Reviews of Recent Recordings
Scott Fields Ensemble
Scott Fields’ music prompts questions, usually quickly: Where’s the line between the bold conceptions and the meticulous execution? Between the composer and the improviser? Between the jazz and what’s beyond category? Much to the guitarist’s credit, the answers are almost always elusive, as is the case with Samuel, Fields’ second collection of compositions drawn from the texts of Samuel Beckett. Given that, as measured in discographical time, the album comes on the heels of Beckett – the 2006 Clean Feed collection also featuring Fields’ quartet with tenor saxophonist Matthias Schubert, cellist Scott Roller and percussionist John Hollenbeck – spinning this more innocuously titled album without making the connection is not surprising. The music is sufficiently compelling to initially keep the booklet with Dan Warburton’s informative notes off to the side. The quartet has an incisive bead on the material; their ensembles are bristling; and their ability to sustain the finely calibrated development of the materials in three contrasting pieces of 20 to 25 minutes in duration reflects an exemplary, collectively honed discipline. Sure, knowing Fields painstakingly ascribed pitch and duration values to Beckett’s texts facilitates a fuller reception of the work; yet, it is not required to dig the jagged and jangling materials. It certainly explains the ensemble’s aversion to lustrous decay; in conveying the bluntness of expression fundamental to Beckett’s texts, their dampened attack and clipped phrases establishes a temperamental continuity that is as essential to the music as adherence to the scores and the parameters for improvisation. This tints materials that would otherwise be more easily compared to the graying generation of Midwestern structuralist composers (although Fields has lived in Cologne since 2003, Chicago is still discernable in his music). Still, the ensemble’s fastidiousness in articulating Fields’ compositions does not diminish the individualism of the players; on the contrary, these are among the more engaging performances to date by Fields himself and by Schubert and Hollenbeck, the more widely documented of his cohorts (the guitarist-like dexterity of Roller’s pizzicato always prompts a desire to hear more). This is another significant recording by Fields.
Satoko Fujii + Myra Melford
The Maybeck recital hall in Berkeley, California, yielded a small library of solo piano recordings for Concord, and a follow-up series of attractive duo performances that never quite had the same cachet or sense of occasion. Some quirks notwithstanding, Concord’s Maybeck series played like a primer of contemporary piano jazz. How does Under the Watersit with that? The venue is the same, and presumably one of the pianos is, too, but the language here is both more various and in some respects more extreme than anything Concord would have comfortably handled.
Satoko Fujii and Myra Melford play three duos and two solo pieces. If there’s any remaining ambiguity about what is meant by duo and duet (the former implying two instruments, as here, the latter that under-recorded format, the four-handed recital), there’s certainly no doubt that these two women create a sound that is both individual and highly communicative. Both are prolific, Fujii almost unfeasibly so on record, and both like to keep their options and their playing contexts as open as possible. Melford even has an outfit called The Same River, Twice.
There’s an aquatic metaphor underlying this performance, too, though it’s Fujii who plays solo on “Trace a River.” They begin together, with initially unidentifiable sounds, on “Yadokari.” If you’re an instinctive dualist and you like your cultural world carved up into lisible/scriptible, “flat” or painterly, or raw and cooked, then this doesn’t quite fit into either half of the divide. It’s not easily “readable” music, or “edible” as the title (“hermit crab” isn’t good for sashimi) implies. Nor is it so strongly gestural that creative personality emerges out of the parts. In fact, it’s a strangely alienating and almost disturbing piece that sustains its eldritch mood over eleven minutes.
Without caricaturing Fujii’s approach in pictorialist terms, her own “Trace A River” does somewhat lapse into “oriental” mannerism. She has a confidently flowing (!) melodic gift, with ideas emerging, changing, disappearing, reappearing at a remarkable rate, but the playing here sounds almost too self-conscious and mannered and the Japanese player, who studied with Paul Bley and others, is much more effective on the other two duos with Melford. On “The Migration of Fish” and “Utsubo” (‘moray eel’ – only questionably edible) there is a rigorous give and take, and a sense of two imaginations locked in the moment.
The star turn, though, is Melford’s own solo “Be Melting Snow,” a wonderfully constructed piece that seems to allude to all sorts of reference points in the piano literature (boogie-woogie, stride, bop, free) as well as to different places in Melford’s own background: she studied with Don Pullen, has worked with Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, and others. There are moments when she seems to be channeling JoAnne Brackeen, one of the few women invited to play a Maybeck recital for Concord, but Brackeen at her most sardonic and witty. That would be a fascinating encounter, if anyone can arrange it. For the moment, though, Melford is the star of this meeting, even if Fujii delivers some moments of rare beauty.
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble
In my book, any record featuring compositions by Sun Ra and Wadada Leo Smith, free improvisations and liner notes by Steve Beresford is worthy of attention. I first encountered Alexander Hawkins with Evan Parker’s quartet. His playing on this occasion justified his addition to a very select list of pianists that have worked with the saxophonist. This CD reinforces that first impression. Hawklins has assembled an unusually configured group with steel pan player Orphy Robinson, electric guitarist Otto Fischer, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassist Dominic Lash and drummer Javier Carmona. The wittily titled “Prelude (unidentified Spanish bebop selection #1” is freely improvised, with a groove emerging towards the end; however, it fails to hint at the riches that follow. The record grows steadily on the strength of Hawkins' own quirky compositions, some more improvised pieces that better emphasize the unique personalities of this ensemble, and the inspired renditions of Smith’s “Nuru Light” and Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” Playing these compositions with an all strings and percussion ensemble – and an “absence of blown instruments” as Beresford puts it – might seem daring, but the results are gratifying.
One might as well start listening with the Sun Ra piece, with Hawkins paying tribute at Sonny's piano sound before launching the left-hand ostinato that calls the other instruments into the piece, transformed by the steel pan sound into a Caribbean groove over which cello-and-percussion and then guitar improvise or hypnotically repeat the theme. At least two of the other tracks (“Old Time Folk Music from Oxford” and “Cowley Road Strut”) allude to an “Oxford” sound in improvised music, as proposed by Pat Thomas; this may or may not be easy to identify in a reflexive solo piano track hinting at memories of Webern and Nancarrow, or a another groove poised between jazz and reggae featuring extended solo guitar improvisation.
Leo Smith's ceremonial piece is given an intensely focused reading, with all the members truly entering into the spirit of the piece, whose theme is dramatically restated by the cello and guitar, whose sound is again at the center of “120:4,” whose title alludes to the central structural feature of the piece, a chorus of 120 quarter notes. Hawkins does not play at al on this track. Like many great jazz bandleaders, he manages to make his presence felt even without the sound of his instrument.
Each of the CD’s 13 tracks conveys the unique sound of the ensemble and the explorer spirit of the leader, making this a remarkably coherent, incisive artistic statement. For me one it's one of the best discoveries of the year, and I urge readers to listen to it.
Despite its many virtues, this 3-CD set only partially surveys Zlatko Kaučič’s music. By concentrating on trios that mainly improvise, the collection bypasses the Slovenian percussionist’s gifts as a composer, which merit mention prior to a discussion of the music at hand. Kaučič has led several large-scale projects that place him in the wake of Steve Lacy’s advents in “lit jazz.” One of them – Vizionarja (2006; Goda) – combine pieces from Lacy’s Vespers with Kaučič originals that also draw from the poems of Blaga Dimitrova; both composers and the poet are well-served by singer Irene Aebi, while a French horn quartet provided a new orchestral facet to Lacy's songs, and reinforced the gravity of Kaučič's. Yet, it is Kaučič’s affinity for Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel that has inspired his largest canvases. two 2-disc volumes of Zlati Čoln/The Golden Boat (2001; 2004 Splasc(H); in addition to burnished, lyrical writing for the unlikely, thoroughly complementary tandem of Lacy and Paul McCandless, the first volume sifts in piquant passages for madrigals and a string trio, while the second features a string nonet.
Kaučič is a big-picture artist in another respect, one this collection supports well; hailing from the Goriška brda region adjacent to Italy, Kaučič has done much to establish a regional identity for jazz and improvised music through a long history of collaborations, particularly with Italians. While it does not include high-profile artists like singer Saadet Türkös or saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (who respectively play on the second and third discs of the set), the trio with saxophonist Javier Girotto and bassist Salvatore Maiore is the right opener. Their free-flowing set is split between tuneful collective improvisations and themes penned by Kaučič and Girotto, who is equally persuasive whether spooling out long soprano lines or garrulously muscling momentum on baritone. Kaučič and Maiore repeatedly change the rhythmic feel of the music on a dime, giving clean definition to the resulting lyrical lull, loping groove or burst of intensity. Even in its most abstract passages propelled by pad-popping and hand percussion, the music has a refreshing accessibility. Throughout the concert with Türkös, Kaučič and bassist Giovanni Maier underline the singer’s soul-stirring plaints and exclamations with an accumulation of textures and a keen sense for when to let space carry the moment. There is a self-possessed, if not imposing quality to Türkös’ singing that would indicate somewhat restrained ornamentation on the parts of her collaborators; however, Kaučič and Maiore are frequently provocative, commandeering the music at one point with their own vocal banter. Kaučič’s ear for texts are at the core of his encounter with Brötzmann, who brings several horns to the proceedings, and singer Robert Vrčon, whose stentorian baritone evokes the candle-lit recesses of millennium-old basilicas and the fog of the mountain forests. While Brötzmann is given free range and improvises with paint-peeling intensity, his best moments come when he enters antiphonal exchanges with Vrčon, while Kaučič keeps the temperature barely at a simmer. Of the three trios, this is the one that seems best suited to be incorporated into one of Kaučič’s future, large-scale projects.
Annette Krebs + Rhodri Davies
There are more than the obvious links between Kravis Rhonn Project and Dark Architecture. Both benefit from the presence of harpist Rhodri Davies, but more importantly both feature a confrontation of sorts between “music” and “extraneous elements,” or rather question the very division between the two categories. In the live duet with Max Eastley, the outside elements, initially under limited control – Eastley's sound sculptures act at random but their range and timbre is defined by the builder – get out of hand with the external fireworks; here the “found” sounds are carefully added and interspersed in the texture of the music, which was edited by guitarist Annette Krebs from materials recorded while improvising in duo with Davies. What we have here is a selected presentation of sound objects, what we have on Dark Architecture is the document of what is happened. The point I am trying to make is that Kravis Rhonn Project is closer to a contemporary form of “concrete music” than to a freely improvised piece of music between two musicians on a more or less controlled soundscape. Nothing wrong with it of course; I am merely trying to find words to situate and describe a music that is distinctive on so many counts in terms of the composed/improvised, the audible/inaudible, and the planned/unplanned. The most important point is that I feel the CD is successful in its own terms, inspiring the listener with a wealth of suggestions; one of the most important coming from the usage of snippets of talking voices, mostly in German, whose imaginary words give the title to the pieces. Listening to the CD using various devices is a good technique to fully perceive its multidimensionality; the care Krebs took in juxtaposing several layers of sounds, of different intensities, sometimes “hiding” the guitar and harp in the middle of found sounds, hums, or buzzes was fully revealed only on headphones. Freely associating the combination of German voices, birdsongs, waves, crickets and rattling bells evokes for me holiday traveling on small local trains in Italian summers. Other listeners may have different, maybe more unsettling associations, but this power of evocation if the best testimony of the internal coherence and expressive force of the music.