Reviews of Recent Recordings
Pierre Favre Ensemble
There can’t be many musicians who can boast of having played with both Irène Schweizer and Lil Hardin Armstrong. It’s a measure of the drummer’s remarkable longevity that he was playing Dixieland with Lil in the 1950s. He graduated to bop, and worked with a fresh wave of Americans visiting Switzerland, and then began to take notice of free jazz. In the 1960s he formed a trio with Schweizer and bassist George Mraz, who was later replaced by Peter Kowald; the later trio made a fine record for FMP called Santana, which remains one of the best refreshers to Favre’s approach to percussion, which is neither polyrhythmic in the Elvin Jones sense, nor freely coloristic, but almost architectural in quality, which is what makes him such a compelling group leader. For a decade and more, he made records for ECM, notably the all-percussion Singing Drums (with Paul Motian and Nana Vasconcelos) but since the millennium he’s recorded steadily for the Swiss Intakt imprint, most recently a fine pair of duo records with trombonist Samuel Blaser and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger.
Ken Filiano Quantum Entanglements
Ken Filiano is an outstanding bassist, propulsive and consistently inventive, as adept with a bow as he is playing pizzicato. He’s an elastic player, too, moving from more mainstream approaches to free improvisation. He’s been a backbone of both West and East Coast free jazz scenes, witness his frequent presence on Nine Winds and CIMP recordings respectively. He has released duos with Steve Adams of ROVA and with vocalist Bonnie Barnett (the latter called Trio for Two), and a fine solo disc called Subvenire, but Dreams from a Clown Car, recorded in 2008, marks a genuine departure. It’s Filiano’s belated debut as a bandleader and principal composer and it’s a major achievement. The remarkable quartet he’s put together here includes the saxophonists Michael Attias and Tony Malaby, a frequent pairing that also play in bassist John Hébert’s group and in Attias’s quintet and who together might define some of the best qualities of current Brooklyn free jazz. Completing the quartet is drummer Michael T.A. Thompson, who brings a loose and propulsive animation to every moment of these proceedings, matching the force of Filiano’s lines and ostinati with a sense of liberation. Like the Clown Car of the title, the band keeps bringing forth more than expected, Filiano’s compositions ranging from kinetic free-bop to thick dirge, and sometimes combining the two, as in the dense “Beguiled.” The two horns make the most of their doubles, with Attias opting for the roar of his baritone as often as he plays alto, and Malaby likewise playing a lot of soprano as well as tenor. The two develop tremendous gravity on “Powder and Paint” and Filiano encourages an orchestral chemistry among the saxophonists with long improvised ensembles evolving naturally from his compositions. The morose “Baiting Patience,” for example, thoroughly blurs the line between composition and improvisation. There’s a larger-than-life quality to much of this music, a collective virtuosity that often assumes the traditional complexity of the clown, the exaggerated emotional make-up both mirror and contrary to a host of subtler emotions. While it’s the collective language that often shines, there are some wonderful individual moments, like Filiano’s arco solo on “Dog Days,” a sustained flight into viola register that extends the wail of the reeds. This is compelling work that consistently matches a detailed musicality with powerful emotions.
Ricardo Gallo’s Tierra De Nadie
Colombian pianist Ricardo Gallo, who has been slowly garnering attention stateside as an ingenious sideman to such luminaries as trombonist Ray Anderson and trumpeter Peter Evans, currently serves as assistant to the Jazz Department of New York’s Stony Brook University under the leadership of Anderson. No stranger to recording as a leader, Gallo’s percussion-heavy Bogota-based quartet recently released their third album, Resistencias (La Distritofonica) to widespread critical acclaim. The Great Fine Line is the debut of Tierra De Nadie, an international ensemble inspired by a quote from the Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar, who stated “I think in music, for a long time, that ‘fine line’ that defines genres, or national and/or racial identities keeps becoming wider and blurrier, expanding a sort of “no man’s land” that is happy for us, or still dangerous for some.”
Joined by Anderson, saxophonist Dan Blake, bassist Mark Helias, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, Gallo follows Cortazar’s edict, seamlessly blending Latin American folk traditions and modernist jazz innovations into a sophisticated hybrid that looks to both the past and future for inspiration. At its most vivacious, Gallo’s contrapuntal writing draws heavily from the earliest elements of jazz history, augmenting elaborate neo-classical arrangements with a collective energy that recalls the ebullience of Dixieland and the frenzy of the New Thing. Similar in scope to such veterans as Phillip Johnston and Henry Threadgill, Gallo’s embrace of the tradition knows no bounds, illustrated by the stylistic distance covered between the surreal New Orleans-inspired Latin number “Hermetismo” and the incandescent ballad “The Intervention.”
With a pellucid touch and broad sense of dynamics, Gallo unleashes an array of prismatic cadences, from pearlescent cascades to pneumatic clusters, modulating from foreground to background in magnanimous fashion. The adroit rhythm section of Helias and Aklaff underpins Gallo’s labyrinthine contours with syncopated cross rhythms, augmented with interlocking multi-hued accents courtesy of Takeishi’s exotic wood and metal percussion – when Takeishi is not throttling the skins himself in akLaff’s place, as he does for half the record. On the front line, Dan Blake’s sinuous soprano evokes the vocalized tone of his mentor Steve Lacy, making a complementary foil to Ray Anderson’s blustery tailgating. Their sprightly interplay and unfettered expressionism lends Gallo’s mercurial themes a sense of insouciant elation, especially on “Stomp At No Man’s Land” and the spirited closer, “La Piña Blanca,” which are surprisingly reminiscent of Johnston and Joel Forrester’s whimsical writing for the Microscopic Septet.
Evoking the concept at the heart of the album’s title, Gallo and company embrace myriad genres and styles in pursuit of a joyful noise rarely heard in contemporary jazz. Blake and Anderson’s animated call-and-response, the rhythm section’s roiling undercurrent and Gallo’s harmonious inventions gracefully integrate boisterous Dixieland licks, Latin American polyrhythms and regal formalism into a beguiling cross-cultural fusion that defies simple categorization.
Frank Gratkowski + Jacob Anderskov
In a word, compatibility. That’s what makes these eight improvised duos so satisfying. Eschewing the tension – the friction of styles – that so often serves as the energizing agent in a spontaneous meeting like this, multi-reedman Gratkowski and pianist Anderskov instead weave their engagingly detailed designs from complementary material, without sacrificing complexity or risk. Compared with Gratkowski, the more familiar component via two decades of well-documented escapades with primarily ad hoc ensembles, Anderskov is something of a dark horse, even though he has received five Danish Jazz Awards and recorded a baker’s dozen or so albums. But it’s his poised and perceptive responses to Gratkowski’s chameleonic character that anchor the music through fluctuating currents. The opening “Narrative” is typical of their rapport; they begin cautiously, testing the ground beneath them, placing one gesture in front of another until a path is gradually revealed, adjusting dynamics, rhythmic emphasis, and melodic contours along the way. Gratkowski’s alto sax is at its most pointed, reminiscent of Anthony Braxton or Marshall Allen (elsewhere his tone may turn creamy – in this chimerical environment, a kind of Hodges-Through-the-Looking-Glass – or angularly ethereal a la Konitz), while Anderskov’s lyrical, concise phrases alternately cushion or prod his advances. Eventually they settle on familiar terrain: “Asteroids” is a dark, probing, introspective ballad; “Devotion,” likewise featuring Gratkowski’s juicy clarinet, becomes a dramatic nocturne; “Sound Check” is an abstracted blues; “Rasa,” built on a crystal web of piano motives that temper the alto sax’s initial urgency, ends tenderly, like a lullaby. All told, such thoughtful and tenacious improvising makes for a fascinating collaboration.
Joel Harrison String Choir
Guitarist Joel Harrison’s longstanding goal “to elevate composers who are not already part of the jazz canon” yields poignant results on The Music of Paul Motian, Harrison’s unique string sextet tribute to the work of the legendary drummer. Motian’s modestly lyrical tunes prove surprisingly adaptable to Harrison’s intricate neo-classical approach, which was conceived a decade ago when Harrison helped Motian reform his classic quintet for 2000 performances at Yoshi’s in Oakland.
Transcribed for the unusual combination of traditional acoustic string quartet and two electric guitarists, Harrison’s lush charts convey Motian’s singular compositional style through a fascinating blend of moods and tonalities. Up and coming guitarist Liberty Ellman shadows Harrison’s diaphanous glissandos and coiled arpeggios, their cascading fretwork weaving a scintillating tapestry that recalls each phase of Motian’s storied career as a leader – from his edgy collaborations with guitarist Sam Brown in the seventies and his atmospheric efforts with Bill Frisell in the eighties to his refined multi-guitar based Electric Bebop Bands of the past decade.
The traditional string quartet at the root of the ensemble includes violinists Sam Bardfeld and Christian Howes, either Mat Maneri or Peter Ugrin on viola, and cellist Dana Leong. Avoiding the clichéd pitfalls that beset many similar electro-acoustic line-ups, the sextet balances potentially extreme sonic dynamics with attentive deference; the acoustic strings vacillate from fortissimo double stops to pianissimo pizzicato while the electric guitarists perform with judicious restraint, their understated approach seamlessly integrated into the sinewy fabric of the quartet.
From the romantic “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago” to the haunting “Mode VI,” Harrison’s clever reinterpretations of Motian’s unorthodox aesthetic yield an array of subtly inventive variations. The soaring cantilevered lines that elevate the buoyant “Owl of Cranston” demonstrate the guitarist’s flair for transposing Motian’s plaintive melodies into captivating contrapuntal displays, while the empyrean anthem at the heart of “Cathedral Song” draws its inspiration from classical composers like Beethoven and Brahms as much as the drummer’s stately themes. The terse angularity and bristling dissonance of “Drum Song” ranges beyond conventional notions of beauty, offering dynamic contrast to such opulent fare as the regal “Etude,” which features Harrison’s most sublime solo of the session – a minimalist psychedelic slide excursion brimming with subdued emotion. Harrison also dabbles in genre, invoking the impressionistic Americana of Motian’s longstanding trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano on the delightfully folksy miniature “Mumbo Jumbo” and a spirited cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” a staple of Motian’s live gigs.
Skillfully incorporating collective improvisation and virtuosic solos into through-composed writing, Harrison’s String Choir exemplifies his quest “to balance spontaneity and notation and destroy stylistic barriers.” A ravishingly beautiful album, The Music of Paul Motian sets a new benchmark for Harrison’s skills as an interpreter and arranger, while proving there is untapped potential for expression remaining in the unfulfilled promise of the Third Stream.