Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Trumpet and percussion together somehow always conjure up some element of ritual, whether that is martial, spiritual or something else. Dennis González has always been something of a regional separatist. He arrived in Dallas in 1977, established his own DAAGNIM label and ever since has espoused a brand of modern jazz that seems to set itself quite explicitly counter-corner to ‘New York’ or ‘West Coast’ styles. His Silkheart records of the later 80s went out under an awkward ‘New Dallasorleanssippi’ banner but were much more effective at expressing the trumpeter’s new assemblages of style and influence than the manifesto. Stefan and Debenge Debenge remain essential listening from the period, but my suspicion is that González’s wider reputation has failed to come into sharp focus.
There’s a track at the end where everyone except Dennis and Tim plays agogo bells. This kind of thing can readily descend into imbroglio and at some moments it smacks in prospect rather too much of the “additional percussion” and “little instruments” era, for which I, for one, have only minimal nostalgia. Musically, it was fine, but there weren’t more than three recording engineers around who knew how to mic it all up. The great strength of Renegade Spirits, apart from some stunning playing from the two horns, is the percussion set-up by Elijah Stafford and a superbly resonant sound captured by Marty Monroe and Edward Stafford in Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas. The music calls on rhythms, chants and possibly rituals that might require and certainly deserve more specialist analysis than I am capable of, but one senses their function within the Gonzálezes’ increasingly urgent and relevant mix of acquired tradition and the ‘invented tradition’ of improv. If Bill Dixon went out with the Neville Brothers, it might sound something like this. But I doubt it. Dennis González is unique and precious, and defies easy labeling. Too soon – in the French Revolution sense – to say whether this is an important record, but it has that aura about it.
Saxophonist John Handy’s quintet with violinist Michael White enjoyed a respectable commercial success with Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966. Unlike other popular Columbia jazz albums, such as Errol Garner’s Concert by the Sea or Brubeck’s Time Out, the saxophonist’s album faded from the popular jazz consciousness. But it deserves to be remembered because it’s a tremendous album by any measure. If the band’s other albums never quite measured up to it, they still are solid, even adventurous, albums that also manage to remain accessible to listeners without extensive jazz knowledge. Featuring all the music recorded for their albums as well as a previously unissued concert recording, this collection provides the definitive overview of this unjustly forgotten collaboration.
Without much fanfare, Handy managed to have a remarkable career. He’s featured extensively on one of Charles Mingus’ neglected gems, Mingus in Wonderland (now on Blue Note), a live blowing session in a quintet with Booker Ervin. He’s also heard on the bassist’s more celebrated Columbia albums, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. Besides the three albums by the quintets featured in the Mosaic box, he made another live recording – New View! – with a quintet including Bobby Hutcherson and Pat Martino, which some consider his masterpiece. Richard Seidel hints enticingly of a future re-release of this album along with more material from the same and other sessions. Handy’s late sixties albums were arguably the high point of his career, but he never stopped trying new directions. He subsequently pursued his interests in Indian jazz fusion with Ustad Ali Khan and other Indian musicians and scored a minor disco-era R&B hit with “Hard Work.”
Handy’s Columbia quintets explored different currents in jazz with equal energy and conviction. Over the course of these three albums, they essayed modal jazz, waltzes, bossa novas, ballads, standards, rock, and even free jazz. This would prove to work both for and against them. On their first two albums, guitarist Jerry Hahn lent a populist touch to the group, incorporating a guitar sound that appealed to rock listeners. Hahn, bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke formed an extraordinarily tight rhythm section, playing with a fearsome unity of purpose and drive. They certainly inspired Handy, who had refined and brightened his hard, sleek bop sound. On modal pieces, Handy annexes a wide vibrato that gives his sound a yearning, mystical quality. He also peppered it with soul jazz, blues, and gospel inflections, and used his formidable altissimo to forge wailing high notes into exciting melodic statements as well as exclamation points at climactic moments. Violinist White, like Handy, labored in relative obscurity despite an appealing personal sound and concept. He had a rough, bluesy tone that could turn celestially pure. He used double and triple stops to color his lines, and lend them weight, density, and texture. He and Handy formed a front line capable of great singing clarity and varied dynamics and textures. The band swung like crazy.
“If Only We Knew,” which opens the set captured on Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, is a concise summary of Handy’s art at that time. Structured like an Indian raga, but with virtually no direct allusions to the Indian music, it begins with a statement of the short melody, and then gives way to unaccompanied solos from Handy and Thompson, which, like the alap in a raga, introduces major solo voices and establishes a mood from which the rest of the piece grows. Handy’s is a brilliant solo, blending blues, long coiling bop lines, astonishingly well controlled altissimo register playing, and a rapidly tongued passage that calls to mind a tabla. The high wailing lines flirt with abstraction, but the blues and bop keep it grounded. Thompson spins out on continuous thread of improvised melody, unconstrained by breath length; it’s both mellow and virtuosic. His relaxed, beautifully paced contributions to the ensembles are freely imagined – he rarely resorts to straight-ahead walking – and never crowds the rhythm section and soloists. The band never forces anything, but a genuine head of emotional steam is developed. White’s double stops and bluesy wails and Handy’s second swaggering solo sound exultant over the quietly percolating rhythm section.
The incredibly fast “Spanish Lady” still holds its power to exhilarate. Handy’s brief solo introduction establishes the Spanish feel, often compared to Mingus’ Tijuana Moods, and then the band is off and running at a perfectly ridiculous tempo. Handy hangs back a bit, letting the rhythm section gallop ahead, then he kicks into high gear himself, and vaults into the saddle, hooking onto Hahn’s chords and riding the groove for all its worth. White’s breathlessly exciting solo is equal to the occasion, as well. Guitar, bass, drums, and soloists all work tightly together as they carry the rhythm and melody forward at this breakneck tempo that it’s enough to convince you as you listen that this was one of the great jazz quintets. They never equaled this performance on record.
The 2nd John Handy Album was a much less consistent sophomore effort. The Mosaic set reveals that in some cases the unissued material is superior to the issued. It feels as if Handy tried to cast as wide a stylistic net as possible in the hope of fishing up another commercial success. The result is a diffuse album, the less confident attempts at diversity trumping straight jazz tracks of generally higher quality. The original disc did have its high points. “Dancy, Dancy,” a samba taken at bullet-train speed, picks up were “Spanish Lady” left off, and was meant as a reminder of the band’s earlier success. “Scheme #1” ventures into free jazz, with Handy directing the band through different tempos and instrumental combinations to create a longer form. “Theme X” is a 6/8 modal piece with especially concise, concentrated solos from Handy and White. But “Blues for a Highstrung Guitar,” a boogaloo with a guitar solo for the rock and roll crowd is less compelling. Handy doesn’t sound very comfortable with the boogaloo beat (which is ironic, in light of “Hard Work”) and Hahn is disappointingly clichéd in his solo. No one has much very fresh to say on “Dance for Carlo B,” a bossa nova for fans of a cooler sound.
They did however have plenty to say on the tunes that were never originally issued. “Right on the Line,” a swift modal tune a la “Impressions,” “Debonair,” (which first appeared on a Koch reissue of the album), a blithe 6/8 vehicle which is also very much in a Coltrane vein, and the most historically important track, “Tears of Ole Miss,” a wide-ranging medium blues that was recorded again at the Village Gate and issued on New View!
Projections is a noticeable step down from its predecessors. Gone are Hahn, Thompson, and Clarke, replaced by the merely serviceable rhythm section of pianist Mike Nock, bassist Bruce Cox, and drummer Larry Hancock, who has an annoying habit of vocalizing as he plays. After the lightness and grace of the previous quintet, this band sounds conventional and earthbound. There are moments worth hearing, however. White’s pizzicato solo on “Dance to the Lady” is rhythmically playful and he’s at his lyrical best on “Eros.” Handy plays an engaging duet with Nock on “Dance to the Lady” and solos well on saxello on “A Song of Uranus.” Nock has a powerful left hand that drives everyone before it, but his solos sound redundant by the end of the album. If Handy’s final Columbia album was more of a whimper than a bang, the other albums contained plenty of explosive music.
Cheryl Banks' anagram of Peter's name – Peek at World, used here as a title for the first track – is a serendipitously apt description of the whole record, with Kowald setting out to explore different areas of the world riding on his bass. The German bassist had always a keen sense of place; at one point he decided not to play when the people in the breadshop near his house never really had a chance to see him, so he stayed at home for a whole year playing with his local “Ort” ensemble; at another he wanted to drive all over USA to see and feel the place, a la On The Road.
All the tracks on this CD, while improvised, retain a clear plan, or rather a focus on some instrumental resource or language area in a systematic way not so different from what Anthony Braxton did on the saxophone. They are short and to the point – the whole CD clocks in at less than 41 minutes, and FMP wisely did not clutter it with “bonus tracks.” The titles allude to this multiplicity of inspirations, through the use of different languages (“Languages Differentes,” in French, is one title; “Vita Povera – Arte No,” a wordplay on the Italian avant-garde Arte Povera movement, follows, and then Greek, Spanish and others far beyond my competence). Bubbling pizzicatos and multiple groove variations are the material of the first track, a sampler's paradise full of breaks. The vocal quality of arco work with glissato, bending and finally detuning are found in the second. The third delves in the rich resonant harmonics of strings, with simple phrases and timbral variations. Startling polyphonic chorale melodies played on two strings with the bow are a feature of the fourth, with variations of attack that sound for all the world like recorded notes played backwards. Infrasonic, groundshaking notes growl in the quick fifth before giving way to a violinistic saltellato in the altissimo range of the instrument opening the title track, before Kowald proceeds to travel around all the sections of the orchestral strings; here, the different strings are treated like independent voices, with a polyphonic or polyrhythmic effect. The following piece is solidly grounded again in the deep register of the instrument, used more melodically in a way that could have fitted some of Ornette's angular themes, while in the last two improvisations there's a regular doubling of sound – two strings bowed or plucked, and then Kowald's own voice using harmonic singing in a conteporary version of a Tibetan rite. There are so many different things going on on this recording that time flashes by and at the end one cannot wait to hear it again, to catch a few more, experiencing again the lifelike presence of Peter it gives One cannot but feel a little ashamed for Bottesini, Dragonetti and all their followers who left this unbelievable machine for sound sleeping for centuries in the back benches of the orchestra, waiting for the jazz and improvising musicians to awake its power.
Pump up the volume in order to fully appreciate the dark, resonant sound of Peter Kowald's bass (and voice) in this exceptional snapshot of his life and art.
Azar Lawrence had his ticket punched while he was still a teenager. The saxophonist’s relatively short stint with McCoy Tyner in the early 1970s yielded a truly enduring performance in “Walk Sprit, Talk Sprit.” The LP side-long conclusion to the titanic Montreaux festival performance released as Enlightenment (Milestone), the muscular blues variant epitomized the pianist’s reassertion of jazz as quest subsequent to his work with John Coltrane, one that, while more prosaic than Coltrane’s revelatory music, was well suited to the times. Tyner’s music exuded the strength and resolve that consolidates after a period of intense innovation, and he had few conduits that expressed these virtues more cogently than Lawrence on “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Although he went on to lead three sturdy albums for Milestone and contribute to several notable albums by Miles Davis, Woody Shaw and others, Lawrence was drawn to more lucrative work with Earth, Wind and Fire, Phyllis Hyman and others during the 1980s before self-induced hardships knocked him off the scene for nearly a decade, during which his saxophonist was as likely to be in the pawnshop as not.
It has been a long climb back, but a successful one, as evidenced by Prayer for My Ancestors. Lawrence’s playing on both tenor and soprano is immediately persuasive. There’s a time capsule quality to some of the material, particularly the surging calls to the ramparts and the sunnier melodies, the latter reminders of Lawrence’s LA roots; this is reinforced by the presence of two musicians indelibly associated with the ‘70s – drummer Alphonse Mouzon, who originally referred Lawrence to Tyner, and bassist Henry Franklin, whose Black Jazz albums are worth revisiting (pianist Nate Morgan rounds out the quartet). However, a piece like “Thokole,” its effervescent Gambian lilt reinforced by singer and guitarist Ibrahima Ba and kora player Amadou Fall, would be something of an anachronism on a ‘70s LP. But, it gives the current album a richer, faceted bearing, which is also reinforced by walk-ons by trumpeter Nolan Shaheed on “The Baker’s Daughter,” a cooker reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson’s ‘70s workouts, and drummer Ron McCurdy, whose old-school stoking on “Swinging in Exile” ignites some of Lawrence and Morgan’s most inspired work.
Jazz needs to retrieve as many Azar Lawrences as possible, mature, tested musicians who have, for whatever reason, receded into the woodwork for way too long. Prayer for My Ancestors is proof of that.
Okkyung Lee + Peter Evans + Steve Beresford
This freewheeling, pinball-machine of a trio ricochets their music off jazz and classical music references, pings pure sounds against one another, and let their melodic lines roll wherever their momentum takes them. It’s a music that takes joy in its intelligence and delights in its wit, but maintains a seriousness of purpose and exacting discipline. A kind of rampant glee animates the four improvisations on the disc, recorded live in New York and Philadelphia in 2008. Each one rushes from trio to different duo combinations to solos, and back around in their mad enthusiasm to make music. Evans possesses an uncanny ability to suggest historical antecedents in the midst of even the most outrageous modernisms. On “Yinothanot,” (the title of each improvisation sounds like the name of an eldritch god who could take its place next to Cthulu himself in H.P. Lovecraft’s pantheon) he segues from muted phrases that lash about like an unhinged Dizzy Gillespie to unsanded textures, from propulsive riffs to knife-edged high notes. Lee’s sonorous cello never sounds like a higher-pitched substitute for a bass. Much of her vocabulary is derived from classical cello and the dark sonority of her arco work lends her work a great presence. On “Phacthio,” the foundational rhythms she lays down drives large stretches of the improvisation, and her dry scrapes, staccato mutterings, and gleaming viscous arco —deepens the music’s textural variety. Beresford plays with an eagerness, confidence, and balanced touch that energize the music without dominating it. On “Gwendol ap Siencyn,” he seems to be everywhere at once, a mercurial, antic presence whose phrases elbow each other out of the way as they bound off in new directions. Despite the classical allusions, the trio’s music is something more than chamber improvisation. It’s too vibrant, too mercurial, and too personal to be so easily confined.