Reviews of Recent Recordings
Decoy + Joe McPhee
Finding Joe McPhee in company with an organ trio is on the face of it as unlikely as hearing that Bill Evans had once made a record with Gator Jackson. Needless to say, Decoy doesn’t quite follow the familiar acid-jazz recipe. There’s no guitar for a start and the presence of London free-scene stalwarts John Edwards and Steve Noble on bass and kit respectively corrects any unrealistic anticipation. The decoy element is their ability to combine locked-in grooves with fierce improvisation, but there is no mistaking that this is a group – with two previous records attesting to a long-term commitment – rather than a more fleetingly convened improv project.
The less familiar element is organist Alexander Hawkins who apparently played pipe organ before he took up on B3. It’s difficult to place his lineage at first, and thus tempting to fall back on Larry Young as an ancestor, the usual lame recourse when a contemporary Hammond player doesn’t sound like Jimmy Smith. It’s closer to Sun Ra’s “space organ” language though there’s also a striking resemblance – improbable when written down, quickly recognizable in practice – to Don Pullen’s freer excursions on organ. The continuity there, as with Sun Ra, is that the approach is essentially pianistic. Even the clustered chords and wheezy shimmers, like those in the early stages of “Opening Might,” have the attack and articulation of piano.
McPhee makes his presence felt early on with an intense entry over a trio working with intense empathy. Edwards’ sinewy bowing has become a staple voice in British free music and it’s ideal in this context. Noble’s freely pulsed percussion combines competing energies, centrifugal and centripetal, tightly propulsive but always intriguing in and of itself. McPhee’s taut soprano solo is a musical fingerprint, complex but immediately recognisable and driven by flawless logic. Despite the diffident pun of the title, “Opening Might” isn’t just a set of getting-to-know-you exchanges that buries unpreparedness under extreme energy. Its length – almost forty minutes – is testimony to an evolving relationship between group and guest. The next piece, “Breakout,” isn’t a miniature, either, but the expressive development is more evident and the ending, which evokes Ayler and Trane (in that order) is genuinely moving and uplifting. “Encore” tracks often serve as makeweights in music of this kind, but “Dancing on the Wolf Road” feels like an idea that has been waiting for expression all through the previous hour-and-some.
McPhee sounds like he’s channelling some of his old hat ART records, the label that was set up to document his work. He has always been widely appreciated and admired in Europe, perhaps because he fulfils some expectation of what an African-American improvising saxophonist (and trumpeter) ought to sound like, but also because he articulates an improvising language that really does dispense with all familiar syntax while still hinting at the blues and changes playing. He is one of those rare performers who, without fudging abstraction with a bar-walker’s tone and vibrato or falling back on “free music” semaphore, manages to make playing sound like it belongs to an understood tradition. The main surprise (if you haven’t heard him before) and delight of the set is Hawkins. The most interesting Hammond player of the last decade and more, he has already extended what can be done on the instrument and how far “out” it can be pushed without losing the richness of those Leslie’d lines and chords and the emotional clout they deliver.
Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up
A regular sideman to up and coming artists like Taylor Ho Bynum and Matana Roberts, Boston-born drummer Tomas Fujiwara is quickly becoming a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene, with memberships in critically-acclaimed ensembles like Ideal Bread and The Thirteenth Assembly. Actionspeak is his impressive debut as a leader at the helm of a two year old quintet, The Hook Up, which features the new talent of tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and bassist Danton Boller working alongside rising stars guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson.
A former student of the legendary drummer/instructor Alan Dawson, Fujiwara's approach to the trap set shares a passing similarity to one of Dawson's more famous pupils – Tony Williams. Like Williams, Fujiwara employs the drum kit as more than a mere time keeping instrument, adding nuances of shade and timbre to understated passages with a dynamic sensibility that suggests an orchestral awareness of space and sound. His partiality for enigmatic post-bop reveals a further admiration for the seminal efforts of Williams and his peer Wayne Shorter, whose innovative writing for Miles Davis' 1960s Quintet informs much of the aesthetic of Actionspeak, as revealed on the sublime, time-shifting opener, "The Hunt."
Embracing narrative flow over conventional patterns, Fujiwara's pieces rarely end as they begin, often segueing gracefully between seemingly dissimilar moods. "Should I Do" is emblematic of this episodic approach, opening with a smoldering funk groove inspired by the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop, before settling into the rubato flow of an introspective ballad. The cinematic closer, "Soundtrack To Romance" inverts the former equation, blissfully ascending from a languid, melodious dirge to a surreal, incendiary climax, instigated by Halvorson's otherworldly fretwork.
Halvorson's idiosyncratic guitar technique transforms the chordal instrument role of the traditional jazz quintet into one of mercurial invention, rather than predictable support. Her unorthodox chording and fragmentary accents complement Fujiwara's more oblique strategies – an empathetic sensibility further realized in her expansive solos. Although her animated excursions occasionally follow a conventionally dramatic arc from clean-toned filigrees to intensifying bursts of agitated distortion, the singular path she charts is unique, emblazoned with abstruse detours and thorny intervals of her own design.
Settles and Finlayson are a compatible front-line, their range of expressive tonal colors intensifying the bittersweet harmonies of Fujiwara's sophisticated charts with synesthetic detail. Equally agile partners, their latticework interplay on "The Throes" intertwines with the rhythm section's rubato accents, yielding a kaleidoscopic array of textures. A magnanimous leader, Fujiwara eschews the spotlight, working alongside Boller as half of a sympathetic rhythm team, supporting the front-line soloists with ingenious and understated accents. On introspective ballads like "Folly Cove" and "Questions," Fujiwara's compositional subtlety brims with lyric detail and supple imagination, revealing an artist whose urbane writing is equal to his impressively nuanced drumming.
Mary Halvorson Quintet
The highly anticipated recording debut of Mary Halvorson's Quintet, Saturn Sings arrives during a surge of critical acclaim. Frequently lauded as the most original and innovative guitarist of her generation, Halvorson's unorthodox virtuosity has positioned her at the creative forefront of the youthful Brooklyn scene. Demonstrating growth as a composer on ten new pieces conceived primarily for her Quintet, Halvorson's embrace of contrapuntal harmonies and modular structures reveals a multi-faceted artist whose writing is as impressive as her improvising.
While the oblique angles and jagged intervals of Halvorson's aesthetic is emblematic of the Wesleyan University graduate's work with former teacher and occasional employer Anthony Braxton, her penchant for the accessible melodies, harmonies and dynamics of popular music are symptomatic of collaborations with her peers. A fondness for spare introspection can be heard in her haunting duo with violist Jessica Pavone, while heavily amplified excursions are part and parcel of her longstanding Trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith. On Saturn Sings, Halvorson weaves these divergent concepts into labyrinthine structures that balance tight-knit ensemble charts with freewheeling episodes and unaccompanied cadenzas, yielding puzzle-like compositions that eschew the predictability of standard forms.
A variation on her primary group, the Quintet features her Trio joined by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon. An imposing sideman whose incisive attack is a key part of the ensembles of Steve Coleman and Steve Lehman, Finlayson enjoys even greater freedom under Halvorson's lead. Irabagon – a member of the renowned Mostly Other People Do the Killing and winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition – is a masterful stylistic chameleon whose turbulent chromatic screed on "Crescent White Singe" invokes Braxton as readily as the somber refrains of "Crack In Sky" conjures the lyricism of Hodges. Together Finlayson and Irabagon make a dexterous and tempestuous front-line, capable of navigating contrapuntal charts with graceful agility and fueling collective passages with unruly verve.
Experienced veterans of Halvorson's unconventional aesthetic, Hébert and Smith's seasoned rapport lend their supple interplay a conversational demeanor through an array of endlessly shifting tempos and modulating time signatures. Hébert's subterranean figures provide rhythmic and harmonic stability, while Smith's bustling trap-set ruminations vacillate from nuanced accents to roiling percussive fury.
As a soloist, Halvorson has helped advance the jazz guitar language beyond the confines of unadorned fretwork, using a small handful of EFX units to extend the instrument's vocabulary. With only a delay, distortion and volume pedal, she conjures a kaleidoscopic mosaic of sound, from brittle shards of metallic skronk to billowy clouds of effervescent pointillism. Her wide intervallic leaps and deep pitch bends, augmented by a variable speed delay unit, push the concept of bent blues tonality even further than the coruscating slide work of Sonny Sharrock.
Expounding on a subtle variety of styles, Halvorson's pieces explore a range of tonal colors and deconstructed standard forms. Swaggering post-bop drives the verdant swells of "Leak Over Six Five," while the ebullient "Mile High Like" abstracts Afro-Latin rhythms. The ensemble's facility for understatement is showcased on pieces like "Crack In Sky" and "Cold Mirrors," with the later tune providing a nuanced example of Halvorson's most unassuming fretwork. An exercise in dynamic extremes, "Moon Traps In Seven Rings" stages apocalyptic outbursts from Halvorson and the rhythm section against lyrical statements from the horn players, capped by a stunningly expansive cadenza by the leader. "Sea Seizure," reveals Halvorson's debt to the textural and harmonic innovations of Sonic Youth, pushing the limits of dissonance, distortion and minor key melodies to their logical conclusion.
Indicative of her generation's eclecticism, Halvorson's sophisticated approach towards modern jazz is inspired by the work of a diverse cross-section of artists, from Sam Cooke and Thelonious Monk to Dmitri Shostakovich and Robert Wyatt. Embracing a wide range of influences, yet cohesive in its execution, Saturn Sings is a bold step forward in a career seemingly destined for greatness.
Unlike the history of many traditional musical traditions brought to into the modern American mix, gamelan has a simple back story: Henry Cowell studied with Balinese and Javanese musicians in Berlin in the early ‘30s, brought back an archive of recordings, and taught a seminal world music course in ’34-5 whose students included John Cage and Lou Harrison. Scenes from Cavafy represents a pungent chapter of where the story went from there. After approximating gamelan sounds on Western instruments in various pieces in the 1950s, Harrison began employing the modes used in Indonesian music in the early ‘60s. By the end of the decade, Harrison’s interest in gamelan merged with a resurgent passion for instrument building, culminating in the construction of what he somewhat heretically called “An American Gamelan;” the reaction of purists prompting Harrison to pursue formal studies. Harrison’s mastery of the genre soon prompted gamelan master Pak Cokro to encourage Harrison to compose for the traditional orchestra.
The three works included in this collection were written in the 1980s after years of study, reflecting Harrison’s thorough knowledge of gamelan’s formal properties, one that allowed him to fully incorporate what was by then his fully matured compositional sensibility. The title piece, finished in ’80 after five years with Cokro, immediately exudes fundamentals: an opening monophonic phrase that introduces the pentatonic mode (in this case, a pélog with two semitones and two major thirds); sections where slow melodies in the lower registered instruments are embellished by faster lines by the higher-pitched instruments; and acceleration in the tempo of the lower instruments, unreciprocated by the rest of the orchestra. His bona fides well-established, Harrison introduces the solo singer and chorus, sung with spring-like clarity by John Duykers and Gamelan Pacifica Chorus, whose parts are well within the norms; more intriguingly, Harrison bends the rules by the end of the piece, allowing Gamelan Pacifica to choose how to end the work (they went traditional).
“Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan” and “A Soedjatmoko Set” are dated ’87 and ’89, respectively. The concerto features a piano retuned to accommodate Harrison’s use of the sléndro mode (which excludes half steps, what Harrison called “narrow seconds”). The stately solo piano introduction orients the listener to the instrument’s enhanced colors, which are maximized in pianist Adrienne Varner’s take of the lively, heavily accented dance rhythms in the second of the three movements. Varner also nails the tricky unisons of the concluding cascade-like rondo. “Set” commemorated the passing of Indonesian peace advocate Soedjatmoko; the outer movements of the tripartite work are set in pélog, whose semi tones underline the stress of the lyrics, while the serene second movement is set in sléndro. The latter features Jessika Kenny, a singer who fully understands Harrison’s intent to create a gentle and spiritually soaring atmosphere.
Imagine the mayhem Jon Irabagon would have triggered if he had bucked the establishment expectations of a Thelonious Monk Competition winner and released Foxy on Concord instead of the line-towing The Observer. Concord’s offices would be littered with drooling flacks fetal-positioned under their desks, desperately fingering their Blackberries in an attempt to spin this raucous album-length workout with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Peter Brendler into jazz’s new dawn. The meltdown of executive thinking would lead to the entire run of CDs being shipped to Andorra for pirating. There would be an immediate national search for a nice young artist with a bright smile and no agenda. Tranquilizers would be dumped into the water coolers. Irabagon would fade from the corporate memory – well, with the exception of the payables for advances.
Seriously, this is the saxophonist’s most precocious satire to date, the subject of which is no ordinary sacred/cash cow, but Sonny Rollins – and just in time for Jazz’s Last Giant’s 80th birthday. Irabagon first confronts the listener with a politically incorrect spoof on the iconic Way Out West cover, featuring a bikini-clad blond striking something close to Rollins’ pose, sans the ten-gallon hat and the gun holster – hence Foxy, a pun on “Doxy,” the early ‘50s Rollins chestnut. (The booklet plays out the conceit with women dressed as a nurse, a bride, a mermaid, a teddy-clad babe and a dominatrix, with Brendler slipped in between the latter two, shirtless and holding a surfboard; the punch line is a photo of the women surrounding Altschul, reposed in a beach chair, grinning as if to ask, “This isn’t going on Facebook, is it?” Irabagon is pictured on the back cover striking the pose as well, replete with suit, hat and holster.) The faux liner notes by “Roland Barf” are also a hoot: “The only limitations are those of the listener – the audible spectrum is finite. The standard is infinite. The body must eat, the mind must rest.” Not exactly the buzz line you’d see in a Concord ad.
The real provocation, however, is the music itself. Despite the track listings on the cover – variations of the album title like “Chicken Poxy,” “Unorthodoxy” and “Moxie” – this is, staggeringly, an edited performance, as the music fades in already at a boil, only to be abruptly terminated more than an hour and a quarter later, still blazing through the changes. There’s a roomy quality to the recording that reinforces the music’s grit and vintage texture, reinforcing the arced-switch intensity of Irabagon’s playing. “Stream of consciousness” understates both the fervor at which Irabagon digs through the strata of the tenor tradition – instead of tossing quotes about like bon mots, Irabagon often hurls them like invective – and the speed at which the ideas come at the listener. At the same time, Irabagon’s shows sublime connoisseurship in stirring sundry tenor vernaculars into a not-always commodious vicus of recirculation. Listening to Irabagon is somewhat like watching Olympic luge in that you just can’t believe someone can go so fast so unprotected and not get killed. When was the last time Rollins had that effect?
One wonders what icon Irabagon will take on next, but undoubtedly he will do it soon, leaving listeners gasping at his artistry as well as his audacity, just as he has done with Foxy.