Reviews of Recent Recordings
On Arco Iris, Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui not only makes illuminating connections between flamenco, fado and ghamati, (Arabic music with origins in and around Granada) but reveals a deep understanding of the kinship between duende and tarab, the ecstatic states obtained through, respectively, flamenco and Arabic music. Intriguingly, Alaoui avoids the voice-shredding intensity that is the calling card of many fado and flamenco singers; her luminous, conservatory-nurtured tone and articulation allows her to tap even the most molten emotional core of a song without the scrapes. She also demonstrates the rare ability to make traditional music sound starkly contemporary and to imbue her original compositions with a timeless aura, which is particularly effective in her settings of centuries-old texts. To sustain the album’s pace and variegate its colors, Alaoui expertly platoons violinist Saïfallah Ben Abderrazak, oud player Sofiane Negra, flamenco guitarist José Luis Montón, mandolin player Eduardo Miranda, and percussionist Idriss Agnel. Alaoui gives the album a twist ending with Agnel’s electric guitar on the svelte penultimate track, “Que fare.” By this point in the proceedings, the track-to-track tag-teaming of instruments has delicately draped Alaoui’s voice; even though Agnel’s sound is subdued and her playing is supple, the intrinsic muscularity of the instrument gives an impeccably timed jolt. However, there were plenty of prior tips that Arco Iris was neither a researcher’s statement nor an attempt to make the traditional music of this region the flavor of the month on the world music circuit. As captivating a singer Amina Alaoui proves to be on this album, she seems to have only begun to carve out a unique niche for herself.
Harrison Bankhead Sextet
This is bassist Harrison Bankhead’s first album as a leader, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs to any one musician. That’s partly because most of the album is completely improvised – there’s no unifying composer’s voice – but mainly it’s a testament to Bankhead’s selflessness and his superior skills as an ensemble player. He also knows how to put together a balanced band of strong personalities who work together as a group. But perhaps these are qualities of leadership after all.
Bankhead and his sextet, featuring saxophonists Edward Wilkerson and Mars Williams, violinist James Sanders, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and percussionist Ernie Adams cover a lot of stylistic bases in their improvisations, but then Bankhead himself has covered a lot of bases in the Chicago Great Black Music scene. He has played freely improvised jazz with the late Fred Anderson in a variety of trios and quartets. He’s a member of the equilateral Indigo Trio, with flutist Nicole Mitchell and drummer Hamid Drake. He was also a regular on many of the late trumpeter Malachi Thompson’s free bop Delmark albums and is one of Edward Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls. AACM father figure Roscoe Mitchell has included him in the Note Factory and other groups.
He has one of those bedrock deep tones that can anchor any band and a clear, uncluttered delivery that lends definition to whatever is happening in the music. It’s fundamental playing in many ways, but elevated to an art by the elegance of his line and his ability to both support and surprise at the same time. When he’s on, it’s impossible to imagine a better bass line for the music at hand than the one he’s playing. A Harrison Bankhead bass line could not survive outside the context of the ensemble he’s with any more than a fish could live out of water. So it seems natural that his debut as a leader emphasizes ensemble improvisation.
Sometimes the most basic decisions or structures make the best framework for free improvisation. For instance, Bankhead is an unerring master of the seemingly simple art of setting the right opening tempo. On “Chicago Senorita” one of only two Bankhead compositions on the disc, he calls a relaxed tempo that lets the Latin-tinged melody reveal its funky charm. Sections of the improvisations are also nicely judged. A stretch of “22nd Street Hustle (In Memory of Fred Anderson)” sports a medium swing tempo that showcases Bankhead’s richly personal bass lines. “East Village” initially grabs your attention with an opening explosion of hot colors, agitated phrasing, rough textures, and free energy. Then Bankhead smoothes down the sharp contours into a Caribbean beat and a comfortable dancer’s tempo. The improvisation is not exactly danceable, but Bankhead’s bass lines feel anchored in the tension and release of physical bodies in motion, a sensual presence. Williams and Wilkerson concoct a spontaneous melody and arrangement then move into a duo improvisation. Bankhead holds together the beat against the assaults of the soloists, not letting it wander, but letting it frame the horn players. “Over Under Inside Out” finds him more flexible. He picks the opening tempo, but his walking line drifts and accelerates at the urgings of the saxes and when Ra and Adams burst from the music’s gracious dance step into rhythmic frenzy, Bankhead floats with the rising tide. Their energy spent, the percussionists drop out, but Bankhead’s arco maintains the pressure while the horn players turn introspective. It’s a prime example of how Bankhead continuously repositions himself in the ensemble to keep the music flowing.
Extreme contrast between sections of an improvisation is a structural element of most of the improvisations. On “Red Is the Color in Jean Michel Basquiat’s Silk Blue,” Wilkerson and Williams open with a nicely balanced clarinet duet with vaguely Balkan overtones. Then Bankhead hurries in, pulling the drummers along with him, and steers the improvisation in a new direction. Ra revels in the fast tempo, his cymbal work like a polished slide for violinist Sanders to shoot down in his solo. The piece begins a slow winding down in a tenor-bass duet. Bankhead’s phrases fall all around the slower tempo supporting Wilkerson’s gruff musings. The exceptions to this rule are the title composition, which sustains its delicate crepuscular mood for its entire length, and “A Sketch of Leroy Jenkins,” an improvisation as tight and unified as one of the late violinist’s mixed quintet pieces.
Bankhead may provide guidance and suggestions for the development of the improvisations, but more often than not, it’s the collective decision making that determines the shape of the piece. He gives everyone in the band free reign to work together in spontaneous, organic ways. That might be the highest mark of his abilities as a leader.
Featuring nine new compositions commissioned by Chamber Music America’s “New Works” program, The Other Parade was recorded in August 2009 in honor of BassDrumBone’s 30th anniversary. Since 1977, trombonist Ray Anderson, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Gerry Hemingway have constituted the longstanding trio, whose 1979 debut recording Oahspe (Auricle) was recommended by Cadence founder Bob Rusch as “Exceptionally good music, fearlessly played and tightly coordinated.” To their credit, the same could be said of their most recent effort, more than three decades hence.
Though the group has weathered dormant periods, their virtually clairvoyant rapport has continued to grow, lending a timeless air to an approach that draws from every facet of jazz lineage for inspiration – from Dixieland to free. Balancing inside and outside aesthetics with seamless transitions between composed and improvised passages, they upend hallowed customs with cagey arrangements that invert prescribed instrumental roles. Despite being the sole horn, Anderson makes ample use of space and silence, occasionally sublimating his bright, cheerful tone and mercurial phrasing in support of Helias’ buoyant pizzicato excursions and Hemingway’s sanguine percussion ruminations; in effect, all three musicians are responsible for providing melody and rhythm.
As composers, each member contributes equally to the session; yet despite the subtle stylistic variety of their writing – which veers from expressive blues and mid-tempo swingers to greasy funk grooves and rousing second-line struts – these lyrical pieces all exude a cohesive sensibility redolent of their authors’ stylistic accord. Endlessly shifting dynamics within each tune, they vary rhythm, tempo and tone with their carefree, synergistic rapport.
The strutting opener, “Show Tuck,” demonstrates their effortless integration of avant-garde elements into structured improvisation. Taking the lead after a funky opening theme, Anderson’s solo modulates from harmonious to discordant, intensifying into blistering chromatic runs that culminate in rip-snorting bellows and gutbucket slurs. The further out Anderson ventures, the more abstract Helias and Hemingway’s interplay becomes, devolving into a pithy three-way conversation. Hemingway’s nimble drum solo follows, emulating the harmonic implications of the core melody with a graceful transition back to form. Similarly, Anderson’s madcap muted lyricism provides consistency to the deconstructed blues “The Blue Light Down The Line,” as Helias and Hemingway weave a spare underpinning that nudges the piece forward with laconic pacing. Rooted in convention, tunes like “King Louisian,” “Soft Shoe Mingle” and “Lips and Grits” work progressive variations on foundational tropes, hearkening back to Dixieland and Ragtime.
Anderson, Helias and Hemingway have each matured into venerable solo artists over the past thirty years, together as BassDrumBone they persevere as an increasingly rare entity – a touring collective that incorporates new material into their oeuvre that is as fresh and exciting as their formative efforts.
Born in 1974, Wolfert Brederode is one of the rising stars of what might be termed the third generation of musicians fostered at ECM. This is the second record from the quartet he leads with clarinetist Claudio Puntin, bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Samuel Rohrer, but while the earlier Currents was impressive enough in a machine-tooled and –polished kind of way, this one feels like the work of an active band, its material seasoned and flexible. There are “variations” (a preferable term to “alternate takes”) here of the title piece and “Silver Cloud,” and they suggest a group comfortable with its internal politics, uncompetitive but collegial, still able to generate surprise within a well-rehearsed turn.
Brederode has suggested an interesting meaning for the title, that often the most interesting thoughts in a letter are consigned to the end. The group ethos tends to the well-made, almost classically so in Puntin’s case, with a strong resistance to the vice of merely durational improvisation, playing with an idea until it seems time to stop or take another generation, but having no logical way to complete the thought. Most of these pieces carry some sense of being formally shaped and brought to a logical conclusion, not so much as afterthought and not quite a summing up either. Here and there, the forms can seem a little deliberate, but I suspect Brederode might well consider that a neutral description rather than a criticism, and it is certainly intended as such. Deliberation isn’t a bad thing, even in improvised music.
Opening with a track called “Meander” doesn’t suggest that, or bode well, but I think it’s used in a topographical rather than discursive sense and its waltz feel has something of the to and fro of a watercourse, finding its way through areas of least harmonic resistance. It’s an appropriate starting point for this music. I seem to have heard “Angelico” before, presumably in concert sets from the group, but it seems to have changed in nature since it was first deployed, settling over a solid pedal from the pianist and a quietly insistent pulse.
The two versions of the title piece are worth hearing back to back rather than separated by some minutes, as on the CD. The composition, originally written for a dance or theatre piece, has a strange, out-of-body feel first time round, but when the bassist takes charge on the variation, it becomes solider and more grounded. It seems clear that Brederode has a strong instinct for the trade between music and physical movement. “Inner Dance” draws considerable complexity out of a basically simple structure, simply by keeping the harmony in constant motion.
“November” also sounds familiar and it and “Silver Cloud” are perhaps the closest things here to what we might think of as “ECM” pictorialism. They’re probably the weakest tracks on the album, though again the second version of “Silver Cloud” has more substance and presence.
Brederode isn’t the only composer represented. Eilertsen offers three pieces, all of them with the suggestion of folk-music sources, and rigorously controlled in that idiom. Puntin weighs in with the elaborately titled “Augenblick in der Garderrobe des Sommers,” which is reminiscent of the kind of modern-classical thing Alan Hacker used to play on his Hacker Ilk records. By far the most interesting of the non-leader pieces is Rohrer’s “Hybrids,” a beautifully crafted idea that again seems to suggest some relationship with dance. An exceptional track on an exceptional record.
PS: The whole thing swings outrageously. If you come to this expecting statuary and filigree, it’ll come as something of a shock. It isn’t nu-jazz or neo-jazz, or even post-jazz. It’s very good jazz.
Rob Brown Trio
Unknown Skies comes from the first performance of this group at the 2010 Sons d’Hivers Festival in Saint-Mandé, France, and it documents a moment of remarkable musical chemistry. Brown combines his alto saxophone with Craig Taborn’s piano and Nasheet Waits’ drums. The style is free jazz, and most of the pieces (all but a brief collectively improvised encore) are based on themes composed by Brown. The inevitable basis of discussion for this group might be Cecil Taylor’s trios with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray or Andrew Cyrille. Brown’s approach to the alto resembles Lyons’ specifically in the contours of his long lines and in the keening sweetness of his sound, but it’s the group’s mastery of thematic improvisation that is most relevant. Brown’s brief compositions provide the melodic materials for long thematic dialogues in which his phrases arch across Taborn’s fragmenting and multiplication of kernel phrases and Waits’ rhythmic expansions and sudden ceremonial phrases. There’s tremendous variety in terms of densities, from the accelerated trio of “A Fine Line” to the moody rubato passages of the title track, from the extended alto/drums duet that opens “Bounce Back” to the ostinato-fuelled “The Upshot,” but it’s all connected by a strong sense of underlying blues, an emotional and often tonal focus that extends the links to Lyons et al to Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean and, in Taborn’s case, to the best of bop and post-bop blues pianists, like Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, and Don Pullen. This is work of rare achievement, a significant invocation and extension of a great tradition.