Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
The great Norwegian bassist is capable of almost anything, as his ambitious Hyperborean, and his Electra for the Athens Olympics both demonstrated, but he always seems at his best in a trio context. One thinks of Triptykon with Jan Garbarek and Edward Vesala a quarter of a century ago and now surely a modern classic, or more recently The Triangle with Vassilis Tsabropoulos and John Marshall, or, away from ECM, the searching Hues with Sam Rivers and Barry Altschul on Impulse! These records propose a very different Andersen from the gentle watercolorist all ‘ECM artists’ are presumed to be, or even the avuncular bandleader and mentor of Masqualero twenty five years ago. The bass playing is firm and well-founded, closer to Wilbur Ware than to Eberhard Weber, with a clear line on every piece and no gestural wastage.
This new trio teams Andersen with Italian percussionist and composer Paolo Vinaccia and with Scottish tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith, who having concentrated largely on his own groups and his own Spartacus imprint now once again seems willing to bring his distinctive voice to other leaders’ situations. Smith is at the height of his powers. There are few saxophonists of any age capable of what he does on “Prelude To A Kiss,” which manages to sound lyrical and iron-hard, free and logically watertight. For years he struggled under an inevitable comparison with Jan Garbarek. One has to pick one’s Garbarek sets carefully – though Triptykon would certainly be one – to make the parallel or the influence work. These days, Smith sounds like no one but himself, a supremely confident artist working in the company of his peers.
The four-part “Independency” suite which dominates this live set from Oslo ’s Belleville club was written to mark the centenary of Norway ’s peaceful political secession from Sweden . Norway ’s newness as a sovereign country does still resonate through the work of its artists, and critical responses that equate “Nordic” with something atavistic, chthonic or rigorously traditional miss that point entirely. “Independency,” which seems to reference the anthem, Ole Bull, folk song and other national references, including a passage by Andersen which evokes the hardfele or Hardanger fiddle, is an affirmative work that doesn’t lack for ambiguity. Strategically and culturally, Norway has never considered itself to be on the fringes of continental Europe, but at a particular nexus of east and west, north and south, and in Andersen’s piece one hears him stretching the stylistic geography of the music to a remarkable degree. In this, Vinaccia is a willing accomplice, his polystylistic approach and background brought to the fore on almost every track. Smith to some extent has the easiest job: stand at the front and improvise. However, he’s also in listening mode here, highly responsive to the players on either side of him, brokering translations and compromises, asserting himself when space allows (as on the Ellington piece), working high up in his instrument’s stratosphere much of the time but with such ideal control you wonder at it. As you do at the whole record: a contemporary masterwork.
To begin with the most general descriptions, Jen Baker is a San Francisco Bay-area trombonist who works in the area of free improvisation. My only previous exposure to her work is Untitled (1959), on Kadima Collective, by a quintet that includes Israeli saxophonist Ariel Shibolet and Bay-area musicians Damon Smith, Aurora Josephson and Scott R. Looney. Its 16 brief improvisations (their titles are taken from the paintings of Mark Rothko, hence the unusual CD title) reveal Baker to be an exceptionally skilful trombonist with keen listening skills, imagination, and technique to burn.
Blue Dreams is something very different, a solo recording that develops a concentrated instrumental meditation on duration and depth, both of pitch and reflection. Baker is listed as performing on both trombone and voice, but she’s singing at the same time she’s playing trombone. Reaching into the lowest register of the instrument for sustained tones, Baker suggests the long bass trumpets that anchor Tibetan ritual; combining this with multiphonics, she sounds like a choir; with the slide moving, that choir begins to wobble; her voice, from within the trombone, mimics Tuvan throat singing, including the nasal, upper-palate sounds that resemble bowed bells. Put it all together and Baker sounds like a one-woman Central-Asian Buddhist-temple orchestra. Intriguingly, she often achieves intense focus on very concentrated pieces: there are some clarion high notes and magisterial blues gracing “Diplet,” a piece that’s less than a minute long. The sense of mystery grows on “Neptunian Love Song, “ the longest piece at 5’09” and a remarkably sustained achievement in which the trombone multiphonics and distinctive human voice within the sound of the instrument develop a striking multiplicity of timbres. The CD is a worthy addition to the tradition of solo trombone, while the combination of unusual techniques and meditative tranquility also suggests affinities with Sylvia Hallett’s White Fog (on Emanem) with its uncanny mix of bowed bicycle wheel and voice. Baker is a player with a vision, and it’s consistently realized here.
This is a very recent recording, from June 29, 2008, in Moscow. The quartet has Braxton playing assorted saxophones and a low-register clarinet; Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and several other brass, among them piccolo and bass trumpets; Mary Halvorson on guitar; and Katherine Young on bassoon in what I take to be her first recorded appearance in a Braxton small group. The music belongs to the Diamond Curtain Wall series of compositions, in which Braxton has employed the Super Collider computer program to create interactive electronic events and textures that are triggered by the acoustic performance. The composition here is No. 367B, running some 70 minutes, with a three-minute encore. It’s the continuous sonic breadth of the ensemble that may be most immediately noteworthy, both the sheer amount of sound generated and its diversity. While bassoon might seem to occupy a narrow timbral spectrum, Young is adept at insinuating her sound into the other instruments of the ensemble so that the bassoon comes to play a much larger role than one might expect, fitting in well with a seasoned unit (Young has since appeared with Braxton’s Falling River Quartet with pianist Sally Norris and violinist Erica DIcker). Halvorson, too, is a master of texture, and the guitar’s particular electronic resources often create a backdrop for the rest of the ensemble, merging with the electronic materials and creating ambiguities about both source and intentionality; conversely, she’s not immune to turning down the volume until she’s playing acoustic guitar, an interesting complement to Bynum, whose brass evokes the sonic language of early jazz. Braxton sounds consistently inspired by both this young band and the interactive electronics, turning in some wonderful playing, including lyrical episodes on both soprano and alto. While much has been said of Braxton’s partnership with Bynum, the mutual prods they provide one another continue to channel their dialogues in different directions. It’s difficult to describe accurately the seamless weave of composed and improvised elements here as textures and voices seem to disappear into one another, but it’s certainly easy to listen to the continuously shifting patterns and elusive themes. It’s an extraordinary performance, one likely filled with surprise even for those playing it.
Drummer Harris Eisenstadt makes no attempt at “authenticity” in his use of the Sengelese music that inspires his latest album, Guewel (the Wolof word for griots). As an North American percussionist, he doesn’t presume to recreate or imitate the music of West Africa. However, he’s made a serious study of the music, and the learning of a practitioner informs his incorporation of traditional Sabar rhythms and Senegalese mbalax pop music into his own. Eisenstadt distances himself from the traditional music right off the bat by assembling a quintet with unique instrumentation — trumpeters Nate Wooley and Taylor Ho Bynum, French horn player Mark Taylor, and baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton. It’s a combination of instruments not found in any tradition, African or Western. It’s not a New Orleans brass band; it’s not a classic brass quintet; it’s certainly not an mbalax dance band. But it is a group that’s capable of making a joyous shout that’s emotionally equivalent to New Orleans jazz and Afro-pop music, as well as the delicacy and balance of tone and texture heard in classical music.
Eisenstadt’s role in the music makes both these qualities possible. He’s a minimalist in that he doesn’t play a lot of his kit at once, his rhythms are stripped to their essentials, he doesn’t ornament a beat as much as define or distill it. The spaces in his rhythms let the subtleties of his touch stand out in high relief; they also nicely set off the nuances of the others in the band. Sometimes he uses Senegalese rhythms to propel the band in a conventional sense, but often they provide a mold that shapes the improvisers’ lines or they co-exist as one of several events unfolding in the music. Sometimes the Sabar rhythms disappear entirely as the music veers off on a tangent, sometimes they are implied as the players vary and transform them.
The mbalax melodies Eisenstadt has matched to the traditional rhythms undergo similar transformations. “N’daga/Coonu Aduna” loses its smooth African lilt to a spiny Steve Lacy-like swing. “Barambiye/Djarama” journeys from a disjointed Braxtonian klangfarbenmelodie to riffing ensemble to untethered free blowing. “Dayourabina/Thiolena” becomes just one element in a sound collage incorporating abstract sound, linear variation, and irrepressible, buoyant rhythm.
Trumpeters Wooley and Bynum are a playful pair, they clearly delight in one another’s company. A boyish glee underlies their duets on “N’daga/Coonu Aduna” and they can pivot instantly from rough, growling textures to clean, almost electronic sounds, or from plunger mute wah-wahs to flaming energy playing. Baritone saxophonist Sinton possesses similar range, cranking up a head of free jazz steam on “Barambiye/Djarama” and adding heft to riffs with his powerful low register. Mark Taylor’s French horn frequently provides a linear warmth and chesty mid-range voice that helps fill out the ensemble. He provides marvelous linear counterpoint during the group improvisation on “Kaolak/N’Wolof.” Because he never crowds a soloist, Eisenstadt is an exceptional duet partner and his exchanges with band members provide some of the music inspired moments on the album.
Although Eisenstadt never uses his West African inspirations in traditional ways, he has paid them the highest possible respect by using them in the most authentic way possible — to create music true to himself and his musical conception.
In the heyday of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, its five members wore symbolic clothing in performance; Famoudou Don Moye, Malachi Favors Maghostut, and Joseph Jarman donned African fabrics and face-paint to heighten awareness of ritual, by patrolling the stage in a white lab coat Lester Bowie acknowledged the connection between creativity and the intellect. Only Roscoe Mitchell dressed in an ordinary suit. In truth, he should have changed roles with Bowie, since from the very beginning he was the group’s tone scientist, its conceptualizer and author of their most rigorous musical experiments. Naturally, Mitchell’s exacting interests have carried over into his prolific solo projects, and Nonaah, a mixture of live and studio sessions from 1976 and ’77, may be the purest statement on record of his uncompromising attitude, unwavering focus, and yes, of the sometimes confrontational difficulty of his music.
Though elsewhere a multi-instrumentalist, here Mitchell concentrates on the alto saxophone, to which he brings an intense, expansive examination of its sound-making potential, in the process using compositional strategies that provoke questions about musical style, form, and meaning. His duos with Anthony Braxton (“Off Five Dark Six”) and Favors (“A1 TAL 2LA”), trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis (“Tahquemenon”), and quartet of altos (“Nonaah”) all reveal specific perspectives of compositional logic, from tender acquiescence to tart contrast and, in the case of “Nonaah,” layered harmonic blending and buoyant thematic counterpoint. But two-thirds of this double-CD reissue, including 35 minutes of previously unreleased material, consists of alto saxophone solos – Mitchell walking a tightrope strung between the poles of clinical analysis and dramatic expression. His technical control of the instrument is breathtaking, and inspires the development of these solo pieces, as he colors, shades, squeezes, bites, and barks notes in acute patterns of rhythmic design, exploiting radical tactics, sculpting multi-dimensional sounds and textures – crafting the details that define their character. It’s not always pretty; “Chant” is an obsessive repetition of a single phrase, alternately on pitch and flattened, for over nine minutes, and the extended solo version of “Nonaah” recorded live in Willisau is a fascinating, frightening exhibition of tonal and thematic variation and sheer tenacity. Others, however, whose immediacy of intent are reflected in generic titles like “Ballad” and “Sing” and “Improvisation,” give voice to an inquisitive nature which, whether calm or clamorous, sustains a passionate lyricism. Thirty-plus years on, the music is still challenging, still vivid.