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Zoh Amba + William Parker + Francisco Mela
O Life, O Light, Vol. 1
577 Records 5900-1

Zoh Amba + Micah Thomas + Tyshawn Sorey + Matt Hollenburg
Mahakala Music MAHA-032

Francisco Mela + Zoh Amba
Causa y Efecto, Vol. 1
577 Records 5878-1

It’s hard not to be drawn into the biography and rapid ascendency of Zoh Amba onto the scene. A tenor player in her very early 20s who honed her craft shedding outdoors in her native rural Tennessee, Amba comes straight out of Albert Ayler, Frank Lowe, David S. Ware, and the like. Although she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, her approach and trajectory isn’t exactly in keeping with the conservatory jazz studies approach, which makes her a bit of a standout. Whether it's her youth, biography, approach to the music, or a combination of all three, Amba is making a splash in performances and recordings with many of the music’s masters, from Vijay Iyer to John Zorn to William Parker. Three new albums demonstrate where she is currently at in her career and why she deserves the attention she is receiving.

Causa y Efecto, Vol. 1 is a duo album with drummer Francisco Mela, although it almost feels like it’s Mela’s record: his name comes first on the CD spine, four of the five tunes are his, and while Amba doesn’t exactly defer or stay in the shadows, there’s a sense in the music that she is following his lead. Those who have only heard her tenor playing might be taken aback by the opening cut “Maria,” on which she plays flute in support of Mela’s percussion and vocals. Where Amba’s rough and ready tenor breathes fire, her flute sound is thin and breathy. Whether this is an aesthetic choice or an issue of chops doesn’t matter, her light and soft color commentary on Mela’s vocals and drums is spacious, minimal, and at times haunting. Amba’s switch from flute to tenor on the next tune, Mela’s “Dos Vidas,” is jarring. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. This composition and “Desafios,” also by Mela, are built on short, repeating, and varied motives that are perfect material for Amba to latch onto. On each, she mixes fiery runs with obsessive deconstructions of the tunes’ source material. Mela is an active drummer, and has a light, clean touch, and a pliable and limber sense of time. His twitchy left foot keeps his hi hat chiming and ringing away. He seems to float above his kit in the manner of Milford Graves. “Serenata” is a winding, melodic, and rhapsodic tune that Amba turns into a frantic journey, which Mela fully endorses. At times it’s just Mela on strong toms and cymbals, at others Mela steps back to let Amba take control. At one point Amba responds to Mela’s vocal calls. Midway through, Mela goes from playing out of time to laying down a tight groove. Amba follows, but with short chirps that find pockets in the groove rather than playing more melodic lines over the top of it. It’s somehow unexpected but also on brand. Throughout this track, and especially the freely improvised “ZOME,” Mela frames Amba’s phrases with cymbals that add structure and context to her Ayler-esque blowing. Together, Mela and Amba make a compatible and formidable pair. Causa y Efecto may not approach the very high bar set by other canonical tenor and drum duo albums, but depending on how long the Mela-Amba unit stays together, they may get there.

On O Life, O Light, Vol. 1 William Parker joins Mela and Amba to turn what is already a solid duo into what on paper should be a commanding trio. In the company of Causa y Efecto and Bhakti, the next album in this review, this album doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Unlike the duo album, Amba penned all the compositions on O Life, O Light. This is her show. The album opens with “Mother’s Hymn,” introduced by Amba’s subdued subtone tenor, Parker’s arco bass drags, and Mela’s atmospheric percussion. The music slowly grows in dynamics, texture, activity, and density. There’s never a doubt that Amba plays with anything other than one hundred percent commitment. Her tone is big and rough, which she modulates with some warbling vibrato. Parker, however, rarely sounds convinced, often repeating the same notes and rhythms in a way that’s more treading water than moving forward. Throughout much of the album he doesn’t rise to Amba’s intensity or sense of purpose while his more inventive playing often occurs when he is alone with Mela. The title track is a light, bouncy folk type melody the likes of which Ayler would whip his band and the audience into a frenzy. Amba quickly abandons the head in favor of a blowout before eventually revisiting the head. Later, Parker and Mela have a sparkling conversation, and the following scene where Amba teases out the tune while supported by Parker’s arco bass and Mela’s rapid martial drumming is exciting. Amba moves to flute on “Mountains in the Predawn Light.” She is more patient and lyrical on flute than on tenor, yet retains her compelling approach of working out all the variables of a simple idea. At times the band nearly coalesces, but never quite makes it and flirts with aimless wandering. The album closes with the ninety-four second “bonus” track “Satya,” which is either an excerpt from earlier in the album or a nearly verbatim variation on music heard previously. O Life, O Light is a relatively short album, and presumably there is a second volume on the way. It’s not a bad record, and there are flashes of brilliance, but one volume is plenty.

Zoh Amba

Bhakti features a completely different band, with Micah Thomas on piano and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Guitarist Matt Hollenburg joins the trio for the final track. Bhakti is one of those “let’s all get together for the first time, hit record, and see what happens” albums – a method that usually has one of two outcomes: disappointing mediocrity or tingling electricity. Bhakti is of the latter, reaching the territory that O Life, O Light gestured toward but could not find. The opening cut “Altar-flower” is a twenty-nine-minute torrent that hits with the impact of a menacing line of storms rolling down Tornado Alley. Amba blows unrelenting gales. Thomas is all over the keyboard, banging block chords up and down, rolling them, breaking them into trills and using them as launchpads for frenetic scampering runs. He’s more than familiar with Cecil Taylor and Myra Melford. Compared to Mela, Sorey is a more ferocious, heavy presence, kicking and filling and punctuating every possible moment. But it’s not all sturm und drang. Midway through the trio finds the calm in between storm fronts. Sorey cools things off and Thomas gets sparse and delicate. This break is a nursery rhyme in comparison to what came before. Before long, Sorey’s rapid, thudding kick drum alone hurls his bandmates into the final maelstrom, which ends with a crystalline piano figure that hangs in the air.

“The Drop and the Sea” begins as a delicate and beautiful lament, with Amba particularly vulnerable. Her light and brittle tone here sounds as if it might actually fracture and fall away, taking her with it. After a brief moment of silence, Amba decides the time for mourning is over and goes off on a careening set of runs. At the same time, Thomas and Sorey take their time in joining the fray and play a cat and mouse game while Amba goes off. By the end the group is together at full boil before serendipitously ending on a dead cold stop. Hollenburg’s appearance on “Awaiting Thee” heats up the group like a plasma cutter, giving them a nasty edge. Alongside Amba’s frantic caterwauls and skronky runs, Hollenburg’s jangly, angular, and biting guitar is just about all she can handle. Over the course of twenty minutes the quartet recreates the density and energy of Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit. When they lock in together on a same rhythmic pattern or stumble across the same path of winding sixteenth notes, they show great chemistry. This is more than a rehash of a 1960s or 1970s free jazz anaerobic burnout; this group has the means and vision to discover new textures and soundscapes within the context of this mode of free improvisation. Is it avant-garde or necessarily innovative? No – people have been taking this trip for six decades. In any case, it’s exciting.

What is consistent across this trio of albums, as well as Amba’s debut album O, Sun (Tzadik) – which features John Zorn – is a lack of a consistent lineup. That’s not a criticism, but in addition to these albums – especially Bhakti – I’d most like to hear Amba play within or lead a regular band that creates its own special vocabulary as she continues to develop hers. If it stuck together, the Bhakti quartet could become quite powerful. At this moment, however, her uncompromising voice and approach helps explain why she has exploded on the scene and is playing and recording with so many veterans and luminaries.
–Chris Robinson

Intakt Records

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