graham Haynes, among others. But it’s the collective sound that’s the thing here, and wonderfully so.

The key in music of this scale is avoiding the murk of overload. Listening to the horn cues on the opening track, one is immediately impressed at Rudolph’s judicious, tasteful conduction. Keyboards and drone are constants but there’s an arranger’s sensibility to these pieces that’s refreshing. For the most part this is held together by a reliance on sub-groupings rather than the full ensemble at all times. But I was consistently impressed by how resourceful all the players were in their range of techniques and textures, everyone playing with subtlety and attention to the whole. Just note the subdued keys and percussion of “Ecliptic,” the heady swirl of “Wandering Star,” and the mournful tenor and pizzicato in “We Grieve,” each one showing how deftly Rudolph shifts the spotlight and coaxes details from the vast palette.

Some of the most successful pieces here – and there’s nary a dud – are those prominently featuring vocals, as with the burbling, flute-heavy groove of “Mousa Azure” or “Chakawali.” This sort of spaciousness absolutely highlights the power and intensity of these tapestries of sound, whether reflective miniatures (like “Shantha” or the near-ambient “Lamentations”) or deep drones such as “Savannahs” (which evolves into a raucous 7/8 groove where harp, violins, horns, and chimes cavort joyously). But the musicians seem to feel it the most on the pieces with the greatest groove and swagger. “Rotations” and “Ascent to Now” ride the tabla and some tasty strings to electric Miles territory. Even funkier are “Glare of the Tiger” and the percolating “Africa 21.” Full of range, color, and conviction, Ragmala is a treat.
–Jason Bivins


Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn
The People I Love
Pi Records PI82

In case we needed any more proof that Steve Lehman is one of the most vital voices in the music, his new album The People I Love, which features bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid alongside the eminent Craig Taborn, should put any further doubt to rest.

The album is framed by three captivating short duo improvisations from Lehman and Taborn: a prelude, interlude, and postlude. The album’s second cut, “Ih Calam and Ynnus,” is just about worth the album’s price of admission on its own, as it contains more music than a sub six minute piece should have any right to. The forward motion – stoked by Reid’s cracking snare and Brewer’s bedrock deep bass – is unstoppable, and the level of intensity and sense of purpose is only matched by the likes of Lehman’s contemporaries like Iyer, Halvorson, and Berne. Lehman’s alto sound reaches out from the speaker and grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck, while his slash and dash cutting lines mesmerize. Taborn, who makes just about every album he appears on essential listening, is equally impressive, especially on his solo, during which he juxtaposes big left hand chords against tumbling right hand lines that are in an entirely different meter and rhythmic feel.

Along the way we find an exciting cover of the electronic duo Autechre’s “qPlay” – which is cleverly mastered in such a way that the drums and cymbals almost sound electronic – and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design.” The latter is the only cut without Taborn and was recorded eight months before the rest of the album in a different studio. The trio is pure fire, and the performance has the spontaneity and energetic vibe of a live club date, but the somewhat stuffy and covered sound sticks out on an album that is otherwise impeccably recorded. The penultimate track is Kenny Kirkland’s ballad “Chance,” which I’m not sure completely works, as Lehman’s saxophone persona is more steely-eyed assassin than tender balladeer.

There’s only one instance where Taborn doesn’t sound like he’s a full-time member of the band. On Lehman’s “Beyond All Limits” he seems to play it safe and stays out of the way with somewhat basic chord comping behind Lehman’s solo. It’s as if he doesn’t want to intrude and is minding his manners. But then midway through Lehman’s second solo he unleashes a series of fierce counter melodies that put to bed any notion that he was a passing guest who hadn’t fully digested the band’s book.

Regardless of whether they are playing tunes by Jeff “Tain” Watts, Rosenwinkel, or Autechre, Lehman, his trio, and Taborn are able to fit these compositions into their aesthetic and make them their own. That speaks to the solidity of their vision and their ability to execute that vision. Throughout, they play with a swagger and confidence of knowing that they’re on a higher level than most. The People I Love demonstrates that this attitude isn’t empty or assumed. It’s not arrogance; it’s a matter of fact. Lehman and company deliver the goods.
–Chris Robinson


Russ Lossing Trio
ezz-thetics 1006

On Ways, pianist Russ Lossing is joined by the rhythm section of bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Billy Mintz. Heavyweights in their respective fields, Lossing, Kamaguchi, and Mintz have played together in numerous permutations, establishing a congenial sense of interplay. Drawn to the unique musical sensibility of Paul Motian, Lossing worked with the legendary drummer on a handful of albums, including As It Grows (hatOLOGY, 2004), and also paid tribute to the late artist (who died in 2011), with Drum Music: Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside, 2012), a set of solo piano interpretations. Lossing’s debt to Motian continues in this program of improvised pieces. All the compositions are based on open forms; sometimes the tunes are solemn and contemplative, other times brash and impassioned.

Lossing’s unfettered improvisations comprise long-standing traditions and innovations of the avant-garde. With a catholic approach towards the vast history of the piano tradition, Lossing pairs a knotty right hand with a driving left, revealing a dark, modernist sensibility; everything from melancholy pointillism, spectral glissandi, and pulverizing clusters erupt from his keys. With virtuosic precision, he blazes a trail of dense chromatic voicings and sinuous lines that tumble forth with cascading intensity. Similarly, Kamaguchi’s bold phrasing and robust tone is solidly omnipresent; his steady bass lines incorporate a range of techniques, from steely pizzicato to pulsating chords. A dynamic percussionist with a penchant for subtle accents, Mintz’s ability to shade and color with crystalline clarity makes him a perfect accompanist in spare settings, but he can also swing with a vengeance, and there are several opportunities here for him to stretch out.

Transcending conventional notions of soloist and accompanist, the trio engages in three-way conversations that veer from impressionistic lyricism to visceral expressionism. Brimming with impetuous energy, the music transitions through different moods – from vibrant motifs and multi-hued ornaments to rippling passages and sudden shifts in tone. A freewheeling interpretation of a classic institution, Ways draws on a rich history, offering an expansive view of the contemporary jazz piano trio informed by the free jazz tradition.
–Troy Collins


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