Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Long Hidden has the feel of an anthology of field recordings made by an Alan Lomax type, trundling about the countryside documenting an indigenous culture. This is partially due to the sequencing of tracks featuring William Parker performing solo on both bass and doson ngoni (aka doussin’ gouni), as well as leading The Olmec Group, a sextet with an impressive percussion contingent. But, it also speaks to the strong folkloric feel of the material. Perhaps more than any of his many previous albums, Long Hidden delineates Parker’s post-Cherry Multi-Kulti aesthetic.
It was, coincidentally, Cherry who introduced Parker to the Malian hunter’s guitar in the 1970s. Parker’s three undulating doson ngoni solos provide oasis-like spaces between the unrelenting heat of the four sextet tracks and the abstract passages of two of his three bass solos (the first track is a relatively straight-forward treatment of “There Is A Balm In Gilead”). The doson nogoni also signifies the African component in the diaspora Parker identifies in the Olmec, who lived in eastern Mexico between 1300-400 BC, and spoke a West African dialect.
The Olmec Group is best heard within this context, particularly on Tatico Henriquez’s “El Puente Seco” a standard Dominican merengue. The burred attack of saxophonists Dave Sewelson and Isaiah Parker and the wheezy accordion of Luis Ramieraz move the music far beyond the generic, even while its roots are firmly held in place by bassist Todd Nicholson and the percussion triumvirate of Gabriel Nunez, Omar Payano and the leader. The African tip is more discernable on Parker compositions like “Pok-A-Tok,” where doson ngoni and accordion lock onto a riff that evokes Mali more than Mexico, and the too-brief “Espirito,” which has an elastic call and response structure.
While the bromide about an album exceeding the sum of its parts certainly applies to Long Hidden, the album is arguably too short on Parker’s Olmec Group. This is one of the more distinctive New York-based ensembles to emerge in years, and four tracks are merely whetting.
Sun Ra and His Space Arkestra
The ‘70s were golden years for Sun Ra and the Arkestra, whose pageant-like performances were embraced by a younger audience who elevated tunes like “Space is the Place” into post-Aquarian anthems. For them, the Arkestra’s mix of percussion free-for-alls, horn squalls, and groove-propelled sing-alongs made eminent cosmic sense. Beyond the cultural tip, it was, musically, one of the Arkestra’s strongest periods. Chicago-era stalwarts like bassist Ronnie Boykins and saxophonists Marshall Allen and John Gilmore were in top form, and they used the expanded spaces afforded them to reiterate their respective statures. And, the addition of the protean Mini-Moog to Ra’s keyboard rack gave him new means of shaping collective improvisations while boosting their otherworldly ambiance. This period is well represented by the nearly 2-hour 1973 NYC concert documented on this 2-CD set.
The set contains fine versions of several Ra classics; June Tyson’s singing “Astro Black accompanied only by Boykins, and Ra’s rollickingly smeary electric organ on “Love In Outer Space” are among the set’s high points. But, this is not a greatest hits revue; some of the stronger moments occur during the untitled improvisations, and are often delivered by lesser-known and short-tenured members of the Arkestra like cellist Alzo Wright, trombonists Dick Griffin and Charles Stephens, and trumpeters Akh Tal Ebah and Kwame Hadi. Boykins’ extended solo during the nearly half-hour improvisation on CD 1 is another reminder that he should be routinely listed among the innovative bassists of the period.
Heard in its entirety, this is a wonderfully satiating recording, It will leave “a touch of the myth in your reality” for hours on end.
Chamber jazz is often a default term for what an ensemble without a drummer plays, even though the sub-genre is largely rooted in the classic Chico Hamilton quintets. The great thing about Hamilton’s work in his bands with winds, cello, guitar and bass is that he never shied away from being a jazz drummer. To a substantial degree, the same is true with Klaus Kugel, which is a big reason why Syntopia Quartet’s music on Mars is neither overly ethereal nor astringent. Granted, Kugel has a strong section mate in bassist Dieter Manderscheid, whose big sound and driving sense of line contributes to the music’s full-bodied presence. Still, Kugel’s feel for when to merely feather what the front line of violinist Albrecht Maurer and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Claudio Puntin play, and when to really lean into them, is one of the recurring pleasures of the set. Occasionally, Kugel holds off until the moment’s almost gone, as it the case on “Tempe Terra;” after a delicately honed, counterpoint-rich trio, Kugel slips in, prodding an otherwise unaccompanied Puntin with brushed toms and cymbals, to alter the overall shape of the piece. Elsewhere, Kugel seeps into the music from the margins, particularly when he assumes the role of orchestra percussionist instead of kit drummer, as on the otherworldly “Chasm Boreale.” On the bookend-like pieces “Goodbye Earth” and “Back To Earth,” Kugel’s drumming sustains a simmer; it’s that heat that crystallizes the difference between Syntopia Quartet’s music and that of many chamber jazz ensembles. It’s not that Maurer, Puntin and Manderscheid would just go floppy without Kugel. Maurer and Puntin spool out melody reflexively and, given the space, they’ll soar sooner rather than later. And, Manderscheid is quite capable of laying down a plump vamp or a harmonically anchoring line at any time. The four of them together, however, have the most intriguing and promising chemistry.
Larry Willis Trio
Larry Willis has seemed to be on the verge of being proclaimed one of the heavyweights for decades. The pianist came up in impressive company, beginning with his student days at the Manhattan School of Music, a mid-‘60s Blue Note with Jackie McLean, and subsequent stints with Hugh Masakela, Nat Adderley, and Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache Band. During the 1990s, Willis was recorded by maverick audio engineer Pierre Sprey in an impressive array of settings, many of which were released on either Sprey’s own Mapleshade imprint or AudioQuest. At the time, it seemed somewhat odd that Sprey emphasized touch when discussing Willis; after listening to The Big Push, it makes a little more sense. Willis has an impeccably calibrated touch with both his hands and foot, which gives every note an immediate presence, and then dampens in time for the next to be as crisply stated. It’s the key to his cadences and his projections of soul. This is perhaps the best album to date to hear Willis with this in mind. Rudy Van Gelder’s rendering of Willis is not too bright, not too dry, but just right. The pairing of Willis with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster is an inspired move. Williams’ dramatically bent notes and Foster’s tasty fills complement Willis’ crisp lines very well. Over the course of nine tracks, they do it all: run a tricky bebop gauntlet on Willis’ “Poppa Nut;” dig into pungent changes on Wayne Shorter’s title tune; and caress bittersweet ballads like “The Day You Said Goodbye.” Even if you’re resistant to jazz piano trios, The Big Push might move you.
Trombonist Conrad Bauer, pianist Ulrich Gumpert, woodwind player Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and percussionist Günter Sommer were the leading lights of the free music scene in the former East Germany. They assumed the name Zentralquartett in 1984 to lampoon the government’s overuse of “Central” in identifying its every office and agency. Even though the DDR no longer exists, the satirical edge of their music is still sharp when indicated. On 11 Songs – Aus Teutshen Landen, the main subjects of the quartet’s scrutiny are German Volkslieder (two of the pieces are Gumpert originals). The tunes run the gamut from the festive to the forlorn; while they take a broad brush to some 2-beat anchored, singsong melodies, the quartet also tenderly cradles a few pieces, and credibly recasts others as blowing vehicles. Regardless of a given piece’s tone, the rapport between the four is exquisitely refined. Their ability to incrementally shade the material, take it outside, and dovetail each other is a constant pleasure. Since they were relatively isolated for decades, too many listeners in North American are unfamiliar with Bauer, Gumpert, Petrowsky and Sommer. This album is an excellent place to begin catching up. Intakt’s previous three Zentralquartett CDs are also recommended.