Reviews of Recent Recordings
Rodrigo Amado + Kent Kessler + Paal Nilssen-Love
This is the second recording by this trio and comes four years after the previous Teatro, also on European Echoes. While the 2004 Teatro documented the group’s first meeting in the catch-as-catch-can of a live performance emphasizing long jams, this studio recording shifts the perspective to a series of eight shorter episodes. The Lisbon-based saxophonist Rodrigo Amado is well-matched with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who regularly combine their forces as the rhythm section in the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. That connection will immediately testify to the potential force of Amado’s tenor and baritone, but the trio also has substantial range, shape-shifting from a hard-swinging free-bop through witty and playful dialogues to moments of airy and inspired free-improvisation. The fundamental parallel for this music is the series of trios Sonny Rollins led in the late-‘50s, responsible for masterpieces like Way Out West and the Freedom Suite and the epic sessions from the Village Gate. Amado is a forceful melodist, a quality actually placed in the foreground by the trio’s emphasis on improvised themes. He can seemingly pull a motif out of the air or spring off an introductory drum pattern by Nilssen-Love, and the three are shortly charging along, operating as smoothly if they were working off a chart. The trio’s collective co-ordination shows up immediately, with Kessler’s bowed harmonics finding immediate rapport with the sound of Amado’s tenor. While the group can find a groove and weave a taut rhythmic dialogue, they’re even more surprising when they make major shifts, as in “A Dream Transformed” in which they seem to cover traditional ballad terrain, a dense duo of bass and drums and an Amado solo that carries rhythmic dialogue deep into bop blues. Amado can also take that motivic approach and carry it to an Ayler-like density, as on “The Enchanted Room,” in which he seems to keep his dense, doubling lines mostly in his horn’s middle register until Kessler joins in with a slow moving arco line that Amado ultimately matches with fluting harmonics. Throughout it’s a consistently musical band that can surprise you with both the depth and the range of its resources. There is plenty of abstract truth here, but there’s some gritty blues as well.
Fred Anderson Trio
The strangely inverted recording career of Fred Anderson continues. Rarely recorded until he neared his 60s, he’s released albums at the pace of a 20 year old over the subsequent two decades. Now, as Anderson turns 80, comes Staying in the Game, a superb trio date with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Tim Daisy. Anderson is a magisterial presence, all soul and gravitas. His level of craftsmanship bespeaks his long years of playing and each note and phrase carries the wisdom of experience. Improvisations like “60 Degrees in November” feel structured and whole without any sacrifice of spontaneity or fluidity. Anderson takes some portion of an initial line, maybe a phrase, maybe an interval, perhaps just a couple notes, and repeats or alludes to it in each successive line. Even if one line starts far from where the preceding one ended, Anderson overcomes the disjunction with an allusion to or a reiteration of something that has come before. On “Springing Winter,” a duet with Daisy, Anderson plays long rolling arpeggiated lines that mimic the shape and motion of drum rolls. Daisy, on his part, creates melodic contours using the components of his trap kit. The melody and rhythm bouncing between them once again makes the improv sound both unified and impromptu. Bankhead and Anderson share a special empathy in their duet, “The Elephant and the Bee.” Whatever one musician plays sounds perfectly congenial to the other; the exercise of judgment is so precise and so quick that it seems to defy conscious control. Anderson continues to find new moods to express in his music, as well. For most of its length, “Sunday Afternoon” feels like a relaxed weekend hang with friends. Such contentment of spirit is rare in free jazz, but it sounds natural pouring out of Anderson’s horn. “Wandering” is a lyrical, African-flavored improvisation, laid-back and melodic. Anderson can still work up an impressive amount of heat and fire when he wants to – the final five or so minutes of “Sunday Afternoon” roil impressively, for example. For technical command and depth of feeling, Anderson is simply one of the greatest living saxophonists we have.
Baars + Henneman + Mengelberg
One evening when the BIMhuis wasn’t booked, saxophonist/clarinetist Ab Baars and violist Ig Henneman invited pianist Misha Mengelberg to dinner and when they were finished eating, they went into the empty concert hall and made a record. The conviviality of dinner, the privacy of performing just for themselves, and their long experience together all worked to produce this intimate and idiosyncratic album. Its strength derives from the vast differences in their approaches. Henneman skirts the fringes of tempered notes, her time just nicks the edges of meter, so that on “Zee-Engel” everything is just off-center from where it should be. Her sound lets you hear how she makes music, you’re aware of the friction of bow against string, of flesh against string, of the physical impact of a snapped string hitting wood. It’s a very honest sound, beautiful, but not in any conventional sense. Baars, too, exposes the mechanics of his sound when he plays, there’s a grainy airiness to his sound, the keen sense of breath moving through metal and wood. He controls his tone exactly, with careful inflections and timbres. His phrasing is just as idiosyncratic as Henneman’s, but in different ways. He generally avoids the trappings of swing, although his lines move in intricate and unexpected ways. On “Fishwalk,” he phrases with the quick little steps of a sparrow or deliberate angular motions of a heron. There are sudden graceful bursts of speed or stealthy slinking like a cat. He conveys vulnerability and a feeling for the absurd that indicates a quick and agile mind at work. And Mengelberg, the patient, pensive wit, picks his moments to enter, ruminates on the voicings of his chords so that each conveys a different shade of feeling, adding a touch of jazz here or late Romanticism there. Quite often, he is the tonal anchor of the improvisations, while Henneman and Baars daub color and asymmetric lines around him. The contrasts are stark, even surreal at times, but there’s always a sense that they are walking together arm in arm through this unusual musical landscape.
Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy
With his new sextet Brass Ecstasy, trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas expands the basic New Orleans brass band concept beyond its jazz and popular music roots without losing a sense of fun or a good groove. Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy preceded Douglas in this effort, of course, and he acknowledges the debt with a brisk avant-pop tribute entitled “Bowie.” But Douglas, with his own sensibility and areas of interest, easily differentiates himself from Bowie’s band. Douglas’s small group—trombonist Luis Bonilla, French horn player Vincent Chancey, tuba player Marcus Rojas, and drummer Nasheet Waits—has a more compact, transparent sound, for one thing. For another, Douglas doesn’t have as anxious a relationship with his pop music choices as Bowie, who could never resist distancing himself from pop culture even when he embraced it. On Spirit Moves, covers of Otis Redding’s “Mister Pitiful” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are given a personal stamp, but the arrangements respect the songs’ emotional content, either heightening the mood or slightly shading them into different feelings. The pervasive influence of European classical music is heard in the way Douglas voices the harmonies and balances the voices in his ensemble, and in the structural unity each piece reveals. (Composers within the jazz idiom, such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Henry Threadgill may be touchstones for Douglas’s composing, as well.) Compositions such as “The View from Blue Mountain,” “Twilight of the Dogs,” and “The Brass Ring” all are beautifully crafted pieces, weaving the different instrumental voices into poised ensembles alive with contrasting timbres and lines moving in close synchronization. The soloing is seamlessly integrated with the compositions, again there’s an emphasis on balance between the spontaneity of improvisation and the deliberation of composing. His trio of jazz tributes takes their cues from the tune’s dedicatees. The straight forward melody and groove of “Bowie” gives everyone space to solo; “Rava” is inspired by the dark lyricism of Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava; and “Fats” has a long, twisty Navarro-like line buttressed by Dameron-inspired harmonies. But the music is about much more than making stylistic references, it’s about exercising creative freedom with his materials, whether it’s country music, soul, gospel, classical or jazz. Douglas is expert at letting one style cross-pollinate with another to produce unexpected hybrids. This album contains some of his most attractive and spirited results.
Max Eastley + Rhodri Davies
With a distinctly Cagean effect, Dark Architecture makes us more aware of our sonic environment – are these twinkling sounds coming from the record or is someone stirring coffee in the kitchen?
Max Eastley's work provides one of the earliest links between free improvisation and environmental music. Thiis is a connection which has especially preoccupied English musicians, among them Paul Burwell and Peter Cusack; the latest approach takes a mirroring approach, “finding” music within urban sounds and editing it into a musical picture, a process previously documented on Cusack’s Your Favorite London Sounds (LMC 2002). The topic is well worth researching, from the earliest sound landscapes of another improvisor, Alvin Curran, to the pioneering work of Giuseppe Chiari and Albert Mayr in Florence. This kind of work exposes the limitation of CD medium, because it requires the visual part, and so is poorly documented on record; however a special on The Wire‘s site (http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/903/) provides at least still images, while a YouTube excerpt of Derek Bailey's narrated 1992 documentary “On The Edge” (http://youtube.com/watch?v=JtiQbUQvT7E) allows the listeners, with some effort, to associate sounds and sights.
Like many others, I want to mention in passing here that it's a crying shame that director Jeremy Marre’s Bailey documentary, which is one of the most insightful looks into the nature of music itself, is not available on DVD and circulates illegally and incompletely in poor quality VHS copies. The very quality of the images and the sound requires full DVD treatment, but my inquiry into its status with the intention of finding an interested company opened a Pandora's box of complications – a tangle of failed companies and catalogues bought by parties with no interest whatsoever in the music – and I quickly declared my inability to cope.
To return to the CD at hand, it does question the rules of the medium; while listening to it I opened Max Eastley's Myspace page and the sound emanating from there seamlessly fused into the CD, a fact that I guess would appeal to the artists. Eastley's instrument, succinctly indicated as “arc”, is a long and bowed monochord, remarkably similar to the “tromba marina”, an instrument so old that it was declared outmoded in the XVI Century (more than you ever will want to know about it can be found at: http://www.oriscus.com/mi/tm/index.htm). At the same time, Davies treats his instrument as a sound source, so there aren't to my ears in the whole record any passages where one could comfortably says “that's a harp.”
The protocol of performance recording – the CD documents a November 2008 concert – is shattered after the 10-minute mark by a loud explosion, signalling the beginning of fireworks. Not metaphorical fireworks, but real fireworks outside the venue. This adds a sort of percussive counterpoint that is quickly integrated in the music, a kind of “break” with the two musicians remaining silent. The explosions eventually become a regular part of the landscape, sounding at times oddly like drum rolls, allowing the two musicians to continue confortably their dialogue. After a grand finale and a kind of subsonic bang, the fireworks subside around the 20- minute mark. I am suddenly reminded of how Mario Schiano would often mimic the sound of fireworks, a Southern and especially Neapolitan tradition, to half-mockingly accompany the final, sometimes contrived crescendos of an improvisation. Nothing of the sort happens here – the burbling and crackling of the sound scupltures continue with the serenity of natural sounds, Eastley's monostring emits its whale-like toot, and Davies' harp is milked for eerie vocalizing, accompanying the performance to fade out into each listener's daily soundscape.