Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


James Brandon Lewis Quartet
Intakt CD 350

Inspired by the double helix form of DNA, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis developed a new compositional method to generate the 11 tracks which make up Molecular. He’s also enlisted a crack squad in the classic quartet format to extract the most from the diverse fare. A holdover from the duet outing Live In Willisau (Intakt, 2020) drummer Chad Taylor is joined by bassist Brad Jones and pianist Aruán Ortiz. These last three are already a familiar team, constituting the trio which waxed Ortiz’ excellent Live In Zürich (Intakt, 2019).

Lewis is keen to demonstrate the versatility of his system. Although he devises a range of settings, harking back to the tradition, from the breathy languid “Of First Importance,” to the funky “Per 1,” and the beseeching Latin-tinged “Cesaire,” the common source engenders a sense of connection and a unified feel. That’s just as well, as with so many pieces on a 46-minute album, the thematic materials, largely assembled from simple repeated figures, assume a prominent position, and solos are necessarily concise and tightly integrated.

The reiterated motifs provide readymade building blocks for Lewis’ own features, favoring his style of nagging incantation delivered in a burnished full tone, freighted with emotional heft which carries traces of his gospel upbringing, though it’s often the swirling rubato codas for which Lewis reserves his wildest testifying. While there are no explicit homages on this occasion, there’s more than a hint of mid-period Coltrane in Lewis’ exhortations, especially on the ballads.

Countless rhythmic shifts masterminded jointly by pianist, bassist, and drummer enliven each cut. Ortiz combines the energy and imagination manifest in his trio dates with the impressionistic and abstract leanings which come through in places like Of Rhythmic Falls (Intakt, 2020). “An Anguish Departed” sports the sort of groove that’s meat and drink for Ortiz, and he posts a dazzling outpouring over the beat. It’s the only number where Lewis doesn’t lead the tune statement, though he’s at his most raw-boned and blustery here.

Jones and Taylor handle time keeping duties with aplomb, dexterously inserting commentary into the continuity, as well as stretching out when the opportunities arise. Jones makes a heartfelt melodic pizzicato statement on the closing tender “Loverly.” Taylor has a polyrhythmic slot in the punchy, appropriately twisted “Helix, as well as a series of bombastic bursts over piano and bass accompaniment in the stealthy “Neosho.”

Molecular is an enjoyable set of spirited and resourceful music that stimulates constantly rewarding playing from Lewis’ starry crew.
–John Sharpe


Alvin Lucier
Works for the Ever Present Orchestra
Black Truffle CD BT060

As composer Alvin Lucier closes in on his 90th birthday, there is little sign that he is slowing down in the least. With a career that spans 7 decades, Lucier has been developing and refining a singular approach to composition and sound installation that delve deeply into the very physicality of sound itself. Lucier’s website lists an impressive 158 compositions plus an additional 9 pieces of music for theater, 3 for film, and 1 for television and that list stops at 2015. A look at his discography on Discogs shows an additional dozen recordings released since 2015, most of which include new pieces. Which brings us to this recording by Zurich-based Ever Present Orchestra, founded in 2016 and dedicated to performing and commissioning new works of Lucier’s. In the liner notes to this recording, the composer talks about the astounding opportunity this has provided, allowing him to write new pieces and adapt older pieces for the specific instrumentation of the ensemble comprised of four electric guitars, three saxophones, four violins, percussion, and piano.

Works for the Ever Present Orchestra presents three new pieces written specifically for the orchestra as well as two adaptations of pieces written during the last decade. With compositions that utilize the entire ensemble and others that zero in on various subsets of instruments, Lucier mines his remarkable ear for the resonances and beatings of overtones, interference frequencies, and harmonic oscillations. The composer first began working with electric guitars as a replacement for pure wave oscillators with the 2013 piece “Criss-Cross,” tapping guitarists Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O’Malley, both of whom were well-versed in the tectonic shifting patterns of highly amplified extended enveloping harmonic and sub-harmonic explorations. The two are part of the ensemble on this release and “Double Helix,” for four electric guitars is an extension and refinement of that earlier piece. While the mix is denser, the velocity of changing harmonics is slowed down and the resultant psycho-acoustic beating tones gain more subtlety and depth. The rich striations at times bring to mind the colorations of a pipe organ, as the music thrums and pulsates with intensity.

“Tilted Arc” for the full ensemble, starts with the quavering of bowed glockenspiel as shimmers of overtones are intermixed. The complement of reedy soprano saxophone sonorities, microtonal acoustic properties of violin, undulating electric guitar and the spare struck note of piano course deliberately across the 18-minute piece. “Semicircle” utilizes similar instrumentation minus the bowed glockenspiel, switching in alto saxophones and pushing the violins a bit more in the mix. Here, the way that insistently repeated, hammered piano notes interact with the wavering tonalities of the ensemble creates an unsettled, shifting scrim of sound. “EPO-5” pares the ensemble back to two electric guitars, soprano sax, violin, and bowed glockenspiel and the sparer setting accentuates pure tones over dense layering. Here the interactions of the upper registers of soprano and the bowed metal bars creates particularly restive fluctuations of difference tones that well in and out of synch with mesmerizing potency.

“Two Circles,” originally composed for flute, Bb clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and electronics is recast here for the full ensemble. In the original version, the interaction of electronic and acoustic sounds is central to the piece with the sound of each of the instruments clearly delineated against the pure-toned electronics. In the Ever Present Orchestra version, the sound of the piano still rings against the shifting ground. But in this arrangement, resonant harmonics stand in for the electronics of the original piece, and the voices of violins and reeds are enmeshed for a lusher soundscape. “Braid”, originally composed for alto flute, clarinet, English horn, and string quartet is transposed for four electric guitars and three saxophones. With electric guitars providing the ground there is more harmonic volatility than with the string quartet and subtly vacillating overtones surface and recede with the tightly voiced sax parts. The contrast in timbres between alto flute, clarinet, and English horn is missed a bit, but a balance in sound quality across the ensemble brings out a new character to the piece. Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label has been instrumental in releasing new works by Lucier over the last few years, with five previous releases including a co-release of the box set Illuminated By the Moon celebrating the composer’s 85th birthday. Not many composers and musicians are vitally active as they approach 90. This release provides ample evidence that Lucier is fully engaged and continues to embrace new opportunities.
–Michael Rosenstein


Joe McPhee
Black is the Color: Live in Poughkeepsie and New Windsor 1969-1970
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD069

Here is Amiri Baraka’s “changing same” stretched out across three separate dates in 1969-70: a black musical continuum from raucous improvisation to gutbucket rhythm and blues. But the music is not an exposition of a thesis, nor a theorization in-and-of-itself: it’s a living, breathing sound machine. McPhee borrows unselfconsciously from John Coltrane, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Billie Holiday, and traditional sources without blinking. In so doing, he’s grappling – musically, culturally, organizationally – with the same pressing questions as Baraka was 80 miles down the Hudson River: What is the sound of this black nation? Can it hold together? And all of this was happening before McPhee’s well known and much-loved Nation Time, which was recorded in December 1970 and took its name from Baraka’s totemic poem (a 4-disc box set of this album was released by Corbett vs. Dempsey in 2013). This new release is the buildup, the work out, the coming together.

In 1966, Baraka wrote that James Brown’s screams were more “‘radical’ than most jazz musicians’ sound” and called for a “Unity Music” which would be “New Thing and Rhythm and Blues”, “[a] mystical walk up the street to a new neighborhood where all the risen live.” By June 1970, James Brown was recording the three-part single “Super Bad,” on which he urges his tenor player, Robert “Chopper” McCullough, to “blow me some ‘Trane, brother.” One month earlier, as heard on this new release, Joe McPhee had slunk and squealed his way through a version of Brown’s “I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing” at a local community center in his hometown of Poughkeepsie. By the end of the year he would be recording his Baraka-inspired “Nation Time,” and the circle was in some sense complete. The point is that this was in the air. Whether or not McPhee read Baraka’s 1966 essay, “The Changing Same,” is by-the-by, because these musical questions and convergences weighed on the time and place. McPhee gets to the nub of it in a 2013 interview. At the automotive ball bearing factory where he worked for 18 years, his records met with a cutting jibe from his co-workers: “you mean people pay you to play that shit?” While his eventual response was to play increasingly in Europe, at the turn of the 1970s it was still nation time, and McPhee was very much invested in bringing his music to the people of upstate New York. (This was not downtown Manhattan, and McPhee certainly does not sound high on the fumes of the counterculture.) But his initial response did not mean “compromising” either. It meant a repertoire that stretched from Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” to Coltrane’s “Naima.”

That said, the three dates on this new release are distinct – the music doesn’t all blur into one. The first two dates are Coltrane-heavy – by turns fiery and solemn—and the last one settles down into a groove of rollicking rhythm and blues. The date in New Windsor, January 12, 1969, sees McPhee sharing the frontline with saxophonist Reggie Marks. The two tangle tenors, occasionally switching to trumpet and flute respectively, dancing around each other in a state of finely-tuned tension that bursts in the moments they interlock. Particularly memorable is a rendition of “Black is the Color” in which the two tenors move through the melody in hauntingly hollow fifths – all the more ghostly for the way they glide in their own separate tempo over the rhythm section’s driving triplet feel. The second date, recorded in Poughkeepsie on October 23, 1969, opens with a beautiful take of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child.” As McPhee has pointed out, there’s nowhere to hide in a ballad, and he certainly doesn’t. The tenor starts off unaccompanied – gospel tilts and modulations that peter out into breath before rising again with his characteristically thick brassy creak of a tone. A blues shout calls the rhythm section into action and the vibraphone provides a floating intermediary. The melody soars over the top, breaking down into croaked angular lines from which fragments of Holiday’s original periodically resurface. (McPhee’s version owes a little more to the serpentine irony of Lady Day’s 1941 rendition than to the righteousness of Aretha Franklin’s 1962 cover.) For the third and final date, at the Lincoln Center in Poughkeepsie on May 24, 1970, Tyrone Crabb switches to electric bass and the band is joined by singer Octavius Graham, a man who, reassuringly, the internet knows absolutely nothing about. He does a good James Brown impression replete with screams and the necessary groove sign-posting (“gonna get right down low”). Pianist Mike Kull punches little funk diagrams on the keys behind him and the whole thing simmers as the sociality of the occasion sneaks its way onto the recording – chatter, screams, and possibly even children playing. In the middle of Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” Octavius Graham replaces the words of the song’s title – its central refrain – with a scat, thus underlining the song’s key message: this could be anywhere (or as Pickett put it, “every town I go in, there’s a street ...”). “Down on Broadway” becomes “Down on [scat!]”: another changing same from Poughkeepsie to Newark to Buffalo right down to Phoenix, Arizona (the latter two being Pickett’s original reference points). It was nation time, and as McPhee affirmed four decades later: “You can only be in your time, whatever time you’re in.” This record is slice of that time, and we’re lucky to have it.
–Gabriel Bristow


Larry Ochs/Aram Shelton Quartet
Continental Drift
Clean Feed CF555CD

These saxophonists are a colorful pair. Again and again, Larry Ochs’ mischievous wit abuts the single-minded lyricism of Aram Shelton. Hear “Strand.” It takes off from a brief riff by Ochs. A little riffish motive becomes virtually the sole content, twisted topsy-turvy and all around and expanded into long melodies, of Shelton’s elegant alto solo. Ochs, on tenor, sounds marvelous too, rougher, with broken phrases that flow into a statement. It sure reminds me of the classic 1937 “Crazy Rhythm” by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, especially since Shelton and Carter form their solos the same way. Shelton’s long-lined elegance, Ochs’ more rhythmically and expressively varied playing, and each man’s knack for shaping fulfilling solos make this CD a delight.

The Age of Experiment isn’t really over, not when such sophisticated players spark flames. In “Slat” Shelton’s alto solo develops from a stuttered tone, so Ochs’ tenor solo starts with variations on stutters. This is a real quartet piece, with also a sopranino sax (Ochs) solo; low, busy, scraping-sound col legno bass – Mark Dresser bows on the wood side – and the active pitter-pat of Kjell Nordeson’s percussion. In the ballad “Anita” the saxes and Dresser shape stories of sweet romance, Shelton especially. The grand manner of “Test Shots,” Ochs in big split tones, Shelton with wounded phrases that rise and mutate, feels like a symphony. “Switch” is the height of the saxophonists’ improvising, with such a natural movement of musical ideas.

Drummer Kjell Nordson is a trip. No big kit, booming, kick-ass interplay for him, he’s the Anti-Elvin. His cymbals are choked, his snares are tuned high and tight, he sounds like he uses chopsticks instead of drumsticks. Several pieces begin with catchy percussion with which alternate bassist Scott Walton and especially Dresser make sharp partners. The rhythm section’s closeness to soloing saxists is often riveting. I could rave on, because there’s so much to enjoy here.
–John Litweiler


It’s About Time
Intakt CD 348

It’s tempting to make too much out of this disc’s title, but the venerable OM – the Swiss quartet that’s been around since the 1970s – went through a number of years on relative hiatus. A decade ago, Intakt released a recording of a fabulous Willisau concert. And with It’s About Time, Christy Doran (guitar, devices), Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor sax), Bobby Burri (contrabass, devices), and Fredy Studer (drums, percussion, bowed metal) take all of their varied history, together and apart, and deliver an extremely compelling album.

Each member of the group is a vivid soloist, as you can tell by investigating any of their old ECM or Japo albums (not to mention the aforementioned live date). But as they’ve all worked on their instrumental language over the decades, and keeping in mind their occasionally pastoral leanings of yore, OM has developed a really rich textural vocabulary that’s at the center of this recording. It’s there in the hushed opening to “Like a Lake (dedicated to Marianne B.),” whose scrapes, buzzes, and soft breath set the tone. Only a band with such a clear voice could open an album with an exploration this patient, which is especially compelling as the piece slowly evolves into a kind of abstract groove. Leimgruber’s altissimo lines twist between Doran’s electronic shapes and jittery phrasing in satisfying fashion.

The dynamic range within these tunes is also realized across the sequencing of the album as a whole. For example, “Perpetual-Motion Food” opens with a gnarly techno-groove/loop from Doran, and Studer plays wild free time cymbals over top. Things get wilder still when Burri digs in and Leimgruber cranks out some fabulous circular breathing. Leimgruber’s “Nowhere” is another slow burn textual piece. A looped chiming chord and highest soprano note frame the Doran-penned title track at the outset, before its sneaky groove opens up and the tension rises until OM just let it rip. Another Doran piece, “Fragments,” is a highlight, careening from a punishing riff to limpid melancholy and back, complete with floor-melting distortion and tasty groove.

There’s something about those understated pieces, though, that really got me. Leimgruber’s “On a Bare Branch” could very much be from one of his solo projects, built around the dynamic extremes of his saxophone language. The rumbling, brooding “Covid-19 Blues” is a dark textural affair. That tune, along with the floating tone-world of “String Holder,” almost gives you the impression that on this superb record (recorded in February of this year) OM perhaps sensed the darkness just at hand. Certainly its billowing dark clouds (and Burri’s use of electronics is so vital to this record) gives that impression to these ears. Whether that’s your association or not, this is a real statement of this band’s range and commitment to group expression. Powerful stuff.
–Jason Bivins


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