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A Pride Of Lions
No Questions – No Answers
RogueArt Rog-0117

No Questions – No Answers is the second album from the ensemble which goes under the name A Pride Of Lions. The outfit first came together under the aegis of The Bridge, an ongoing Franco-American initiative to forge ties between the respective jazz and improvised music scenes of the two locales which has so far involved more than 140 musicians and produced some 14 records. The participants combine in groups which are given the opportunity to gel and develop through tours and events in each setting. Though one aim of the project is to encourage musicians who might never come together otherwise to learn from one another, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and reedman Daunik Lazro already had a long history going back to Dourou in 1995, an alliance established during McPhee’s frequent summer sojourns in Europe. That perhaps helps explain why A Pride Of Lions has been one of the more enduring blends, spawning a third tour and this second document.

It’s easy to hear why. Among the many positives is the willingness to take time and allow the long form improvisations to grow wings and fly. In McPhee, bassist Joshua Abrams, and here at least Lazro, there are three form seeking improvisers who with their extemporized riffs and refrains, lend a satisfying coherence to otherwise freeform ventures. Furthermore, drummer Chad Taylor, one of the best in the business at mediating impulse and abstraction, and Abrams in particular, are both adept at generating accessible momentum. Such hypnotic grooves are second nature to Abrams, given his work with the Natural Information Society, all the more so when he straps on the guimbri, and Taylor turns to mbira to conjure a trancey whiff of ritual as well.

Adding depth and flavor to the interaction is the presence of French bassist Guillaume Séguron alongside Abrams. The twin basses work together well, initially by following the template established by Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz whereby one plays arco, the other pizzicato, but also complementing at times whether with intertwined dark growling bowing or pulsing picking, tempered by the physicality of Séguron’s attack. Both McPhee and Lazro owe a debt to Albert Ayler in their amalgam of emotional vibrato laden bittersweetness and torrents of overblown shapes, rough hewn in the lower registers, liable to leap into pin sharp definition in the stratosphere. It’s an influence briefly acknowledged by the quote from “Spirits” which Lazro introduces at one point.

Each of the three cuts is characterized by untethered exchanges, the sort which ensure space for everyone and enhance overall transparency, as well as an organic progress which doesn’t shy away from beat or melody, but changes mood often, without jarring. Among the highlights are the three-way braiding of McPhee’s alto, Lazro’s tenor and Abrams in a reveille-like clarion call on “An Unquestioned Answer.” Then later on the same cut, McPhee unveils his viscerally affecting mix of voice and instrument, drawing a vocal wail from Lazro in sympathy, taking on an incantatory feel as if summoning some voodoo rite. Having exercised relative restraint up until now, there’s a sense of cutting loose in the short closing “Enough,” but even as the reedmen alternate skirls while Taylor roils, the other lays down one of those repeated figures which ground the tumult before a characteristically neat ending.

Although the band’s genesis lay in a process, its future deserves to be self-sustaining.
–John Sharpe


Noël Akchoté
Music for the Film Loving Highsmith
Ayler Records AYLCD-173-174

This two-CD set presents French guitarist Noël Akchoté’s music for Eva Vitija’s Loving Highsmith, a cinematic portrait of the American writer Patricia Highsmith, realized in duets with America’s most celebrated contemporary guitarists. CD 1 consists of duets with Mary Halvorson in an Antwerp studio; CD 2 has Akchoté and Bill Frisell recording together long-distance in their trans-Atlantic homes. Instead of stretching out, the duos create series of gem-like pieces, with only three of them exceeding four minutes. CD 1 has 13 pieces of music for the film and 13 additional tracks from the sessions including works by a variety of composers. CD 2 has 11 pieces composed for the film (with only two repeating from the Halvorson session), alternate takes of four of them, and an additional seven pieces from the sessions. Almost inevitably, given the guitar’s emphasis and the presence of Halvorson and Frisell, there’s some wonderfully bright, slightly bent and still bending Americana, including each CD beginning and ending with different versions of the bluegrass hymn, composed by A.J. Buchanan and Rev. Charles Walker Ray, “Death Is Only a Dream,” in solo, duo, and even trio versions.

Akchoté is a masterful composer as well as a guitarist of the first order, and his works here can suggest everything from baroque etudes to country anthems to suspenseful film noir bop. Halvorson makes frequent, but also effective, use of her pitch bending machinery, and given the treble-bright electric tones of both guitarists, it can create a simultaneity of two related worlds, one fixed, one eliding in and out of focus, a kind of dissonance that is as cognitive as it is musical, beyond the merely exotic. The beautiful “Pluvier” has Halvorson bending upper register tones to suggest the wedding of a theremin and a mandolin. The soundtrack also includes Jim Hall’s “Careful,” acknowledging a common source. Among pieces unrelated to the film, Akchoté and Halvorson provide abstract accounts of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “I Remember You,” while other traditions are invoked in the “Slow Ph Blues,” matching Akchoté’s stinging lead with Halvorson’s rock-solid (with occasional quaving), near-acoustic chordal accompaniment.

The Frisell disc begins its soundtrack portion with the trio version of “Death Is Only a Dream.” Combining Halvorson’s pitch bending with Frisell’s near-steel guitar sustain and Akchoté’s warmth, the piece presses its country music sources to self-parody and lachrymose hilarity. The sheer beauty of the Frisell/Akchoté collaboration takes over on “Can I.V.? #1,” as the two create electric guitar sonorities that Bach might relish. Elsewhere the two employ a kind of baroque tracing, Akchoté following, anticipating, then running ahead. “Goldoni” achieves a playfulness that hints at Nino Rota’s work with Federico Fellini, while the non-soundtrack arrangements of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Karitas Habundat” and “Laus Trinitati” summon a modal purity at once timeless and infinitely resonant (and more wit: the two are separated by “Boors,” a burst of high-speed, string band anarchy).
–Stuart Broomer


David Bindman + Michael Sarin + Stefan Bauer
Relative Motion

Reedman and composer David Bindman has been active in the scene for quite a while, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his leadership ledger. He’s appeared on sideman dates with Fred Ho, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Royal Hartigan and Adam Lane, as well as being integral to a number of collectives over the years, such as the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet. Now supplementing those co-operative outfits is the Relative Motion Trio. Established in 2019 it comprises drummer Michael Sarin and German marimba player Stefan Bauer alongside Bindman.

On the band’s eponymous debut release both Bindman and Bauer contribute charts which draw out the possibilities inherent in the lineup. But no matter who the author the results are carefully constructed, orchestrating the resources at hand for the desired effect, and idiosyncratically broaching an array of emotions. The group ethos is prominent straight away in the opening “Missile Or Microbe” which has a feel similar to some of Braxton’s early quartet pieces, with a woozy theme which recurs amid a series of short extemporized passages. Even when Sarin’s drums come to the fore, there’s the sense that it’s in the service of the composition rather than an individual statement. Of course, that might just be testament to the way in which the formidable drummer organizes his palette of options, crisp and precise in his supportive colors, but never slow to kick on or instigate a beat when required. Where he does get to strut his stuff is on the angular “Winter Variations” as a tumbling outing becomes part of an involved tenor and marimba exchange, before continuing throughout the pulsing theme restatement.

A drummer himself in his youth, Bindman has revealed his affinity for percussive flavors through participation in the Ghanaian/American ensemble Talking Drums and the quartet Blood Drum Spirit, so no surprise then that his writing tends to privilege rhythm. However, the ticking groove and twiddly sax/marimba unison which begin the title track quickly morph into something less anticipated, at least initially, an open section of shimmering hi-hat and fluttering alto introspection. More matching expectations might be the sunny “Time Frames,” the longest cut on the album, which features a dancing marimba riff and subtly shifting cadences, which nonetheless make space for a billowing flute soliloquy. Also in evidence here is that orchestral dimension which sees everyone work in pursuit of the overall goal, as Bindman’s flute holds down the tune as the marimba and drums trade breaks.

One of the most distinctive elements of the session stems from the way Bauer deploys his five octave marimba, ranging from wonderful deep woody timbres to evoking the metallic ring of the vibraphone, exotic gamelan, or Caribbean steel drums. He looms out of the mysterious tone poem of his own “Now And Always Now” and adds rich glisses to the bucolic but enigmatic “Lights, Receding.” His closing “Prière” must have been a candidate to start the set. It proposes a slightly slippery hymn like line which unfurls to allow incisive solos from each of the threesome, which here function as individual farewells, but which might have been equally effective how-do-you-dos.

There’s nothing flashy here, but lovers of thoughtful, left field music with roots in the jazz tradition, but with gaze fixed determinedly beyond those horizons, will find much to savor.
–John Sharpe


Burton/McPherson Trio (featuring Dezron Douglas)
The Summit Rock Session at Seneca Village
Giant Step Arts GSA 006

Between 1825 and the 1850s, a community of free African American property owners and a handful of German and Irish immigrants thrived in what was called Seneca Village. Located in what is now NYC’s Upper West Side between West 82nd and 89th streets, the community was destroyed through eminent domain when the city built Central Park. Fast forward some 170 years to a June 2021 evening at Summit Rock – the highest natural point in Central Park and a feature formerly within Seneca Village’s boundaries – where the Burton/McPherson Trio is playing its first live set since the start of the pandemic. And what a set. There’s nothing groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting: this is purely a sizzling, impassioned, direct, blowing session. Of course, the tenor (Abraham Burton)/bass (Dezron Douglas)/drums (Eric McPherson) format is tailor made for just such a display.

Right from the set’s opening notes on “Flower,” Abraham Burton charges ahead with the directness and core strength of Trane – the tenor as an unstoppable force for good. He mixes careening post-bop flights with cries. Music as cathartic release. Throughout the album, Eric McPherson floats over his kit, drawing polyrhythms out with a firm, but not too heavy, touch. Think Elvin meets Milford Graves. The group’s appellation “featuring Dezron Douglas” is an interesting formulation; listening to Douglas’ hookup with McPherson one would assume that Douglas held the permanent bass chair. On “Seneca Blues,” which charges forward with Giant Steps intensity, Douglas sets into a simple, repeating two-note figure that sets up an economical drum solo. As McPherson adds complexity, the pair briefly double up the time in a serendipitous fashion and tumble into more intricacies.

Despite the trio’s energy and urgency throughout the evening, there is an unhurried feel of joy in the playing. On the complex “Low Bridge” Burton builds his solo methodically and without any pressure to reach a hasty conclusion. He works the full range of his horn, sliding from gliding phrases to controlled wails to brawny runs, dropping inside the pockets of space the rhythm section gives him or rising above to add to the polyphony. One gets the feel that he is hyperaware of the music while taking in the larger significance of the moment and the context. “If You Could See Me Now” is a lovely ballad feature on which Burton synthesizes the mainstream tenor tradition of Hawkins, Dexter, and Trane, while Douglas and McPherson churn up a storm on René McLean’s “Dance Little Mandisa.”

The set closes with “Will Never Be Forgotten.” The lamenting, solemn opening tenor phrase grows to an uplifting mantra. Burton takes flight with a strength he uses to stake a claim, proclaiming his and his bandmates’ place in the music, its tradition, and its space. His solo, and the trio’s performance writ large that evening stands as an affirmation that in the shadows of Seneca Village, the spirit of freedom and independence that the community exemplified can still be felt in the air 170 years on.

Nota bene: Jason Palmer’s Giant Steps Arts live recording at Summit Rock – featuring Mark Turner, Edward Perez, and Johnathan Blake – is a scintillating companion to the Burton/McPherson Trio session.
–Chris Robinson


Intakt Records

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