Reviews of Recent Recordings
Amir ElSaffar + Hafez Modirzadeh
Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar put his burgeoning jazz career on hold in 2002 to travel abroad, studying traditional Iraqi maqam with old masters in the Middle East and Europe. In 2007 he released his debut album Two Rivers (Pi Recordings), which expertly combined maqam with American jazz improvisation – the first major work of its kind. ElSaffar was eventually introduced to a kindred spirit, Iranian-American tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh through mutual acquaintances, pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. With years under the tutelage of Iranian master musician Mahmoud Zoufounoun, Modirzadeh (who is 15 years ElSaffar's senior) spent the last two decades developing his "chromodal" approach, which combines traditional Persian dastagah with American jazz improvisation, much like ElSaffar's innovations with maqam.
Their first collaboration, Radif Suite is also the first documented cross cultural hybrid of traditional Iraqi maqam and Persian dastgah, with American jazz improvisation serving as the unifying thread. ElSaffar and Modirzadeh's re-interpretations of maqam and dastagah share many aesthetic similarities; neither is bound by the typical Middle-Eastern tonic system, or Western concepts of equal temperament. Rather, each embraces the limitless timbral palette afforded by micro-tonality and the unconstrained rhythmic freedom of meter-less bar lines. Supported by bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Alex Cline, ElSaffar and Modirzadeh's cooperative efforts unveil a new form, previously unheard in contemporary music.
Beyond their respective cultural traditions, ElSaffar and Modirzadeh share an affinity for the seminal innovations of avant-garde Post-War jazz. Their commitment runs deep; ElSaffar is a member of Cecil Taylor's Big Band and Modirzadeh was invited by Ornette Coleman to play with his new quartet in San Francisco in 2007. These similarities are telling, as Coleman's unbound lyricism and Taylor's harmonic density each inform this session's unfettered sense of swing.
Though developed collaboratively, the album is split into two distinct suites. Modirzadeh's "Radif-E Kayhan" opens the record, with ElSaffar's "Copper Suite" occupying the second half. Throughout these extended works, ElSaffar and Modirzadeh reach beyond the confines of Western harmony and tonality, using alternate fingerings and embouchure controls to blend expressive Eastern traditions with bluesy jazz concepts. Modirzadeh's work invokes the thorny angularity of Coleman's seminal Atlantic sides, while ElSaffar's "Copper Suite" employs a more introspective approach. Both extended pieces feature a bevy of fascinating interludes. The leaders’ horns intertwine in heated microtonal discourse on "Facet Two" and "Bird of Prey." Cline's vivacious drum solo on "Facet Two" and his scintillating gong accents on "Facet Ten" are notable examples, as is Dresser's pliant arco cadenza on the conclusion of "7 Quintuplets/Triptych/Bass Solo".
The integration of Eastern musical traditions with Western jazz forms is long established, yet a great many innovations have been made since Miles and Coltrane's modal experiments captured the public's imagination half a century ago. Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa and even John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture movement have all made great strides towards finding common ground between seemingly disparate traditions. Circumventing hostile geographical lines in a quest for new modes of collaborative expression, Radif Suite provides a new blueprint for future endeavors between two cultures that have long been at odds with each another.
Douglas R. Ewart + Inventions
AACM reed player Douglas Ewart and the sizeable Inventions crew he’s assembled for his latest release all choose to stay in Chicago and pursue their music, rather than move to New York along with many of the first generation of AACM members. In place of the broader media attention, wider recognition, and higher profile recordings that came to the AACM founders on the East coast, Ewart and company have something just as strong – a genuine community of artists and audiences. You can hear it in the whooping and laughter and applause from the listeners at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge, where most of this album was recorded, and you can hear it in the loose togetherness, the freedom and esprit de corps in the music.
There’s an air of joyful confidence in the performances. There’s no straining to make a Big Statement, but there is certainly strong commitment to honesty of expression and artistic exploration. The music doesn’t obligate musicians to play in a certain way, just to play themselves, with the promise that if they do, the band will be there with them. For instance, on “Velvet Fire” after a searing alto solo from Ewart, LaRoy Wallace McMillan follows with a whimsical soprano solo that pecks away over Tatsu Aoki’s bass vamp and the busy drumming of Vincent Davis. It’s quite a change of gear for the piece, but everyone goes along with it. The give and take among Ewart, McMillan, Ed Wilkerson, and Mwata Bowden on another extended track, “Mars Blue,” provides further indication of how band members accommodate one another. The horns enter at oblique angles, play radically different lines at the same time, pair up for backing riffs, and then let one player solo with just the rhythm section, all seemingly without any prearranged plan. The music is self-guided by group discipline built over the course of a decade of regular Velvet Lounge gigs. It’s complex, modern, and viscerally exciting all at once.
Performing poets Duriel Harris and Mankwe Ndosi and vocalist Dee Alexander are part of the band as well. It’s still rare to hear vocal artists fully integrated into new improvised music, but Inventions is a leader in this regard. All three have mastered a wide range of vocal techniques and improvise like horn players. A duet by Alexander and Ndosi, “DeeMankwe,” is a marvelous dialog in vocal sound and rhythm that actually bears a striking resemblance in approach and textures to an unaccompanied clarinets and alto trio on “737.” Ndosi’s “OK USA” is a diatribe against materialism and conformity that keeps a noble tradition of social protest alive in the music. Without sacrificing any of the music’s “avant-garde” tendencies, the instrumentalists and vocalists sometimes inject allusions to popular forms into the music, such as the soul and funk music riffing on “The Sound of Breaking.” That range of expression from soul to free jazz, from African polyrhythms to the blues not only defines the Chicago-based AACM’s cultural community, it anchors them in it.
By 1980, Morton Feldman was well ensconced as Edgard Varèse Professor of Composition at SUNY Buffalo, quite aware that his unique security allowed him to compose whatever the hell he wanted, and determined to make responsible use of the privilege. Wary of the prevailing assumptions about an audience’s endurance and the storage limitations of LPs that all but dictated that composers to write works lasting 20 to 40 minutes, Feldman sought to compose long works that avoided both the formulae of process pieces and the padding and predictability of what he called “the epic.” “Trio” for violin, cello and piano was one of the first pieces of Feldman’s late period to support his thesis that there is time for anything and everything in long works. Certainly, he included an abundance of heady ideas into this nearly two-hour, single-movement work – particularly his integration of repetition, decay, minute timbral gradations, and equally subtle dynamic fluctuations – but there is also a looseness to the piece, albeit one that only becomes apparent after investing several hours. This is not happenstance; the short bursts of obviously intricate patterns that initially seem scattered throughout the piece are actually finely calibrated. Yet, they frequently have an initially shambling quality and inevitably interrupt the listener’s full immersion into color fields created by single notes, long and short, suspended in mid air, feathering timbres, and bare silences. As such, they are like splashes of cool water that keep the listener attentive. This is where the players are crucial to the piece, as they need to seamlessly segue back to the still waters Feldman has scored for them. It’s difficult to think of active players who can better achieve this and the other demands of the piece than pianist Aki Takahashi, cellist Rohan de Saram and violinist Marc Sabat. They are well-spaced in the stereo mix (the DVD version features surround sound), which allows all of the small details in attack and microtonality to be fully felt – all three have exceptional touch, but Takahashi’s pedal work deserves special mention. While “Trio” may seem the antithesis of a flag-waver, Takahashi, de Saram and Sabat hand in virtuosic performances.
Fight The Big Bull
The Richmond, Virginia based little big band Fight The Big Bull made waves in the jazz underground with their 2008 Clean Feed debut, Dying Will Be Easy. With adulatory liner notes written by trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein (Millennial Territory Orchestra, Sex Mob, etc.), the half hour demo session only hinted at the large ensemble's potential. Their full-length follow-up, All is Gladness in the Kingdom, features Bernstein as co-producer, co-arranger and guest soloist, guaranteeing the band even greater attention.
Invited by bandleader and guitarist Matt White to join Fight The Big Bull for their next record, Bernstein's liner notes recount a week's worth of rehearsals, recordings, local workshops and live gigs. The results of this intense working regimen can be heard in their congenial rapport, further enhanced by a common language. Co-arrangers White and Bernstein share mutual interests, including a fondness for Duke Ellington's lush voicings, Gil Evan's sophisticated arrangements and Charles Mingus' vibrant group interplay. Even the woolly distortion White and Bernstein use on cuts like "Mothra" and "Gold Lions" subtly suggest Evans' rock and pop experiments, an acknowledged influence on Bernstein.
Despite its impressiveness, Dying Will Be Easy was heavily indebted to Mingus' 1964 masterpiece Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!). White shows great strides as a composer and arranger since that embryonic effort, sublimating his influences into well-crafted, episodic compositions. Delving into Bachian counterpoint and intricate polyrhythms as readily as New Thing-era expressionism and expansive post-minimalist vamps, White's low pitched horn section adds heft to these sweeping charts, counterbalanced by a rhythm section that places as much timbral importance on kaleidoscopic percussion as the traditional trap set.
Beyond an intermittent use of EFX within the ensemble (as on the spacey "Rockers"), White's guitar is the only electric instrument, other than a striking guest appearance from Eddie Prendergrast's fuzzed-out electric bass. Playing an arranger's role, White eschews the spotlight, comping chords and ferreting out serpentine ostinatos with the rhythm section. His primary strength lies not in his fretwork, but in his skills as a writer and arranger.
"Eddie and Cameron Strike Back/Satchel Paige" is an exemplary demonstration of White's compositional acumen. The piece covers a wide range of dynamics, building slowly from a hypnotic bass ostinato accompanied by a thicket of braying horns, to a punchy percussion vamp that introduces J.C. Kuhl's soaring tenor. Kuhl's volcanic solo rises to a fevered pitch, buttressed by caterwauling horns at the climax, before the tune suddenly downshifts into a spare bass duet. Guest artist Eddie Prendergrast's fuzz-toned electric bass drone shadows contrabassist Cameron Ralston's brisk pizzicato break before Prendergrast launches into a probing cadenza of psychedelic proportions, culminating in a rousing unison coda with the band in full sway.
More than just an invited guest, Bernstein's contributions to the date warrant particular attention. Culled from Sex Mob's playbook, his phantasmagorical ode to the Japanese kaiju legend, "Mothra," is a delirious fusion of metronomic backbeats, tortuous horns and acidic guitar figures. His expanded variation on "Martin Denny" (another Sex Mob tune), book-ends a boisterous bluesy interlude with cinematic impressionism, while his crafty arrangement of The Band's "Jemima Surrender" opens with a rousing horn chorale that sounds like it could blow down the walls of Jericho. Bernstein's solo statements are equally noteworthy. When White's overdriven guitar riff descends on Bryan Hooten's multiphonic trombone peals in the middle of "Gold Lions," accompanied by Bonham-esque downbeats and Bernstein's heavily amplified slide trumpet glissandos, alien vistas materialize - conjuring eerily familiar memories of a fictional past.
It is paradoxical that big bands - especially creative, risk taking big bands - would be making a come-back in such economically risky times, yet there is ample proof of their resurgence. Darcy James Argue, Steven Bernstein, John Hollenbeck, Satoko Fujii, Adam Lane and Maria Schneider all lead viable large ensembles that draw from the big band tradition without being constrained by the past. Add to this short list Fight The Big Bull. With any luck, All is Gladness in the Kingdom will garner them the acclaim they so rightly deserve.
From Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy to Evan Parker and John Butcher, I'm a sucker for solo saxophone records. I mean, if you're interested in following the mind of the improvisor at work, that's bound to be the ideal situation, where any cliché becomes obvious, standing there naked, without the safety net and visual stimulation of piano, bass and drums. Paul Rutherford’s solos on trombone and Nicole Mitchell’s on flute have been among my more precious musical experiences. Some listeners might say that the solo format is hard to get into, but that's because it strips off the easy part to get into, the part that in fact tricks you into thinking that you're into the music while you're only into the beat – a subtle and rewarding experience in itself, but often debased to pure repetition of a groove, hence the ubiquity of synthetic drums.
Enter Håkon Kornstad, yet another talent helped to bloom by the serious investment in jazz education made in Norway: after his studies at the Trondheim Conservatory he was snatched up by Bugge Wesseltoft for his label Jazzland, where Kornstad led his group Wibutee, very popular on the European festival and club scene, with his combination of articulate grooves and timbral explorations. Wibutee launched its own label but Kornstad has been developing smaller and more acoustic projects: solos and the extremely successful duo with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. To my guts these do sound much more interesting than Wibutee, as I can do without the drum machines and matted strings, no matter how cleverly used, not to mention that in the two occasions that I saw Wibutee live the volume was above acceptable levels. In fact Wibutee sounded better on CD than live, which is always a bad thing in my book. Hearing Kornstad's sound without all the trappings is a liberation, because it's a very distinctive voice, more Getz than Garbarek, with a raw edge inside. You could situate his music on a line joining John Surman with Mats Gustaffson, at times softly atmospheric, at times more dramatic;on this CD, recorded in the acoustic of an Oslo church with the judicious addition of samples and loops, each piece effectively dwells into a specific sound, prodding it gently in order to generate further possibilities, with a mesmerizing effect; or layering different phrasing of the same idea, creating a poliphony of the moment.
Perusing initial enthousiastic reviews for this recording, I notice that the highest compliment writers can think for these improvisations is to say that they “sound composed”. The idea that this is supposed to be better than “sound improvised” says a lot about the esthetic categories of the reviewers, not much about the music. If the artist in his three lines of liner notes says “free improvisation if you want – the music was created there and then,” I guess that saying “sounds composed” should be taken as the most destructive criticism. Be that as it may for my colleagues, for me this music sounds improvised: well worth the time spent creating on the spot, and then carefully choosing, on the basis of very elusive criteria, the “best” tracks.