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Reviews of Recent Media

Akira Sakata + Takeo Moriyama
Trost TR217

Alto saxophonist Akira Sakata and drummer Takeo Moriyama were members of pianist Yosuke Yamashita’s trio, whose European debut at the 1974 Moers Festival prompted an hour-long standing ovation, and left the binary of American and European free jazz in ashes. Pianists like Yamashita were always subjected to kneejerk comparisons to Cecil Taylor; likening the Japanese trio to Taylor’s Unit with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille – or Sunny Murray – was also off point, but, in retrospect, somewhat useful. Mitochondria, a 1986 duo concert recorded in a Chiba Prefecture church – and spanning two discs – details the pros and cons.

There are times when Sakata’s serpentine lines and soaring exclamations approximate Lyons’; at the core of both is the revolution that was Charlie Parker. Yet, Albert Ayler’s clarion sound is also a primary color in Sakata’s palette, evidenced by the duo’s reading of “Ghosts,” which is all the more impressive because of Sakata’s steroidal alto sound. So too are the bristling textures associated with the midwestern alto players of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which are brought to bear on an extended version of Yamashita’s “Chiasma.”

Instead of the array of instruments favored by Milford Graves and early European free improvisers, Moriyama plays a standard jazz kit, his blazing stick and foot speed initially obscuring the emphatic patterns embedded in his polyrhythms. His thunderous onslaughts were then as stunning as Han Bennink’s, but Moriyama never had Bennink’s disruptive instincts, choosing instead to consistently complement Sakata and to bring his own solos full circle. In this regard, he is more aligned with Cyrille.

This latter point speaks to Sakata and Moriyama’s coordination. Theirs is not an aleatory music; it has shape, color and texture that is of a piece. The title of the album is a tell in this regard, mitochondria being an organelle found in most cells where biochemical processes of respiration and energy occur. That said, don’t be surprised if, at times, Sakata and Moriyama leave you breathless.
–Bill Shoemaker


Samo Salamon
Samo Records (no number)

It takes some guts to release a solo guitar record, even when you’re as talented as Slovenian master Samo Salamon. It takes even more if that release is a two-disc compendium of the complete works of Eric Dolphy. Salamon, a longtime Dolphy freak, took inspiration from Miles Okazaki’s solo Monk project from a couple years back. And after the two connected over Skype during the pandemic, he set up a single mike in his living room and just played.

And the results are beautiful, provocative, surprising, and in all these ways very much in the spirit of Dolphy. A beautiful and sunny “Miss Movement” opens things up, and for those who don’t know Salamon’s work, this shows him straight away to be such a graceful, confident player. Much is rightly made of Dolphy’s intense harmonic language, but on many of these tunes Salamon finds the bright lyricism, alternating between chordal work, dazzling runs, and pared-down lines. Check out two of Dolphy’s best-known pieces, “Serene” and “The Prophet.” On the former, he slows things all the way down so that it sways like a blues, using chords and melodic flourishes to get to Dolphy’s Monk influences. On the latter, he carves out layer after layer of harmony, making tasty choices but always lingering over those gorgeous half-steps in the theme.

Some of his key virtues as a player (and do investigate his other recordings) are his smart use of texture and his compositional thinking. In terms of texture, I was knocked out by the chimes and resonance that open up “Lady E,” his flick-scrapes on the strings to start “April Fool,” and his brilliant use of a 12-string on tunes like “17 West” and “Something Sweet, Something Tender” (where he finds the sometimes lonely, disoriented heart of this great tune).

This combination of emotional intensity and technical bravura is, of course, right at the heart of Dolphy’s own legacy. And Salamon treats that legacy so well by not simply approaching it reverentially, with kid gloves. He honors Dolphy with wonderful new touches and arrangements, like the slinky, dynamic “Miss Ann” or the clever fingerings and even harmonics-only phrasing on “Hat and Beard.” He’s equally passionate, though, about lesser-known gems like “Burning Spear” or the swinging “Les,” where Salamon never gives in to the temptation to fill up any space where a rhythm section might carry things. The tunes simply breathe, from the percussive effects on “Iron Man” to the 12-string swagger of “Strength with Unity.” And that really allows you to luxuriate in Salamon’s creativity, which comes in wave after wave. If you’re seeking something laconic and down-tuned, proceed to “Red Planet.” If it’s Reichel-sounding mandolin you’re after, check out “Inner Flight I.”

Whatever the tune, whatever the arrangement, Salamon plays with bottomless facility and creativity. The close harmony, the unpredictable lines, the sheer brio and playfulness of Dolphy’s music are all here in abundance. A wonderful release.
–Jason Bivins


Ches Smith
Interpret It Well
Pyroclastic PR 19

“Interpret it well,” reads the text on Raymond Pettibon’s enigmatic drawing. It’s an apt choice of cover art for drummer, vibraphonist, and composer Ches Smith, whose new album of the same name borrows Pettibon’s mysterious prompt as title and instruction. The recording is his second with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, the follow-up to the trio’s debut, The Bell (ECM, 2016). This time the band becomes a quartet with the addition of legendary guitarist Bill Frisell, whose sublime contributions add nuanced atmosphere and texture. Frisell attended a Ches Smith Trio concert in late 2018, following up with the drummer afterwards. It took over a year for their schedules to align, but Frisell was finally able to join the trio for a performance in early 2020. Then the pandemic hit. With ample time on his hands, Smith reworked his trio compositions with the new lineup in mind, and the quartet went into the studio that October.

Smith’s compositions are minimal but memorable; skeletal enough to allow improvisers ample space, yet sturdy enough to withstand bold extrapolations. This concept of a strong foundation evoked with only a few sketches is something Smith’s writing shares with Pettibon’s work. As such, the music on Interpret It Well is fairly spartan, but there are gordian moments as well. Close listening reveals an abundance of activity; melodies vary, rhythms fluctuate, and no one takes the lead for long, as all four players develop their ideas collectively. The album is bookended by “Trapped” and “Deppart” (“Trapped” spelled backwards), two brief versions of the same haunting melody that slowly gain power through repetition, adding one voice at a time.

The title track begins with Smith’s tentative vibraphone, as other voices gather in the ether, eventually coming into focus with Taborn’s restless pianism, which precedes a raucous finale led by Frisell and Maneri’s searing fretwork. Similarly, Frisell’s plaintive guitar introduces “Mixed Metaphor” alone, with Maneri’s mournful bowing, Smith (on vibes), and Taborn progressively adding nuanced commentary, before the tune eventually culminates in a percussive 5/4 vamp. The melancholy “Morbid” unfolds at an equally glacial pace, with all four members maintaining an elegy-like ambience. Conversely, the episodic “Clear Major” embodies a more forceful tone from the start. The excursion begins with Taborn’s fervent patterns followed by loping rhythms and harmonious group interplay, with each movement separated by spiky collective improvisations. The penultimate “I Need More” is rife with escalating tension, climaxing with Frisell’s scorching valediction.

Smith’s bare-bones compositional approach relies on the interpretive prowess of his bandmates. Any member can alter the group’s direction; Taborn may add new harmonies, or Maneri could embellish a written line, causing the music to resolve differently. Even Frisell, whose phrasing and tone is well known, offers an abundance of surprises in this rarefied setting. As Smith himself says, “Interpret It Well is really my way of encouraging them – it could be the unspoken credo of the band.”
–Troy Collins


Luke Stewart’s Silt Trio
The Bottom
Cuneiform Rune 487

Bassist Luke Stewart is an integral part of daring ensembles like Heroes Are Gang Leaders and Irreversible Entanglements in which the spoken word is central. His Silt Trio with tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and percussionist Chad Taylor is also a group that is, to use dated jargon, saying something. African American music is often charted with a roots and branches model, a process of variegation and extension. Silt is accumulated, a gathering, layering, and shading caused by moving water. The Bottom then is an apt title, referencing material compacted through time as well as the foundation bassists traditionally provide, concepts reinforced throughout a briskly paced program mixing inviting themes and keenly focused improvisations.

Taylor’s Chicago roots are evident early on. His gently rolling mbira sets the album’s tone on his opening “Reminisce,” supported by gradually unfolding phrases by Stewart and Settles, whose initially hushed tone is particularly effective. It’s a track that the blindfolded listener could easily mistake for vintage Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Stewart’s “Roots” has an infectiously buoyant rhythm that he and Taylor bring to a simmer, a groove similar to those Taylor provided for Fred Anderson; but, instead of pushing it to the brink and beyond, Settles rides confidently in its wake. Having demonstrated the ability to create persuasive performances of five to seven minutes, the trio dives into the deeper waters on the freely improvised “Angles,” the longest performance on the album by several minutes, one that suggests time well spent in the shed fine tuning their chemistry.

Built on an earthy vamp, the title piece has a timeless quality; stylists ranging from Gary Bartz to Archie Shepp would have run with this fifty years ago – Settles is engagingly effusive. Were this a LP, this would have been a winning track with which to open the B side. For the most part, concision is the trio’s strong suit; however, the robust “Circles,” which clocks in at just over three minutes, had enough fire and ideas for several more satisfying minutes. “Dream House” downshifts the album to its end, a lovely line draped over descending chords, one guaranteed to quell an audience wanting more. A growing number of ensembles don’t have the ability to do that, preferring to burn the house down; perhaps it’s a dying art, but it is one of many aspects of the tradition Stewart’s Silt Trio utilizes on this strong album.
–Bill Shoemaker


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