Reviews of Recent Recordings
Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Last year’s Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings) marked the notable return of M-Base founder Steve Coleman to the domestic recording arena. Though Coleman cut a number of dates for the French imprint Label Bleu since the turn of the millennium, those records never enjoyed the same level of notoriety as his widely available Novus/RCA albums of the ‘90s. Nonetheless, his abiding influence continues to be heard in the careers of peers like Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson, as well as enterprising young modernists like Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa – making his return to a stateside label all the more pertinent.
Culled from the same sessions as his preceding release, The Mancy of Sound once again features the stellar line-up of Coleman (alto saxophone), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Tim Albright (trombone), Jen Shyu (vocals), Thomas Morgan (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Ramon Garcia Perez (percussion). Their previous effort was a concept album inspired by the passage of time and seasonal renewal; this set is dominated by Coleman’s four-part Odú Ifá suite, which is based on the divination and philosophical systems of the Yoruban cultures of West Africa. Emulating their elemental sources, “Fire-Ogbe” and “Air-Iwori” roil with fulminating activity, while “Earth-Idi” and “Water-Oyeku” trade turbulence for tranquility. The dynamic suite is flanked by “Formation 1” and “Formation 2” – lush contrapuntal arrangements for voice and horns that demonstrate the leader’s orchestral sensibilities – which are subsequently bookended by “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11),” labyrinthine opening and closing pieces inspired by lunar phases that further enhance the pseudo-mystical nature of the program.
Despite the cerebral sophistication of Coleman’s concepts, his work continues to plumb accessible groove-based variations drawn from the African Diaspora. Transcribing rhythms from traditional Yoruban symbols (depicted on the album cover), Coleman employs a Cuban drumming technique that simultaneously generates propulsion in several directions, interlocking each individual’s part into cohesive, overlapping cycles. The percussion-heavy rhythm section plies these cantilevered polyrhythms, shifting tempos and modulating time signatures with virtuosic precision, while the horns navigate Coleman’s polyphonic charts with compelling dexterity; yet it is the wordless vocalese of Shyu that imbues the ensemble with a human dimension. Her euphonious delivery evokes both Eastern and Western concepts, providing legato counterpoint to the staccato interplay of the three horn frontline. In contrast to the former date, Shyu also sings in English on the opening and closing numbers, rendering Patricia Magalhaes’ poetic lyrics with heartfelt conviction.
Removed from the pedagogy of jazz convention, Coleman’s vision is founded on a syncopated collectivism that eschews traditional theme and solos variations. A magnanimous leader, Coleman’s sidemen are provided a modicum of space to make thematically concise individual statements – an aesthetic limitation the leader observes in an invigorating series of brisk linear cadences. A vivacious group effort brimming with intricate cross-hatched melodies, oblique harmonies and kaleidoscopic rhythms, The Mancy of Sound follows Harvesting Semblances and Affinities as the strongest albums of Coleman’s career, reinforcing his significance in the development of contemporary jazz.
Connie Crothers + Richard Tabnik + Roy Campbell + Roger Mancuso + Ken Filiano
Connie Crothers + Bill Payne
Connie Crothers + Kevin Norton
She’s a gifted duo player (there’s a fine early set with drummer Max Roach) and that’s much in evidence on her recordings with clarinettist Bill Payne. They began their musical relationship in 1981, with Payne as student, a gigging musician now based in Las Vegas who has worked regularly playing all kinds of music in venues ranging from cruise ships to circuses but whose heart clearly belongs to improvised music. A studio recording of their wholly improvised duets was released to positive critical response in 2007, including a review here by Ed Hazell in August 2008. That disc, called Conversations, is reissued now as part of a two-CD set with a live session recorded at the Stone in 2009. Payne has the traditional clarinet virtues – a liquid fluency and a lovely woody sound – and his playing manifests passion as well as imagination. A lyrical soloist, even at high speeds, he works in a strongly Impressionist language that suggests the chromatic and timbral evanescence of Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin, served up in brief, well-ordered pieces. Crothers for her part surrounds his lines with new information, providing sets of possibilities through which Payne weaves, flies and sometimes explodes. The Stone Set is even livelier than Conversations, with Payne particularly fiery on “Revolt of the Birds” and “Momentum Times Two,” and Crothers mercurial on “Connie’s Dream.”
On Kingston Tone Roads, a series of duets with vibraphonist/percussionist Kevin Norton, the etude-like brevity and traditional coherence of the pieces with Payne give way to more expansive explorations that mutate into unusual layered rhythms and clusters. Norton’s glittering vibraphone lines are close to Crothers’ own conception and the particular density of sound and line they achieve (Norton sometimes plays cymbals along with vibraphone) teems with detail, whether it’s rapid-fire or emerging within a warm haze of atmospheric sound. Saxophonist Richard Tabnik joins the two on the concluding “One Earth,” expanding the contrapuntal impulse at the heart of Crothers’ music.
The brilliance of that three-way creation carries over to the collectivist dynamic of Band of Fire, a 2010 quintet performance from the Stone with Tabnik on alto, Roy Campbell on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, and Roger Mancuso on drums. Crothers, Tabnik and Mancuso appeared together on 2007’s brilliant Music Is a Place, perhaps Crothers’ masterpiece and a CD that demonstrated her special ability as a band pianist in free improvisation, a talent that’s further demonstrated here. She has the rare capacity to respond to, assemble and extend everything that’s going on in the band, composing and orchestrating on the fly in a way that can recall the swarming co-ordination of Cecil Taylor in his bands of the 1960s and ‘70s, however different Crothers’ approach and materials. The result is both an orchestral richness and a sense of continuing collective engagement. Crothers’ “Ontology” opens the set, a boppish theme that might have been composed in the 1950s but which soon shifts dynamics with Campbell’s splintered trumpet sounds. The group dialogue is hottest on “Cosmic Fire” with Crothers showing just how far she can go on the rhythmic data generated by Filiano and Mancuso, while the final “Song for Henry and Margaret” is taken at a dirge tempo, inspiring unusual sound-focused inquiries from Tabnik and Filiano and vivid splatters of keyboard color from Crothers. It’s an exciting band, one that creates wholly in the moment of the music.
Elton Dean’s Ninesense & Beckett + Miller + Moholo
Keith Tippett Octet
Collective improvisation among nine players cannot be an easy matter, especially with this group, which isn’t exactly shy or cautious. But Ninesense not only plays with extraordinary passion on this live date from 1981, they play with remarkable coherence. After Dean’s solo kicks off the set, the band enters one by one as the spirit moves them, filling the musical canvas with increasingly long and intricate lines. But the voices remain balanced; every voice is heard as the chorus builds. They build detailed backgrounds for soloists, too, such as a lovely bucolic landscape of piping trumpets, growling trombones, and bird song piano riffs through which a pensive Harry Beckett trumpet solo wanders.
Saxophone soloists Dean and Alan Skidmore, trumpeter Mark Charig, and trombonists Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti all have their moments as the piece evolves, supported by ever varying ensemble contributions, but the real agent provocateurs of the suite are the rhythm section of Keith Tippett, Harry Miller, and Louis Moholo. They make each transition of mood or tempo or beat sound logical, holding the music’s shape even as they push and prod it. They just keep throwing ideas out there, coming at the band from different angles. At one point, Miller introduces a ridiculously swinging walking bass line that kicks the band out of a quiet section, and then Tippett breaks into a warped stride spinning the entire band off into a stomping free-swing episode. When Dean’s South African inspired written melody finally emerges at the end, the rhythm section toys with the beat, expanding and exploding and reassembling it as the band rises to a jubilant climax.
With Miller and Moholo forming two thirds of the trio with Harry Beckett on the other half of the disc, the same vibrant, who-knows-what’s-coming-next feeling also prevails on their continuous (although sadly incomplete) set of tunes called “Natal.”
Beckett is more or less the calm voice of reason in the trio. His tone is warm and rounded and he’s a melodic improviser (Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry seem like models), able to develop his phrases deliberately into elegantly structured statements. His timing and sense of space allow plenty of room for the bass and drums to contribute and he’s alert and sensitive enough to pick up ideas from his band mates and fit them into his own improvising.
He needs a keen sense of purpose and direction to stand beside Miller and Moholo, who are simply incendiary and boiling over with energy. In fact, with no disrespect to the trumpeter and drummer, Miller really steals the show. His arco solo is one of the highlights of the set, but his overall drive and power and his ability to switch roles from melodic partner of Beckett’s to rhythm cohort of Moholo’s make him a formidable presence at all times. His empathy with Moholo is astonishing, their imaginations are just fecund with ideas, and they can slip elusively from firm beat to quicksand free time and back with breathless ease.
The spirit that moved Ninesense and the entire British free jazz scene, it’s wide open synthesis of influences and embrace of new ideas survives today in the music of one of its architects, pianist Keith Tippett. His new octet includes longtime associates vocalist Julie Tippetts, saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Peter Fairclough. Saxophonists James Gardiner-Bateman, Kevin Figes, and Ben Waghorn, and bassist Thad Kelly, join the veterans, extending the legacy to a younger generation.
Tippett’s brilliant new suite, “From Granite to Wind,” comprises their debut recording. It features intricate post bop themes, with South African and Monkish touches surfacing over the long course of their development. The sheer logical force of their progress is captivating, and the daring lengths to which Tippett strings them provokes something akin to wonder. Tippett reprises portions of his thematic material, and introduces new, often contrasting melodies that propel the music in different directions; a hymn-like melody couched in unquiet voicings undergirding Dunmall’s soprano sax solo is especially arresting. The result is music with both a sense of unity and growth. About half way through, there’s an abrupt change in mood. The long, flowing up-tempo music gives way to a slower tempo, fragmented phrases, and a greater emphasis on color and texture. This prevails until the end, when Julie Tippetts’ concluding song, a meditation on nature, change, and contrast ties together the entire piece. “Dust to water – water to dust!, Gold to silver – silver to gold!, Wind to granite – granite to wind!,” she sings as the music turns literally to the sound of air moving through the saxophones. None of Tippett’s compositional strategies are necessarily new, but he employs them with absolute understanding.
In addition to Tippett’s writing, there is some terrific improvising on hand as well. Dunmall is characteristically impassioned and his chemistry with Tippett creates some of the closest improvised interactions in the performance. Alto saxophonist James Gardiner-Bateman uses Tippett’s writing to great advantage in his solo, imbuing it with spirited optimism that sounds like a direct heir to the buoyancy of Ninesense. Tenor saxophonist Ben Waghorn brings a burly, jazzy sound to his ballad tempo solo. Julie Tippetts is in her best jazz chanteuse mode when she sings her lyrics, but, versatile vocalist that she is, she contributes some of the most startling sounds and textures heard in the second half of the piece. The leader himself, aside from his unaccompanied introduction, never solos, but then again he never stops playing. He is just boundlessly inventive in his use of chords, countermelodies, fills, and ostinato, and unerring in his use of them in support of the soloists. Every step of the way, you’re convinced Tippett knows exactly what he’s doing on all levels as both composer and an improviser.
Ellery Eskelin + Andrea Parkins + Jim Black
This all-inclusive compositional approach is mirrored by Eskelin’s instrumental prowess; finessing the unspoken connection between Gene Ammons’ soulful phrasing and Archie Shepp’s coarse lyricism, Eskelin’s rough-hewn tenor is one of modern jazz’s most readily identifiable sounds. His singular tone and fractious cadences have graced numerous efforts, but it is while working mercurial variations on his own inimitable compositions that Eskelin’s unconventional approach is best heard. His unaccompanied solo turn a few minutes into the episodic title track encapsulates myriad hues, shifting from pastel flutterings to piquant torrents. He regularly veers between such aural extremes; the stark film noir ambience and understated melodic contours of “Fallen Angel” spotlight his tender lyricism, while the aleatoric intro to “T64K37B” showcases his most abstract proclivities.
Eskelin’s initial concept was to base the trio’s sound around Parkins’ accordion. In an interview with Cécile Even and Alexandre Pierrepont for L’art du Jazz N°2 (reprinted in PoD Issue 29), Eskelin states “When I first started the band I really was looking for an accordion player. The fact that Andrea also had organ and electronics in her arsenal was a plus; I wasn’t looking for that in the beginning.” While Parkins’ capricious accordion evokes everything from Old World tarantellas to spacey psychedelia, it is regularly augmented by a variety of exotic samples and Black’s assorted tribal percussion. Spectral calliope-like themes accompanied by Black’s pointillist accents materialize at the outset of “Too Much Orange” before segueing into coruscating waves of white noise, while Hammond B-3 Organ samples infuse the soul jazz-influenced “Side Effects” with moody film noir ambience. Black’s menacing blues shuffle on the aforementioned tune offers an authoritative reading of the genre, conveying a palpable enthusiasm that lends his anthemic surf rock vamps on the title cut and “Vertical Hold” stylistic credibility.
Eskelin has long forged his own path, from eschewing conventional line-ups to striking out on his own with his Prime Source label. Recently honored in the Penguin Guide as one of 1001 best jazz albums, One Great Day... is an early example of Eskelin’s genre-bending writing and a definitive document of his longest running ensemble performing at the peak of their abilities.
To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, anything is an opera if you say it is. The Rome Opera confirmed this when they commissioned and premiered Morton Feldman’s Neither in the late 1970s, even though it eschews the trappings of traditional opera – a single soprano stands on a bare stage and sings sixteen lines penned by Samuel Beckett. Feldman also defied convention by beginning the score before encountering Beckett’s text. Despite this arguably insensitive approach – or perhaps because of it – there’s a terse co-existence between score and text; Sarah Leonard’s declamatory, occasionally glass-cracking high notes are well-matched for Feldman’s fog-like textures and ponderous pulses, which are frequently applied with a trowel by Zoltán Peksó and the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt (this said, it should be noted that this version is as spritely as it could be, as it is over six minutes shorter than the version issued a decade ago on Col Legno with Petra Hoffmann and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kwamé Ryan). If dramatic tension is the litmus test of whether or not a work like Neither qualifies as an opera, then it clears the bar, even if the genesis and the pay-off of the tension is inscrutable. Even though Feldman atomized conventional narrative arcs in his music as much as Beckett did in his writings, a beauty persists in their respective works, and their aesthetics have a synergy here that is at once blunt and fragile. Neither begs the question: If indeed, the subject of a piece of art is, to paraphrase Beckett’s text, to move to and fro between impenetrable self to impenetrable unself, does the artist(s) have any greater obligation to the audience than to experience the work only fleetingly in passing, one hour, one evening, and only have a glint of its meaning? Or, should they engender clarity? Neither argues for both and neither one.