Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Miya Masaoka + Joan Jeanrenaud
Miya Masaoka’s For Birds, Planes & Cello mixes field recordings and Joan Jeanrenaud’s cello to create an hour-long, thought-provoking soundscape. The ambient sounds were recorded in a canyon near San Diego during early morning hours, where a multitude of birds was in full song. Apparently, the canyon is also near the San Diego airport, so the sounds of airplane engines provide drone-like elements. Masaoka then brought the field recordings into the studio, where Jeanrenaud, with whom Masaoka works in a trio with saxophonist Larry Ochs, approximated aspects of the birdcalls and the engines. Using unorthodox arco techniques, Jeanrenaud created an inventory of surreal textures, which Masaoka used to construct the piece. The finished piece has a dichotomous impact on the listener. While there is, generally, a liberating suspension of time that lets one drift, the piece repeatedly goads one to second-guess the sound source(s). Masaoka frequently asks disarmingly direct questions through her music, What Is The Difference Between Stripping And Playing The Violin? (1997; Victo) being the most notorious example on CD. That’s not the case here. For Birds, Planes & Cello is surprisingly non-polemic, and perhaps wondrous because of it.
David Murray 4tet & Strings
This is David Murray’s most daring album in years. Far from the typical “with strings” affair, Waltz Again finds the veteran tenor saxophonist using an 10-piece string ensemble not as a backdrop, but as a counterpart to his current quartet. There’s a prodding quality to Murray’s string writing even when his themes smolder with romance or shout jubilantly. Additionally, Murray often ushers the strings in and out of pieces in an unassuming manner, only to then unleash provocative statements from them. And, he repeatedly changes their weight in the mix, exhibiting fine sensitivity to the material. In doing so, Murray keeps the listener glued to the edge of the seat throughout the entire album. The other half of the story is his quartet with pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Hamid Drake. Whether they are navigating the often strident, 26-minute “Pushkin Suite” or riding the gliding 3/4 swing of the title tune, Murray’s cohorts assert themselves at every turn, but never at the expense of the overall balance within the ensemble. Then there’s Murray himself, clearly inspired by the proceedings, delivering the type of performances that will make his long-time listeners realize that they haven’t yet heard everything he’s got.
Lauren Newton + Joëlle Léandre
2005 was a very good year, CD-wise, for Joëlle Léandre. The bassist’s duo album with Steve Lacy (initially released on Leo and part of the forthcoming Steve Lacy Leaves Blossoms box set) was one the year’s best. Her duo with vocalist Lauren Newton and her second album with Quartet Noir (rounded out by pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Fritz Hauser and saxophonist Urs Leimgruber) also buttress the widely held view that Léandre is a singular force in improvised music.
Having performed together as a duo for a decade, both Newton and Léandre regularly move together in close order. Both have extensive classical training that informs their keen sense of pitch and articulation, which goes a long way to creating an overarching aura of organic coherence in their work. At the same time, they both improvise with a fascinating mixture of abandon and bluntness. Though the latter is reflected in the apt name of the album, there is also an underlying jocosity to their approach. Surprisingly, Léandre vocalizes very little; instead, she focuses on shadowing and countering Newton with frequently stunning arco technique.
Quartet Noir is a more deliberative setting for Léandre. Most probably despite their best efforts, longtime collaborators Hauser and Leimgruber provide a discernable center of gravity, which prompts quite different responses from Crispell and Léandre. The pianist deftly plants kernels into the improvisations that at first seem like little more than asides. Yet, they inevitably take root and shape the flow of ideas. Léandre often orbits about the others, developing a counter movement with textures. At the right unexpected moment, she swoops in and supplies the right unexpected sound to jell the moment.
The core method of minimalism is repetition, but the composers most closely associated with minimalism have widely divergent approaches to repetition. Some are aged well, perhaps none better than Steve Reich’s use of overlapping rhythm patterns and his reliance upon piano, mallet percussion and voices to carry them in such major works as Music for 18 Musicians (1978; ECM). Reich realized early on that the rhythmic effervescence resulting from this approach provides a sly, effective conveyance to the trance state that is part and parcel of the minimalist aesthetic. His application of this approach and the overlay of his ever-deepening Judaism through texts on the four-part title piece makes You Are (Variations) one of Reich’s most immediately rewarding recordings. Scored for 18 voices, 13 strings, seven winds, four pianos, and four mallet instruments, “You Are (Variations)” covers a lot of ground in less than a half-hour. As a result, the briskly paced movements are all the more exhilarating, while the more meditative passages avoid excess. The album concludes with “Cello Counterpoint,” a multi-track piece performed by Maya Beiser. The piece uses elastic minor to major scale harmonic movement, canon structure and the full range of the cello to a middle ground between bracing orchestral fullness and small ensemble tautness.
One of the issues Giacinto Scelsi revisited time and again was how differentiated articulation could cohere and propel a composition as effectively as a tone row. By the onset of the 1960s, he realized that the voice was the best instrument to test this hypothesis. Though they are not songs in any conventional sense, these pieces from the ‘60s and early ‘70s reveal how this pursuit intersected with other interests, ranging from his use of few pitches in a given composition to his desire to evade analysis. The three works included on Incantations – “Sauh I-IV,” “Taiagarù” and “Hô” – are representative of how Scelsi’s music could have an earlier-than-early music feel, even though he had a unique modern lexicon. Marianne Schuppe’s lustrous voice imbues the material with a hallowed aura, albeit one without obvious religious hues. Having studied with Scelsi colleague Michiko Hirayama, one can confer a degree of authenticity onto Schuppe’s performances, though it should be noted that Scelsi granted substantial interpretative leeway to the performers of his music. Consequently, the line between Scelsi’s intentions and Schuppe’s conceptions is shrouded. Captivatingly so.
Jaleel Shaw’s Perspective does more than introduce an alto saxophonist and composer whose talents and promise are obvious. It provides another vantage into the Philly scene that yielded Blue Note-anointed pianist Robert Glasper, which remains one of the vital jazz communities in the US. Post-war Philadelphia was a hothouse for jazz talent because of its strong community fabric; the case in point being the young John Coltrane and Jimmy Heath, kids in the same neighborhood whose talents were nurtured by parents, teachers and friends. That fabric remains intact, as evidenced by the contemporaneous ascent of Shaw and drummer Johnathan Blake (son of violinist John Blake), who have been playing together since they were 12. Shaw was in high school when he first heard Glasper, who he then befriended before the inevitable move to New York. On Perspective, Shaw brings together this Philly crew, bassist Vincente Archer and guitarist Lage Lund (Shaw’s classmates at Berklee), and, for two tracks, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, a line-up that reflects Shaw’s evolution from student to networking musician.
Coltrane figures noticeably on the album. Shaw jump-starts the album with his tribute, “The Heavyweight Champion,’ a knotty line that Shaw, Glasper and Lund stretch in various directions. The album’s steady pace is sustained near its conclusion with a hard-hitting take on “Grand Central” with Turner, which suggests that the saxophonists have real potential as a front line. In between, several Shaw tunes employ such Coltrane-associated devices as slow-burn mid-tempo vamps and well-honed pentatonic motives, but he never sounds simply derivative. Instead, these characteristics blend with Shaw’s affinity both as a player and a composer for hard bop and Wayne Shorter’s translucent lyricism to form a firm foundation to further distinguish himself in the future. He’s already a confident leader on the basis of his writing, playing and the inspired contributions of Glasper, Blake et al on Perspective.
Harvey Sorgen + Steve Rust + Michael Jefry Stevens
Michael Jefry Stevens Trio
The art of juggling is essential for the working jazz musician. Michael Jefry Stevens is an excellent example of an artist who keeps several projects booked and logs tens of thousands of miles each year to keep all the balls in the air. In the process, the pianist has developed pockets of very loyal fans, particularly in Europe for the quartet he co-leads with bassist Joe Fonda (recently, the Alte Paketpost in Rottweil, Germany issued a live CD available only at the venue). One of the basic rules for successful juggling is working within a circle of compatible colleagues like Harvey Sorgan, the drummer of both the Fonda/Stevens Group and the trio featured on Decade. Another is keeping contact with every possible collaborator or producer; Exit’s Barry Wedgle had been in Stevens’ book for years before he shopped Spirit Song to the guitarist’s label. Deft juggling can result in spates of CDs hitting the streets contemporaneously, which is the case with these two fine trio albums.
Stevens is fluent in many jazz sub-genres, and his playing and writing regularly twists and combines them into new shapes. Though the pieces on Decade are credited as collaborations with Sorgan and bassist Steve Rust, many of them have well-hooked vamps, chord changes and themes in the vein of the Stevens tunes on Spirit Song. On the infrequent occasions when Stevens delves into a standard, his veers clear of the usual gambits pianists use on war horses like “Nardis,” the opener of the Exit date with bassist Peter Herbert and drummer Jaff “Siege” Siegel. Stevens also has a keen ear for which tunes from his rather voluminous book are best tailored to the respective strengths of these two bass-drums tandems. Herbert and Siegel tend to stay snug in the pocket, but never miss a good opportunity – as opposed to any opportunity – to flesh out the music. Rust and Sorgan are more determined to test the elasticity of the form at hand, but they know when to let a tune snap back into its original shape. On both dates, Stevens is impressive, whether he is delineating a bold thematic contour or digging into in a hard-driving groove.
Cecil Taylor: The Ensemble
Almeda appears to be Cecil Taylor’s last album for FMP, the label that issued the pianist’s most important recordings of the past 20 years. FMP’s monumental In Berlin ’88 box set and its Feel Trio dates lead a long list of strong solo and ensemble recordings that made this period the most well-documented in Taylor’s long, history-making career. Recorded at the 1996 Total Music Meeting the night before the same nonet performed The Light of Corona (FMP CD 120), released in 2002, Almeda may well not end up at the top of anyone’s list of Taylor FMPs. Nevertheless, it is a fine example of Taylor’s music in the mid-‘90s.
Taylor’s ensemble brings together musicians who worked with him in different settings during this period. Cellist Tristan Honsinger and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström were members of his so-called “European Quintet.” Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall were regulars, both in Taylor’s trio and larger ensembles. The other horn players (trumpeter Chris Matthay, trombonist Jeff Hoyer and saxophonists Chris Jonas and Elliott Levin) performed with Taylor on his occasional big band stints at enlightened NYC venues. Their working knowledge of Taylor’s methods is crucial to the unfolding of the piece. In lesser hands, staple Taylor devices like spectral trills, spiking crescendos, and elastic quasi-canons would be reduced to mud.
The piece has several distinguishing elements. Taylor keeps a relatively low profile in the first quarter of the 76-minute piece, letting the ensemble establish a baseline of intensity. Matthay is particularly impressive during this portion of the piece. Additionally, there are pungent off-speed passages dotting the piece, particularly a trio exchange with Duval and Krall approximately half-way through the piece, and an interlude late in the piece where Honsinger steps to the foreground, bowing with a strange rhythmic lilt, given the generally dead-serious tone of the piece. When all is said and done, this is a satisfying, occasionally compelling performance.
John Tilbury’s main activities create a reverberation between the ideas of interpretation and improvisation. The pianist is highly regarded for his interpretations of the piano music of Morton Feldman. As a member of AMM, he is an architect of the ensemble’s pioneering “laminate” approach to improvisation. Both trajectories emphasize a regard for space and the accumulation of fragmentary materials into a cohesive whole. He melds the two into his solo music, of which Barcelona is a definitive example. Comprised of a single improvisation riddled with pregnant pauses, this concert recording finds Tilbury mixing the type of compressed phrases found in Feldman with the interior playing, dangling clusters, and chiming high notes and chords prevalent in his work with AMM. The recording benefits from the resonant performance space and an excellent instrument, which facilitate the hovering overtones and long decays necessary for such work to assert its full evocative power.
Were there awards for innovative CD packaging, Barcelona would be in the running. From the right angle, the CD looks like a smartly jacketed book when set upright.
Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell founded Strata-East in 1971. The label’s name was telling, as its mission was documenting New York musicians whose once vital club scene was being buried by the indifference of the record industry and real estate concerns. The label had an incredible batting average, issuing albums now considered to be minor classics by such artists as Billy Harper, John Hicks and Clifford Jordan. The label’s flagship ensemble, however, was Tolliver’s Music Inc., whose calling card was unflagging, expansive performances of original pieces rooted in hard bop, modal jazz and blues. It was, as Tolliver says in the liner notes, “maybe 30 percent free to 70 percent straight ahead.” He rightly points out that their style endures in today’s mainstream, but one would be hard pressed to cite a tandem in the same league as Tolliver and Cowell. Though Tolliver wrote most of the band’s book, his compositions tended to be roof raising blowing vehicles that played to his lacerating sense of line. Yet, without Cowell’s combination of rhythmic urgency and harmonic fullness, and his contribution of memorable tunes like the elegant mid-tempo melodies like “Effi,” Music Inc.’s sound may well have been two-dimensional.
Three live LPs – the two volumes of Live At Slugs and Live in Tokyo – and an additional 73 minutes of new material from these gigs have been compiled by Mosaic for this 3-CD Select box. The Slugs tracks were recorded on a single day in 1970 by what could be called Music Inc. Version 1.1, since bassist Cecil McBee had already replaced Steve Novesel, who was also Music Inc.’s drummer Jimmy Hopps’ section partner on Roland Kirk’s The Inflated Tear. The Slugs tracks are a testament to the stamina and resourcefulness the old club regimen of three or more sets a night demanded from musicians. The quartet plays everything from scorching modal pieces to passionate ballads with an exact touch. Even though it was the band’s intensity that left the most indelible impression, they did have considerable range. Of the three previously unreleased tracks from Slugs, the most intriguing is the only piece not composed by members of the band, Neal Hefti’s “Repetition,” which is nearly shredded by the band’s turbulent force.
By the time of the ’73 Tokyo concert, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Clifford Barbaro were on board, giving Tolliver and Cowell much the same simmering, intelligently detailed support as McBee and Hopps. The energy of the original album was less frenetic, with a greater emphasis on hard bop grooves and the inclusion of two ballads, including “Round Midnight.” The new tracks reveal the band was still playing the Coltrane-inspired “Our Second Father,” while newer tunes like “Earl’s World” articulated the post-Coltrane landscape in ways consistent with labelmates like Harper.
Ever the tease, producer Michael Cuscuna hints at future Strata-East collections being reissued by Mosaic. Let’s see how long it takes for the Clifford Jordans to surface.