Reviews of Recent Recordings
Is it no coincidence that the first track of Love Cry, the first Albert Ayler album released on Impulse!, was titled “For John Coltrane.” The label’s franchise artist had persuaded producer Bob Thiele to record Ayler live in ‘65, yielding the version of “Holy Ghost” included on The New Wave in Jazz. Coltrane also found slots for the underemployed Ayler in concert programs. The inclusion of Ayler’s quintet with trumpeter Donald Ayler, violinist Michel Samson, bassist William Folwell and drummer Beaver Harris as the closer for the cavalcade of jazz stars like Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz George Wein assembled for the November 1966 “Newport in Europe” touring package is intriguingly timed. A Nat Hentoff-penned story on Ayler graced the November 17th cover of Down Beat. In February ‘67, Thiele signed Ayler to Impulse!.
This begs a question beyond that of whether or not the fix was in: To what degree did the captains of the jazz industry create an audience for Ayler? On the evidence of Samson’s comments about the tour to Peter Niklas Wilson for the essay accompanying Lörrach, Paris 1966, hatOLOGY’s long-available first volume from this tour, Ayler already had a devoted following: “There were crazy scenes, almost like with the Beatles … In Rotterdam, people stormed the stage. Same thing in Paris, in Stockholm.” In his chapter on Ayler in The Freedom Principle, author John Litweiler – who also wrote the notes for the Swiss label’s new second volume culled from the tour, Stockholm, Berlin 1966 – cites a critic who quipped that the Ayler band sounded “like a Salvation Army band on LSD.” Given that the Beatles commenced their nostalgia-rich Sgt. Pepper sessions a month after Ayler’s tour, the saxophonist’s recent transition from withering energy music to heavily formatted pieces based on themes evoking parlor recitals, tent revivals and main street parades arguably tapped the same tributary to the pool of emerging hippie culture.
At that moment, no jazz artist preached with more fire and brimstone than Ayler, a quality Stockholm, Berlin 1966 conveys as vividly as any Ayler album. Ayler made two brilliant strategic decisions to achieve this. He subordinated improvisation to the roles of providing thematic embellishment and short interludes like the one-minute tornado that rips through the Berlin version of “Our Prayer.” The other was the addition of Samson, who alternately evokes European virtuosic polish and unvarnished Appalachian pulp. Samson’s often frenzied bowing had a more nuanced function than giving the group a thrilling high-pitched voice; by allowing Donald Ayler to gravitate more towards the role of a lead trumpeter and the leader to use his own powerful sound to reinforce tonal gravity, the music registered as earnest, not ironic. This was crucial to such bold propositions as the melding of the lachrymose “Our Prayer” with the rallying, Scottish-tinged “Bells” at the Stockholm concert.
Given the short running time the tour format allotted for each group’s set and the compressed schedule of 13 concerts in 15 days, it’s not surprising that several tunes are repeatedly performed. However, the set lists of every recorded concert indicate a somewhat more varied selection on a nightly basis than suggested by these two concerts, given a week apart: both include “Truth is Marching In,” “Omega (is the Alpha),” “Our Prayer,” and “Bells.” Ordinarily, this much repetition on a single disc would be an annoyance; instead, it promotes an archetype-laden stream of consciousness consonant with Ayler’s spiritual agenda. To a degree, this is promoted by the new sequencing of the Berlin performance, which results in the CD’s three versions of “Truth is Marching In” being evenly spread out over the disc (the Berlin concert is presented as performed on Holy Ghost, Revenant’s 2004 treasure box).
The pieces unique to the respective concerts are particularly noteworthy. In Stockholm, Ayler used the reveille of “Infinite Spirit” as a prelude to Pharoah Sanders’ “Japan,” the robust reading giving the folk song-based melody more than a glint of imperial grandeur (five days later, Sanders recorded the piece for his own Impulse! debut, Tauhid). The pairing of “Ghosts” and “Bells” from the Berlin concert that closes the CD is exultant, the short solos of Samson and the Ayler brothers, each stoked by the fevered work of Folwell and Harris, begging a question subversive to free jazz orthodoxy: Why take 45 minutes to light up the heavens when you can do it in one or two?
Ab Baars Trio
Ig Henneman Sextet
Baars’ Invisible Blow strategy somewhat resembles Henneman’s with her Sextet; hers being a bit more elaborate, as she enlisted the North Star-like de Joode, sifted in two of her going concerns – her duo with Baars and Queen Mab Trio with bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Marilyn Lerner – and threw in a wild card with trumpeter Axel Dörner. Cut a Caper is a very aptly titled collection; Henneman’s music may be too wry and erudite for rug-cutting, but it has plenty of frisky, now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t moves. She opens the album with one, a phrase that almost hucklebucks before she begins to shift perspective every few bars. “Moot” becomes a particularly pungent title by the end of the piece, as each successive passage has its own subversive quality.
Other titles increasingly resonate as the materials unfold. As is the case with “Moot,” “Brain and Body” also begins with misdirection, a hoarse tenor phrase by Baars that in other venues would launch a riffing ensemble. But, Henneman quickly changes gears, sequencing foggy, vamp-tethered long tones, and rhythmic figures that, instant by instant, gavotte, jitterbug and finally melt down from Baars’ incendiary blasts, before cutting off the fire’s oxygen to bring the piece to a smoldering end.
Still, the tug of war between the visceral and the contemplative that almost always exists in Henneman’s compositions does not always end inconclusively. There’s no concussive passages that offset the opening ensemble of soft quavering long tones on “Rivulet;” instead, a gentle crescendo gives way to wisps of Baars’ shakuhachi, embellished by the delicate plinks and plonks Lerner coaxes from the piano interior, and Henneman’s short, nearly dog-whistle high pitches. And, there’s little riposte from the blunt staccato of “Narration,” initially a tightly formatted, trading fours-paced back and forth between the sextet and unaccompanied soloists until Freedman unleashes a withering torrent.
Henneman’s extension of the Altena-Termos phalange of Dutch composer-improvisers is more easily heard when she works with larger groups, which would suggest her Tentet to be her optimum vehicle. However, this Sextet often sounds as large, a measure of her refinement as composer and bandleader.
Just as Collection was comprised of mostly previously issued albums, so too is the Baars Trio’s box, which includes three albums originally released on GrestGronden – 3900 Carol Court (1992), A Free Step: The Music of John Carter (1999), Songs (2001) – and the Wig-issued Party at the Bimhuis (2003). While Party has plenty of highlights, they tend to be those tracks featuring guests; three septets including Henneman, woodwind player Mariëtte Rouppe van der Voort and pianists Guus Janssen and Misha Mengelberg reveal Baars to be a gifted composer for distinctively configured mid-sized ensembles, while the trio’s turn on Monk’s “Reflections” with Mengelberg is grin-inducing.
The history of the trio is more easily traced in the three other previously issued albums. 3900 Carol Court reprised pieces from his 1987 GrestGronden solo album, Krang that grounded the trio to a prehistory: the slowly intensifying contours of the earlier album’s title piece; the freeswing (as opposed to freebop) of “Glorpjes” and the balladic “Asor.” These pieces provide a foundation for understanding how the tandem of de Joode and van Duynhoven function within Baars’ aesthetic. One of Baars’ hallmarks as a tenor player is his ear-tugging intonation (annotator Kevin Whitehead theorizes this originated when Baars was a teenager, playing a deliberately sharp horn made for outdoor performance; plausible even though it doesn’t wash with Baars); combined with a decibel level rivaled by few, Baars has power that’s in the Ayler ballpark, and a comparable need to have the resulting centrifugal force of his playing tethered by well-oiled bass and drums – who, by the way, are also required to facilitate finely calibrated changes in rhythmic feel and texture. 3900 Carol Court documents how that jelled.
The trio’s tensile strength was put to a rigorous test early on with A Free Step, Baars’ John Carter project. Baars spent two months studying with the great composer-clarinetist in Los Angeles in 1989 – Baars’ title tune for the trio’s first album referenced Carter’s street address, and it is a different measure of how thoroughly Baars understood Carter’s music. Carter was singular in his ability to place thematic materials deeply rooted in the African American music continuum – everything from field hollers and stomps to bebop and Ornette – in a prismatic space where they took on a new vibrancy. Carter’s music is also a supreme challenge to a clarinetist; mere doublers should avoid its unforgiving demands to suddenly bolt through registers, finesse long phrases packed with wide intervals and sustain ridiculously high notes. Baars unfailingly has the right touch, be it his feathered tone and unforced lyricism on “Morning Bell” or his knack to make plump notes prance on “Sticks and Stones.” In a daring move, Baars plays tenor on “Enter from the East,” which begins as a Coltranish dirge before gathering steam, and “Shuckin’ Corn,” a sing-songy line that the trio initially obscures with an exchange of fragmentary phrases – he’s persuasive on both. Throughout the program, de Joode and van Duynhoven slip between the elasticity Baars’ compositions require and the gravity Richard Davis and Andrew Cyrille brought to Carter’s later recordings.
With Carter’s compositions, the trio at least had a template to use or ignore. That wasn’t the case with the Native American materials Baars culled from an early 20th Century anthology of indigenous chants and games, incorporating them into ten of the thirteen compositions included on Songs. Without chord changes to navigate or full melodies, improvisers have to be unerringly rigorous to cogently develop these simple rhythmic motives with insight and respect. Arguably, Baars thins the ice by mixing in Michael Moore’s provocative arrangement of “Cherokee,” van der Voort’s recasting of the Charles Ives composition, “The Indians,” and Janssen’s kitsch-laced “Indiaan” (Party has a version joining the pianist with the trio). Yet, heard in its entirety, the trio has a sufficiently light touch on the latter tracks and is clearly engaged with the chant-based materials – they thread the needle. The trio maintains a winsome deadpan on Moore’s deconstruction of the Ray Noble flag-waver, a half-speed version of the theme, split note by note, between Baars and de Joode; broad shtick in lesser hands. There’s a folksy, Giuffre-like geniality in the first part of “The Indians” and in some of Baars’ pieces, particularly “Hevebe Tawi.” Baars’ attack is perfect for approximating the melisma of indigenous chants, and he repeatedly brings it to bear on this album, stretching the rhythms taut. This is an elegantly executed, nuanced statement.
Although Baars, de Joode and van Duynhoven are consummate improvisers and have between them an exquisite rapport, they had never recorded freely improvised pieces before Gawky Stride, recorded in 2011. Without referring to the set list, it is a bit tricky to determine which two tracks do not have compositional underpinning, given the trio’s innate sense of form after twenty years and Baars’ occasional penchant for obscuring notated materials – frontloading a ferocious bass solo on the intricately constructed “Wake Up Call” being a notable example. There’s a few that can be sorted out quickly, like the two pieces featuring shakuhachi, an instrument for which Baars tends to use fixed materials. But, there are long stretches of the album where the interaction between Baars, de Joode and van Duynhoven is so thoroughly engaging that the listener pays no never-mind as whether there’s a score or not. They’re that good.
Derek Bailey + John Butcher + Gino Robair
Bailey’s stature is further reinforced by the contemporaneous appearance of Iskra 1903’s Goldsmiths, another recording with a decades-long tale of coming to light. Although an innovative tact on drummerless improvisation made the trio of Bailey, bassist Barry Guy and trombonist Paul Rutherford one of the more important units of the first generation of European free improvisers, their discography was scant and their preference for extended improvisations is only represented by the 1970, Hugh Davies-recorded ICA concert first issued in its entirety on the 2000 3-CD Emanem collection, Chapter One. The two roughly half-hour improvisations from this 1972 gig confirm Martin Davidson’s sleeve note observation that the group had yet to reach full maturity on their earliest recordings. Davidson’s characterization that the trio was “very relaxed” at Goldsmiths may strike some as odd, given the overarching radicalism of the trio’s approach. However, comparisons between the two concerts bear Davidson out to this extent: Halfway through their four-year tenure, the trio’s music is more fluid and conversational; and even when Rutherford’s multiphonics and Bailey and Guy’s amplified harmonics and feedback are most clangorous, they complement the unfolding discussion rather than just stake out provocative turf. This is refined ensemble improvisation, but the idea that the long form was Iskra 1903 forte is somewhat undermined by the two short pieces of unknown origins that round out the collection (and the Buzz Soundtrack on Emanem as well). Everything Iskra 1903 did well – particularly the ability to establish a tone, if not a mood through accumulated textures – is present on these two short improvisations.
Davidson points out that Iskra 1903 was probably Bailey’s last fixed-personnel group; certainly it was the last one whose work over the course of a multi-year run had discernible, evolving threads. The vexing thing about Bailey’s solo work – particularly given the volume of solo recordings and the decades it took to produce them – is that it is the very forum where, logically, such threads would most plainly proliferate (such is the case with Evan Parker’s soprano solos), yet they are usually all but impossible to find. Concert in Milwaukee is a particularly piquant example of Bailey’s inscrutability, a quality quite different from unpredictability. There are discontinuity-yielding devices Bailey inevitably employed – a long litany including the sudden thrashing of the strings, offsetting harmonics and bilious atonality – but the frequency of their use in no way created a continuity of contrariness. Ironically, Bailey is instantaneously recognizable and there is a wealth of methods even the casual listener soon identifies as Bailey’s. Still, there’s an aura of suspense in every Bailey solo; what comes next is anyone’s guess. Throughout the four performances – two on an acoustic guitar; two on an electric instrument – Bailey gives simple utterances a cipher-like opacity. The allure of his music is that it continually challenges the listener to give it ordinary meaning – a relationship to genre, no matter how exotic or rare; a metric of athletic virtuosity; a triangulation with arcane aesthetics and ideologies – but Bailey nearly always eludes the listener’s best efforts, and does again here.
By virtue of its instrumentation mirroring that of the archetypal Topography of the Lungs (Incus), Scrutables is a viable measure of how the priorities of improvised music had evolved in the intervening 30 years. By 2000, improvised music was no longer a push-back against Americentric free jazz, its sovereignty having long been recognized. The role of energy had been refined; once a constant source of heat, it now provided light in a more tactical manner. And, most importantly, the advents of Bailey and his contemporaries had shaped the aesthetics of a generation of improvisers who were creating new international networks, a process exemplified by the collaborations of the saxophonist and the Bay Area-based percussionist. By the time of this studio session, Butcher and Robair had established a working trio with the late bassist Matthew Sperry and had worked in ad hoc settings deserving of working band commitment – particularly the trio with electronicist Tim Perkis documented on Robair’s compilation, Buddy systems: selected duos and trios (Meniscus). They were touring the UK as a duo, playing Liverpool the night before their session with Bailey (try finding Liverpool (Bluecoat) Concert, issued by Limited Sedition in an edition of 241 CD-Rs). Therefore, the right chemistry of familiarity, anticipation and fatigue was in play, the latter being an underappreciated precursor. Throughout the album, the trio balanced otherworldly sounds and athletic movement, “Teasing Needles” being a case in point of how they accelerated iridescent washes of bowed and rubbed surfaces, pedaled harmonics and soprano multiphonics to an endorphin-producing pace. When the velocity of their exchanges is most ferocious, the trio’s abilities to produce sounds well outside the normal parameters of their respective instruments make identifying individual sounds treacherously difficult. Repeatedly, Scrutables leaves one with the sense that the sound of breaking glass has been replaced with the sound of splitting atoms.