Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Media

Steve Cardenas + Ben Allison + Ted Nash
Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley
Sunnyside 1664

The celebrated catalog of pianist and composer Carla Bley has been canonized by such legendary artists as Gary Burton and Paul Bley, the latter of whom was the first to record her compositions in the late 1950s. Guitarist Steve Cardenas first heard Carla Bley’s music as a teenager on Burton’s Dreams So Real (ECM, 1975), which led him to investigate her compositions on recordings by Paul Bley, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and her own all-star bands. Eventually, Cardenas began playing with Bley in Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the quintet of her partner, bassist Steve Swallow (where she played organ), further reinforcing Cardenas’ longstanding relationship with her work.

The collective trio of Cardenas, bassist Ben Allison, and tenor/soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Ted Nash first came together in 2011 to explore the repertoire of guitarist Jim Hall, finding additional inspiration in Jimmy Giuffre’s seminal drummer-less trios of the late 1950s, many of which featured Hall. In 2015, Cardenas, Allison, and Nash recorded Quiet Revolution for Newvelle Records, documenting their interest in the music of both Hall and Giuffre. The group’s aesthetic connection to Giuffre’s later trio of the early ‘60s, which featured Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, is also readily apparent, as that configuration played many of Carla Bley’s compositions, which is the focus of Cardenas and his trio mates on Healing Power.

The program includes several of Bley’s early, well-known tunes along with some later, less often covered ones. The album begins with Bley’s beloved ballad, “Ida Lupino,” possibly the composer’s most famous piece, written for the titular actress and director. Guitar and bass introduce the unadorned melody with a sensitive touch before saxophone enters. Cardenas takes a lyrical solo, followed by an equally sonorous Nash, and then Allison, enveloping the listener in a “stripped and basic” setting, which is how Bley described Lupino.

Though Bley never recorded it herself, “Donkey” is a perfect vehicle for the trio’s abstract, blues-inflected exchanges. The brief but regal “And Now, The Queen” is interpreted as a stately, rubato tone poem featuring Nash on clarinet. A lively reading of “Ictus” sets a more strident tone than most of the other tracks, with Nash’s abstract tenor preceding a tremolo laced guitar solo, followed by Allison’s supple bass.

The bittersweet melody of “Lawns,” one of Bley’s most cherished songs of the 1980s, is given a resplendent reading. The cheerful 6/8 rhythm of “Ad Infinitum” utilizes open harmonic changes, while the mysterious “Olhos de Gato” is an evocative bossa where Nash’s lush clarinet carries the melody. Originally written for Sonny Rollins, “King Korn” finds the trio focusing on their collective improvisational language; challenging expectations, Nash plays clarinet instead of tenor. The date concludes with the soulful title track, a languid blues tune from Bley’s 1980s book that ends on an optimistic note.

The accessibility of Bley’s music is one of the key aspects that inspires listeners and musicians alike to revisit it. Among related endeavors, Dave Douglas and the Doxas Brothers formed the Riverside quartet with Steve Swallow to explore the music of Giuffre and Bley in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Having first-hand experience playing with Carla Bley, Cardenas and his trio mates follow a similar path on Healing Power, offering a lyrical interpretation of her work that conveys the restorative effect implied by the album’s title.
–Troy Collins


Die Hochstapler
Beauty Lies
Umlaut Records tscd2

Die Hochstapler
Umlaut Records tscd3

The Berlin-based quartet Die Hochstapler first hit my radar via trumpet player Louis Laurain’s startling solo trumpet recording Pulses, Pipes, Patterns on Insub records which re-envisions the brass instrument as a sound resonator through the use of amplification, electronics, pre-recorded sounds, and reverberant objects deployed in the tubing of the trumpet and controlled through valves and mutes. Laurain’s duo recording with alto player Pierre Borel, Live at Saint-Merry, gave further proof of a unique, inventive sensibility in tandem with Borel’s striking alto playing. From there, it was a quick hop to Die Hochstapler’s The Braxtornette Project, their initial release on Umlaut Records where Laurain, Borel, bassist Antonio Borghini, and drummer/vibes player Hannes Lingens wove together a distinctive, idiosyncratic take on a mashup of pieces by Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman. For their follow-up, The Music of Alvin P. Buckley, they postulated the persona of a probability theorist and musician to come up with a series of game theory structures as the basis for collective improvisation which they expanded upon for 2018’s The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. Four years on and the quartet delivers again with a double-dose recorded within their February 2022 residency at the recently shuttered Berlin venue Au Topsi Pohl.

First up is Beauty Lies, a collection of 25 studies that weigh in at 43 minutes. Recorded in afternoon sessions without an audience, the release captures the quartet working through compositions, kernels of ideas, four-second snippets, collective improvisations, and structural sketches. Their usual arch sense of humor is at play here with titles like “Squid Pro Quo,” “Hochstaplacy,” “Der Buerokrat,” and “Hochstaplarker.” Their encyclopedic knowledge of jazz vocabulary and forms, sterling technical acumen, and finely-honed collective interplay is in evidence throughout. But there is far more at play here than just simply catching a practice session. Clear decisions as to what is included, how it is ordered, and how the pieces develop an overall flow across the tracks are immediately evident. Hear the way that a simple 5 second phrase, titled “Loop,” played by each of the members is dispersed across the disc, creating structural touchpoints along the way.

Kernels of ideas appear and then pop up again, acting as introductions or codas as pieces are teased out. “When You Play the Jazz,” which starts with a simmering swing and then splinters into contrapuntal angularity, then loops back around to a stately finish segues to “Bells,” with simmering bass and muted trumpet lines bounding across a repeated pulse of vibes and cymbals. There’s also the build from the falling phrase miniature “How Many Hairs” to the brief, bopish “Anesthesia” to the drum “Loop” to “True Love” the longest track at over 10 minutes. Here, the various threads are woven together with a cooperative sense of structural and melodic flow as the four musicians plait their lines into a collective whole. Then there’s a piece like “Hochstaplacy” which moves back and forth between fluid post-bop lines, repeated cadences, and stomping swagger with aplomb. “Beauty Lies Within” even includes a melancholy, dulcet vocal by Laurain with absurdist lyrics, full-bodied alto melodicism fractured with wry interjections of blatted noise while “J&T” wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1950s Prestige recording.

Within, captured at a performance during their residency, weaves all of the components of Beauty Lies into an expansive, improvised whole. Using game structures, various queueing strategies, and real-time collective composition, the group creates two half-hour investigations of dizzying complexity, constantly shifting focuses, staggering group interplay, and mad free swing. One hears threads of ideas explored on Beauty Lies, snippets of Ornette Coleman’s "Theme from a Symphony,” nods to Anthony Braxton’s angular structures, and an exhaustive collective knowledge of the entire history of jazz vocabulary. But what makes this work so well is how the group has honed their approach, nailing tight voicings that seamlessly morph into four-way hocketed interaction, veer off into fiery free interplay, then loop back to sly, knotty themes. Catch their fastidious stop-start interlude two-thirds of the way through “Part 2” which provides a bridge from restive stomp to musing angular melodicism.

One minute, Laurain’s brash stabbing lines or muted sputters take the fore, the next, Borel’s snaking alto playing, which moves from rich-toned, abstracted expositions of the hard bop vernacular to strident, flurried freedom simmers over the top. Then Borghini’s bounding bass lines and open sense of time wend a snaking path countering the fractured saunter of Lingens’s percussion. The drummer’s lithe sense of momentum and swing behind his kit provide an acrobatic, changeable force balanced with a stalwart, foundational sense of pace and open pulse throughout. With so much going on, this could easily fall into kaleidoscopic pastiche, and in fact their name, Die Hochstapler, is German for The Imposters. But these four are superlative structuralists and the path they collectively plot through these two improvisations fully embraces the underlying components they draw upon, interlacing them with spirited fervor and a keen ear toward collaborative instant composition. Taken together, Beauty Lies and Within embody Borel, Laurain, Borghini, and Lingens’ penchant for the deconstruction/reconstruction of the jazz language into something entirely their own.
–Michael Rosenstein


Paul Dunmall Quintet
Yes Tomorrow
Discus Music Discus 134CD

On Yes Tomorrow, the Paul Dunmall Quintet (Dunmall, saxophones; Steven Saunders, guitar; Richard Foote, trombone; James Owston, bass; Jim Bashford, drums) attempts a tricky maneuver that when pulled off can yield stunning results: hitting that sweet spot where collective free improvisation lives in balance with left-of-center structured freebop. Dunmall et al searches, comes close, but rarely hits the target.

Dunmall’s ostinato-based compositions are tuneful, often catchy, and meaty enough for his bandmates to reference them mid solo. Each tune’s first soloist usually has space to develop a statement, but subsequent soloists usually find themselves absorbed or assimilated by the group before they can do much of anything. The opening cut, “Micromys Minutus,” starts off with Saunders’s winding, spiky guitar ostinato from which swells of horns emerge. Saunders is followed by Dunmall on tenor, and then it’s not clear if the focus should be on each individual successive voice or the group, as the roles become muddied. A similar situation occurs on “Drum,” the first half of which is a solo feature for Bashford. A surging and slowly tumbling head sets up brief statements from Dunmall, Saunders, and Foote – "solos” would suggest something more fully gestated. At some points, Foote’s trombone, especially on “Cosmic Communion” and “Parrots” – both of which are lengthy cuts that feature other soloists – is often MIA. “Parrots” is both captivating and curious. Saunders – who is a consistent bright spot across the album – offers a ruminative, rubato introduction. His sharp, cutting, and stringent tone matched with his clean attack and refusal to bury the listener in a blizzard of notes gives the listener much to consider. Dunmall’s tune is bright and cheery. Owston’s and Dunmall’s subsequent solos are quickly enveloped in a nebula of spacey reverb and effects, which makes for a compelling soundscape ... and then the happy head returns. For those of us who grew up on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the other.”

The title track showcases the group’s full potential and serves as a “what could have been.” It’s a rough and ready, uptempo, polyphonic scramble. The quintet embraces the full cacophony that energetic crosstalk and spirited debate enables. Foote and Saunders get after each other. After sitting out the trombone-guitar duel, Dunmall jumps back into the ring to rejoin the royal rumble. No one taps out. In an album that wasn’t sure how “out” it wanted to get, the group’s firm commitment here to go sideways pays off. “Yes Tomorrow” along with four similarly conceived and executed tracks would have made for a scorcher of a record. The album closes with Dunmall’s solo alto performance, which on its own is virtuosic, lovely, and inventive, but it’s an odd way to finish an already long album. Yes Tomorrow is energetic and occasionally dazzling, but in its attempt to high dive into a Dixie cup and come out the better for it, it misses the mark.
–Chris Robinson


François Houle + Marco von Orelli
Make That Flight
ezz-Thetics 1032

Some of the great jazz combos of all time have as their main character the interplay between two horns. And without wanting to reduce this terrific duo to their primary influence, the enduring and much beloved John Carter/Bobby Bradford partnership is woven through all eleven tracks of this economical recording. I’ve long been a fan of Houle’s exceptional clarinet work, and many readers will remember his marvelous 1998 recording In the Vernacular, where his quintet played Carter’s music. Trumpeter and cornetist Marco von Orelli has recorded some equally vibrant group and solo music for Hatology in recent years. With a real sensitivity to tone, technique, and creative context, they embody the spirit of Carter and Bradford while avoiding mere imitation.

You don’t have to wait long to appreciate the sumptuousness of Houle’s tone, which is in the spotlight to open “Fake News.” But when Von Orelli’s cornet (his sole axe here) joins in, they move quickly from rapturous harmony and long tones to buzzing dialogue, register shifts, the works. And the moment when you realize the music is special is during von Orelli’s first, shimmering solo, against which Houle plays multiphonics on a simple repeating phrase. That’s the kind of intensity and deeply layered invention that characterize all eleven tracks. They range from the joyful, racing pieces like “Strade Monte Verita” or “Tandem” (a title shared by Carter and Bradford’s duo recordings) to dark-hued tunes like “Essay.”

Both players can turn on a dime, maximal exuberance and brio one second, gently vulnerable or even desolate the next. Three of the improvised pieces are for the painter Francis Bacon, who knew from the simultaneity of artistic freedom and abjection. And these two are comfortable living there, inside all the cracks between notes and tones. “Zipline,” for example, isn’t about speed; it’s about the experience of being suspended in air, with all the tension that comes with it. The title track is searching, almost resolute-sounding while it patiently seeks out lyricism. And the most extreme contrasts are heard on “Morning Song I,” the closing track and also (at eight minutes) the longest.

If there’s one beef I have with this record, it’s that I wish bagatelles like the fascinating “For F.” or “Mr. B” were longer. But with so many moments of delight, it’s a wonderfully rich album that I hope is the first of many these two do together.
–Jason Bivins


TUM Records

> More Moment's Notice

> back to contents