Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Lotte Anker + Craig Taborn + Gerald Cleaver
The trio of saxophonist Lotte Anker, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver has made one previous recording--Triptych recorded in 2003. Live at the Loft, recorded in 2005, continues to develop the qualities first evident there. It’s an extremely deliberate trio, a group in which each member is able to insert marked gestures. It’s also a very patient group, willing to develop long, gradual tension curves that arch through a panoply of minor details and events. That ability to build a piece of music is evident in each of the three pieces here, beginning with “Magic Carpet,” a 26-minute expedition with Anker on alto saxophone. The piece begins with the limpid air of Debussy or Ravel, Anker mixing flute-like multiphonics with the strings of Taborn’s piano. The piece happily explores this pastoral space, events gradually accumulating, tensions and frictions gradually arising, until the band is somehow in full flight, Taborn massing dissonant chords in the piano’s bass register, Cleaver knitting conversations amongst timbres at the drums and Anker chattering through in apparent haste but reiterating the same insistent patterns, all the pieces creating a single complex machine of intersecting bits, each in its own cycle. Patterns will assert themselves, Anker will cede the lead to Taborn, an extended drum solo will arise, or a duet of tenor and piano, but it’s all executed with that patient and deliberate sense of the geological fold or the sonata, as inevitable as it is fresh.
Anthony Braxton Quartet
Anthony Braxton’s approach to jazz repertoire has always been hailed for its application of his twelve language music categories, which produces a now trademark, if idiosyncratic swing. Braxton’s relationship to the tradition – he loves and honors it, but is not completely of it – is exemplified by the bristling energy his brays, staccato bursts and long keening notes bring to the material. This is why Braxton’s rhythm sections are so crucial to these projects and, arguably, more determinative of a project’s success than even Braxton himself. On the one hand, the royal blue chip section of Hank Jones, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis found it next to impossible to color outside the lines even a little on the Magenta sessions of the mid 1980s. On the other, Fluxus-inspired improvisers like Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink can atomize a tune beyond recognition, as was occasionally the case on the mid ‘90s hatOLOGY Charlie Parker project. Braxton’s best sections are those who have a graduated approach to interacting with him and the material, building from playful flourishes to severe tests of the material’s tensile strength, but always circumscribing the performances with the firm message that jazz is the issue at hand. Tete Montoliu, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Albert Heath gave this approach archetypal weight on the classic mid-‘70s Steeplechase sessions, and Kevin O’Neil, Andy Eulau and Kevin Norton refreshed it on recent Leo collections.
Standards (Brussels) 2006 introduces pianist Alessandro Giachero, bassist Antonio Borghini and drummer Cristiano Calcagnile into this now decades-long narrative. The high bar set by their predecessors is raised even higher by the decision not to cherry-pick the four-night stand at the PP Café, but release a 6-CD set, which, assuming the quartet performed two hour-long sets a night, represents about three-quarters of what was played. Time and again, they surpass expectations with performances full of pungent details and spot-on anticipation of where Braxton is going next. When they stay close to home on chestnuts like “I’m Old Fashioned” and “It Never Entered My Mind,” they caress the materials without smothering it in sentimentality. Though it is expected that liberties would be taken with compositions “Out to Lunch” and “Ezz-thetics,” the choices are nevertheless surprising. The tightly coiled bop lines of the George Russell flag-waver quickly unravels into progressively open improvised spaces, culminating in an iridescently colored passage highlighted by bowed bass and cymbals that gives way to the head. Their take on the Dolphy composition is based on improvised polyphony that freely surges and ebbs; a passage pairing Braxton’s capering sopranino with Borghini and Calcagnile’s subdued bustle sets up a nearly spritely reiteration of the theme.
Still, the majority of surprises originate in Braxton’s choices of materials. The most corn-prone vehicles tend to be the most tickling; there’s a smile-inducing jauntiness to “Strike up the Band” and just-barely-sweet “Alice in Wonderland.” For every staple of the canon like “Star Eyes” and “What’s New?” the collection includes a countervailing curve ball like Fats Waller’s “Mean to Me” or Harry James’ “Fine and Dandy” (though one suspects that Braxton the pianophile knows Art Tatum’s version of the latter better than the original). For every touchstone like Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” and “Monk’s Mood,” there’s an infrequently, if not rarely mined modern jazz nugget like Paul Desmond’s “Embarcadero” and Charles Lloyd’s “Forest Flower.” It’s a daunting range of materials; almost without exception, Braxton successfully triangulates the original intent of the compositions with his vernacular. Arguably, any Wayne Shorter composition is a bridge too far for an alto player to shoulder alone, as the horn can’t match the mix of heft and glide Shorter’s tenor brought to the themes of “Night Dreamer” and “Virgo.” However, Braxton’s solos are sufficiently cogent – and varied in the case of the two takes of “Virgo” – to warrant inclusion.
The promise of an ongoing, if occasional collaboration between Braxton and Giachero, Borghini and Calcagnile is also supported by the three improvisations sprinkled through the collections. Even more than the passages most boldly departing from the thematic materials, these collective statements confirm that this is not just a pick-up band, that their sensibilities are well versed, ground, and pro active. It is obvious that these musicians can run with anything Braxton calls, so an equally panoramic collection of Braxton’s quartet music is in order.
Anthony Braxton + Italian Instabile Orchestra
Anthony Braxton dusted off some 1970s vintage large-ensemble scores for his collaboration with the 17-member Italian Instabile Orchestra at the 2007 Alto Adige Jazz Festival in Bolzano, Italy. All the compositions have been recorded before, but the orchestra brings out new details and relationships in the scores. For instance, the opening “Composition 63” is played with considerably more definition and insight than the reading first given it by the Berlin New Music Group on the Montreux/Berlin Concerts. The ensemble passages of “Composition 164” (first recorded on 4 (Ensemble) Compositions 1992), musical crowd scenes with individual parts each moving at the own pace with their own purpose, are all handled with great clarity of line and overall group balance and transparency. This piece and “Composition 59” (from Creative Music Orchestra 1976) are both lively with pulsating instrumental colors and phrases that flit with quick birdlike movements. Interweaving solos that make an impact without disrupting the composer’s intentions poses special challenges, but the band handles them with sensitivity and imagination. Just about everyone gets their chance to contribute, stamping their unique personalities into the performance. Working with Braxton must have been a pleasant challenge for the Instabile Orchestra – this isn’t their usual faire – but they seem to have relished it. Braxton’s scores are well served.
Lowell Davidson Trio
Joe Morris + John Voigt + Tom Plsek
Lowell Davidson (1941-1990) was a brilliant pianist with the briefest recording career. A graduate student in bio-chemistry at Harvard, Davidson saw affinities between bio-chemistry and music. For a brief period in the mid-60s he was in the creative ferment of New York free jazz, working with bassists Kent Carter and David Izenson and drummer Paul Motian. In an era notable for its instrument-jumping, he played drums in the New York Art Quartet (pre-Milford Graves) and reeds with a Paul Bley group. These associations come from a brief autobiography that Davidson wrote for a 1980 concert and which has now found its way to Wikipedia. There’s also a passage that suggests how abstruse Davidson could be: “My completed works for publication include Dyadic-Polyadic Harmony and Composition 1979 and ten books of magnetic (in apposition to photically activated) compositions; composition for transition through the upper partials, the K clef composition and the Second Order Canon and Third Order Fugue.”
Recommended to ESP founder Bernard Stollman by Ornette Coleman, Davidson made a single LP in 1965 with the almost unimaginably creative accompaniment of Gary Peacock and Milford Graves. They’re fine prods and foils to Davidson who is an exceptionally coloristic pianist, his lines consisting of mixtures of dark chords and sudden bright splashes and flashes of sound. It’s an exceptional essay in free jazz piano, its primary debt to Cecil Taylor but more erratically playful. Davidson had a capacity to wander insistently, a significant approach to free playing, and here he sounds like he’d make a more appropriate partner for Coleman than virtually any pianist he’s recorded with.
Davidson continued to play in Boston, where he would develop strong ties with several musicians. MVP LSD, sub-titled “The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson,” is a new recording by three of those associates. Guitarist Joe Morris, bassist John Voigt and trombonist Tom Plsek each provide a brief memoir of Davidson, and Morris describes the scores: “They all feature notes (dots) on a stave (lines), but the staves are arbitrary and the notes are placed in the arbitrary staves rendering them arbitrary too. Proportion is a big factor in the scores. Some notes are big and some are tiny...There are a lot of colors including gold and silver, and many of the dots (blobs) are of an amorphous shape...” The three musicians have supplied names for Davidson’s untitled pieces, some of which were written on 3” by 5” index cards. The titles emphasize color, as in “Separate Blue X’s” or “Gold Triptych.”
The results are almost continuously beautiful, the three musicians finding notes for forms that can never be directly transcribed, combining memory and tribute with the on-going process of finding sonic substance for marks on paper that are not the usual code to be deciphered but runic markings to a synaesthetic experience in which visual and sonic elements fuse. The delicacy with which the three approach the task is immediately apparent on “Blue Sky and Blotches:” a gently muffled acoustic guitar line, a repeated arco bass figure, a plosive trombone note are repeated until the three intertwine to create a resilient and hushed continuum of tremendous energy. Such moments abound here, each piece seeming to incite new materials and principles of exchange among the trio, who go well beyond the kind of abstracted involvement that one sometimes hears in the realization of chance or arbitrary scores. In that, one assumes, one hears more of Davidson than is in the scores, and more of what he means to the three musicians.
Paul Dunmall Sun Quartet
This live set by Dunmall’s ad hoc quartet with saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Mark Helias, and percussionist Kevin Norton is a real meat-and-potatoes free jazz set. They stick to basics – a let’s-see-what-happens commitment to making music in the moment. It’s a tremendously enjoyable set since these four improvisers always know what they’re about, even (or especially) when there is no preconceived idea of where the music might head. The unexpected and the inevitable seem to be one and the same. The pairing of Dunmall’s deep, gruff tenor with Malaby’s lighter, cleaner sound covers a lot of sonic territory. Malaby’s strength lies in extending initial ideas into long, continuously evolving lines, often influenced by what others in the band are doing. Dunmall piles on variations of short initial ideas, tosses in contrasting linear threads, and contexts everything with a sure sense of balance and development. Their music moves and rests in different ways so the compounding of their lines varies in density and out of sync motion. They often position themselves where the other isn’t—if Dunmall is working over a short querulous phrase, Malaby deploys long celestial tones, for instance. Early on in the 50-minute “Ancient Airs,” Dunmall and Malaby build to a frenzied dialog of contrasting sonorities and melodic concepts. But with seven instruments among them, the music follows a winding course through duo and trio and quartet combinations, meditative passages, and timbre explorations. Helias is an equal voice with the horns. His arco playing blends seamlessly with the wind instruments, while his pizzicato imposes drum beat patterns that mesh with Norton. Helias and Norton really push the music aggressively during a soprano sax and bagpipes passage. Norton’s vibes adds an extra dimension to the music, its sharp metallic texture and shimmering sonority providing contrasts to the strings and horns. It’s fun and harrowing by turns, full of the warmth of fellowship and camaraderie. Basic, nourishing stuff.