Reviews of Recent Recordings
Some would argue that comfort is the last thing improvised music should give the listener; Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury would most probably concur. However, Uncovered Correspondence: a Postcard from Jasło is bafflingly comforting; not because it is bucolic, even though the ratio of cool calm passages to robust clangor is higher than usual on AMM’s recordings, but because the percussionist and the pianist have such a dependably refined and complementary rapport. This stands out more than usual because this concert recording is AMM’s first album since 2006’s that mysterious forest below London Bridge (Matchless) to feature Prévost and Tilbury as a duo. This rapport certainly didn’t evaporate on 08’s Trinity and 09’s Sounding Music (also on Matchless) that included adjuncts like John Butcher Christian Wolff and Ute Kanngiesser, but was instead absorbed in the larger ensembles. Isolated, Prévost and Tilbury’s emphasis on tone color and decay does not simply base-coat the music – it is the music in the main. Much the same was repeatedly said of AMM during Keith Rowe’s long tenure, but there seems to be something approaching a fundamental shift in AMM’s agenda since the noise-privileging guitarist’s departure – a new regard for beauty, though not in an ordinary sense of the word. Each of the three “Paragraphs” (the presumably Cardew-inspired designation of structure folds neatly into the correspondence theme) has exquisite moments where the chiming quality of Tilbury’s spare keyboarding dovetails with the more spectral timbres produced in the piano’s interior (he is always impressively nimble at producing roughly antiphonal exchanges with himself) or the metallic sheen of Prévost’s bowed cymbals. Not all of these passages simply hover in the stillness of the hushed concert hall; the album ends with a surprising and affecting outpouring before slipping into silence. While there is nothing dilutive or simplified about Uncovered Correspondence: a Postcard from Jasło, it is the most inviting album AMM has ever made.
Jane Ira Bloom Quartet
Soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom just seems to do everything well. She’s a concise soloist with impressive control of a horn that’s notoriously difficult to control. For years, she’s used live electronics to expand her improvising vocabulary with tremendous success. And she consistently assembles creative, sympathetic bands that swing like mad. All these virtues are present on the second recording by her quartet featuring pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Mark Helias, and longtime drummer of choice Bobby Previte.
As a soloist, Bloom never wastes a note; she’s to-the-point, but still poetic and spontaneous. Her improvisations on “Her Exacting Light” and “Freud’s Convertible” have those qualities of inevitability and surprise that mark the best jazz solos, with finely crafted melodies graced by occasional embellishments, and terminal notes of phrases infected and colored to add nuances of feeling. Her use of electronics might be considered gimmicky, if it wasn’t done with such unfailingly musical results. One is reminded of the way Rahsaan Roland Kirk transformed the novelty of playing three horns at once into a robust part of his vocabulary. Bloom uses electronics to add little swipes of color and texture, couple notes into chords, or create delays and echoes that turn riffs into call-and-response with her own playing.
Bloom also has a sure sense of what she wants in a rhythm section and writes compositions and picks tempos that put them in the best possible light. Helias and Previte simply eat up the comfy medium tempos, laying down ridiculously swinging relaxed grooves. Clement comps as if she were working with a singer, lending support and harmonic interest while paying attention to dynamics and the beat. When she solos, she strikes each note firmly so it has presence and weight and on “Airspace” she makes heavy notes in her right hand dance and fly while jabbed left hand chords nip at their heels.
Albums like this have long made Bloom a critics’ favorite, it’s a pity they don’t earn her a wider general audience.
Pierre Boulez + John Cage
Despite their profound differences in compositional principles, both Pierre Boulez and John Cage sought an objective beauty in music, a goal they frequently realized in their piano music of the 1950s and early ‘60s. This expertly selected and incisively performed album of two-piano works by Pi-Hsien Chen and Ian Pace details all that was different in the composers’ respective reactions to the towering shadow and residual expressiveness of Schoenberg’s music; Boulez’s solution was to subject every aspect of performance to a pre-determined series while Cage left it to happenstance (“chance” would be a bit off-mark in regard to these pieces, as Cage used the creases in the paper he used for the initial score to determine pitches instead of tossing coins). But, it’s a misnomer to suggest that Cage’s system was any less air-tight than Boulez’s. Chen and Pace vividly demonstrate that Cage’s “Music for Piano” has an innate rigor comparable to Boulez’s two books of “Structures.” Granted, Boulez confronts his audience with bursts of robust keyboarding, while Cage emphasizes single wafting tones, interrupted by the occasional low registered, prepared thud and thwack; however, the tension of the Cage pieces is more palpable as a result. Boulez’s most forceful passages convey something akin to resolution, particularly in the second book of “Structures” (1961) where he sought a more conventional projection of fluidity. Chen and Pace give both Boulez pieces attention-demanding readings, with the placement of the latter Boulez piece towards the end of the album providing a timely lift of pace. Conversely, the pianists give the Cage pieces a mix of languor and restiveness that creates alluring atmospherics at the outset of the album. Subsequently, this superbly engineered and sequenced recording is as engaging as it is instructive.
Taylor Ho Bynum + John Hébert + Gerald Cleaver
For more than half a century, it’s been the business of the jazz and free improvisation avant-garde to break down what had come before, to question and reject, and reorder. Those fifty years left behind a huge, vibrant, but bewildering, seemingly disjointed legacy – a tradition of its own. Just as earlier generations had a reservoir of blues and popular song forms to transform into new and original music, so too improvisers at this historical moment have a range of formal blueprints, a vocabulary of sounds and extended techniques, and a range of concepts about organizing group interactions which they can use as a foundation to fashion their music of the moment. For some, it seems the business of the new avant-garde to make sense of what has come before, to synthesize it and come up with something of their own.
Book of Three, by multi-brass player Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, is new jazz in that vein. The trio’s elegant, richly detailed and complex music embraces all the challenges and historical obligations left behind by previous avant-gardists and find its own pathway through them. Five of the ten tracks are free improvisations, a form well suited to playing with ideas and putting them in new contexts, but even the compositions by Bynum and Hébert prove flexible enough to allow for wide latitude in the improvisations.
This is clearly a trio of well-informed and disciplined improvisers. Bynum always has a precise reason to use one of his several instruments – cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet, and something called a trumpbone – an inheritance of the AACM’s multi-instrumentalist tradition. But he also draws freely from very different streams of the avant-garde in his highly personal use of the emotional restraint of Miles Davis and the airy abstractions of Bill Dixon. Drummer Cleaver uses pulse and waveforms, melodic phrases, and conversational free jazz rhythms with equal ease and focused intent. Bassist Hébert is likewise resourceful, using a broadly based historical range of bass counterpoint, anchoring rhythm, vamps, and arco techniques to free his instrument of conventional roles.
On the improvisations, all options are in play and they bubble to the surface whenever one of them suits their purpose. For instance, Cleaver establishes an initial flow and tempo on “White Birch” as Bynum pencils in long, lyrical lines and Hébert injects percussive bursts of notes. Bynum’s restraint hints at passionate undercurrents much like Miles Davis and (more directly) Bill Dixon did in their music, while Hébert’s rhythmic tension and Cleaver’s freely modulating rhythms maintain a sense of ambiguity and unresolved mystery. Subtle shifts on the part of one player trigger reactions among the others so the music evolves and skitters in widely angled zigs and zags, although all three musicians are always moving in the same general direction. For all the activity, a lovely serenity lies beneath the music’s busy surface. The music defines a contemplative space, in which all three can examine sounds and see how they fit together.
The trio excels at creating little sound worlds in each piece. “Digging for Clams” is like a seascape abstraction by painter John Marin. Bynum plays distant motorboat drones while Hébert and Cleaver punctuate the stillness with sharp raps and little birdsong scraps of melody that break the music into irregular shapes. Together they paint a colorful, disjointed canvas of graceful strokes and daubs of line and color suggestive of the marine setting of the title.
Portions of “Air Bear” suggest the sounds of a nocturnal landscape with Bynum making sleepy frog croaks and Hébert and Cleaver interjecting shorts outbursts of sound. But this improvisation eventually breaks away from sound imagery. Hébert introduces a herky-jerky line whose sharp angles prod Bynum into warped fluctuations of his own and Cleaver to rattle and ping with more energy. By the end of the piece, Bynum is soaring with the wind-over-mountains intensity of Bill Dixon, displaying an astonishing control of the high sounds that is both precise and abstract. Often the music has no discernable center or pivot point, each musician is a self sufficient entity whose contribution is no more or less important than either of the others.
There are few distinctions to be made between the care and deliberation they take in the improvisations and on the compositions; both share the same sense of balance and freedom. On Hébert’s “Meat Cleaver,” Bynum gives his phrases gentle nudges until they fly upward, Hébert drills downward with spare phrases that define rhythms with the bare minimum of notes, and Cleaver disperses the beat all over his kit. Bynum’s “Sevens First Edition” relies on juxtaposition of instruments, silence, and melody to create layers that never fully align but fit together into a whole.
Pianist Matthew Shipp has argued persuasively that the availability of so many historically based options, the obligation to be conversant in them, and the cultivation of the judgment to know how and when to use them is a distinguishing characteristic of this generation’s music. Seen in this way, history is not a set of chains, but wings, and Book of Three soars on just those wings.
Gerald Cleaver Uncle June
Be It As I See It is drummer Gerald Cleaver’s fourth and boldest release as a leader to date. Eloquently sequenced to trace his family’s move north when he was a child, this concept album mirrors the similar decades-long journey made by millions of African-American families during The Great Migration. Eclectic and fragmentary by design, each facet of the record illustrates another chapter in Cleaver’s figurative tale.
The band Cleaver assembled for the recording session reflects the diversity of his subject matter, including versatile multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bishop, who has long been one of Cleaver’s most reliable assets. Bishop’s virtuosity on numerous wind instruments has repeatedly provided the drummer’s dates a variegated range of tonal colors, offered here in collusion with industrious saxophonist Tony Malaby’s more expressionistic excursions. Equally dynamic, the scintillating textures of Mat Maneri’s plaintive viola and Craig Taborn’s assorted acoustic and electric keyboards offer a lush underpinning for Cleaver’s dream-like narratives. Stalwart bassist Drew Gress provides subtle detail to the finely wrought tone poems and ethereal ballads that dominate the proceedings, while accentuating Cleaver’s simmering rhythms with nuanced precision on intermittently assertive fare, like the swinging “Ruby Ritchie / Well” or the deconstructed funk number “Gremmy.” Guitarist Ryan Macstaller and banjo player Andy Taub infuse their guest spots with cinematic shadings of Americana, reinforcing Cleaver’s vision of a stratified society in transition.
One of the contemporary jazz scene’s most in-demand drummers, Cleaver’s enviable skills behind a trap set are less readily apparent on this evocative set, eclipsed by his talent for writing soulful themes that gracefully segue between bittersweet euphony and brooding dissonance. The raucous spoken word opener “To Love” establishes Cleaver’s credentials as a fearless avant-gardist in the grand tradition of the AACM – an aesthetic inclination he embraces on this date more so than any of his previous efforts. More indicative of the album’s overall tone is the elegiac five-part suite “Fence & Post (for Mom & Dad),” which dominates the set with an impressionistic invocation of love for family – a notion fully realized in the dulcet vocalese sung by his wife Jean Carla Rodea on the enchanting “22 Minutes.” The suite encompasses a wide range of modulating moods and approaches, keenly epitomized by “Statues / UmbRa,” which effortlessly alternates between poignant balladry and the churning expressionism of Taborn’s amplified fusillades and Cleaver’s roiling kit work.
Though not part of the central suite, cuts like “Charles Street Quotidian” and the closing “From A Life Of The Same Name,” exude a similarly robust tunefulness, sketching phantasmagorical panoramas from the colorful group interplay of sinewy strings and plangent reeds. Awash with kaleidoscopic textures and rich polyphony, Cleaver’s unique hybrid of soul, chamber music and experimental narratives conveys a singular quality. Cleaver’s most personal and intriguing record to date, Be It As I See It is a captivating document showcasing the rarely heard introspective side of one of today’s most ubiquitous sidemen.