Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
John Butcher + Torsten Müller + Dylan van der Schyff
It’s interesting to hear a revolutionary player taking on a traditional context, and there’s something of that here in English saxophonist John Butcher’s appearance in a tenor (and soprano)/ bass/drums trio with Vancouver bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Not that the two are particularly conventional improvisers, but their presence on the recording Hoxha (Spool; 2005) with Paul Rutherford and Ken Vandermark suggested an affinity with the free-jazz-derived wing of free improvisation. Placed together in the Vancouver Jazz Festival’s catch-as-catch-can improvising pool, the three turned quickly into a coherent ensemble. Müller often emphasizes arco harmonics to find common ground with Butcher’s sonic palette of near-electronic blips, whistles and multiphonics, and van der Schyff finds ways to insert his percussion inside the others to achieve genuine three-way creativity. In the intriguing exchanges of positions that take place, Butcher’s linear lyricism sometimes comes to the fore as a central and “traditional” voice, most notably on tenor on “Sharpening the Windings until they roll up, roll up and snag on the point of the Tear” and on soprano on the very brief conclusion, “Gone, Goner.”
The Roy Campbell Ensemble
Better late than never: It’s a measure of how slow the arts funding establishment moves that it takes more than a decade for them to fund three world premieres at the 2007 Vision Festival. Two commissions went to obvious choices – Bill Dixon and William Parker – the former being an iconic figure of the artist self-determination movement in jazz, while the latter personifies the festival’s mandate. Intriguingly, the third went to Roy Campbell, who, while a perennial at Vision Festival, has not been nearly as ambitious a composer. The trumpeter’s music emphasizes inviting melodies and grooves more than most artists on the festival’s bill each year, and he tends to use relatively conventional ensemble configurations. Campbell’s Akhenaten Suite is the first CD to be issued from this grant program, and it is a thoroughly refreshing album on several counts, not the least of them being that, unlike the majority of pieces that claim the name, the trumpeter actually employs conventions of the suite form, using dance rhythms and plainly related thematic materials as building blocks. There is a ‘70s flavor to Campbell’s Mediterranean-tinged themes, as the elemental swing of violinist Billy Bang and the lyricism of vibraphonist Bryan Carrott occasionally evoke West Coasters of the period like Michael White and Bobby Hutcherson. Whether Campbell uses a brisk 6/8 or a more color-driven approach to pulse, where he blends in recorder and arghul, his melodies are streamlined, but not at the expense of pungent phrases that get reworked over the course of the album, providing the baseline of continuity a suite needs for full impact. They also provide the type of platform for Campbell’s strengths as a soloist. Even though critics strain to triangulate his style with those of Bobby Bradford, Freddie Hubbard and others, Campbell has an attribution-resistant old-school sound and approach to line and development. He can slalom through changes cleanly delineated by bassist Hillard Greene and drummer Zen Matsuura, and then plow through the bar lines with well-placed smears and squeals. Above all, Campbell has the maturity to not just pick his spots, but fully exploit them, whether it entails mulling over a phrase or leading the charge with a clarion call. If there’s such a thing as an unassuming tour de force, Akhenaten Suite is one.
British-born (1943) composer Frank Denyer has all of the post-postmodern credentials imaginable: thorough studies in ethnomusicology, hands-on experience with New York School (Cage, Feldman, Wolff) indeterminate scores as a founding member of the Barton Workshop, solo piano chops (having recorded the post-Shostakovich modernist sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya), and an album on Tzadik. His primary area of interest, compositionally, is the expanded nature of relationships between melody and timbre, which accounts for the unusual instrumentation of his own works—one such, The fish that became the sun, includes eight cornets, sitar, and contrabassoon among its 40 participants. His music for shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute), however, narrows this focus down to its purest, most essential qualities. The shakuhachi is an instrument of infinite nuance, so much so that the sound production ranges from barely colored breath to complex, harmonically shaded degrees of pitch. Three of the pieces here date from 1977-81, and what emerges from them is a sensuality of tone and an ironic contrast between the instrument’s traditional sparse, pastoral gestures and the occasional intrusion of Western motion and linear shaping, especially in the six brief episodes of Wheat, where the characterizations alternate between spry, fluid, fluttering, and bent inflections. Their percussion component—variously castanets, bass drum, bamboo slit drums, stones, and an artillery shell chime in the three works—accompanies the shakuhachi in the sense of accompanying someone for a quiet walk, and occasionally making a comment. Sixteen years later, Denyer was motivated to use the shakuhachi again, this time to express an extreme vision of pitch and presence. The 45-minute Unnamed (1997), like Morton Feldman’s later, longer works, is a challenge to the listener’s attention and comprehension. The music often hovers on the brink of inaudibility, and the melodic material—based on a seven-note division of the octave and affected by microtonal “satellite” sounds and gradations of tone and attack—is stretched so thinly across an extended empty space that its movement is barely traceable and conventional musical associations are all but lost, replaced by a contemplative stillness. The periodic vocalization has a theatrical effect, and the few dynamic leaps and uptempo riffs are like momentary earthquakes. It’s all brilliantly performed by Yoshikazu Iwamoto, but the lingering impression is that there’s more here than meets the ear.
Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra
Trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon’s austere music makes no concessions to comforting sentiment or conventional beauty. Yet his music is beautiful, and that beauty provides a measure of comfort in the otherwise bleak picture he paints. The free-jazz elder’s existential gloom haunts every minute of this encounter with cornetist-composer Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. The Chicago-based orchestra rises to the occasion, playing with precision, sensitivity, and a youthful energy that brings a special vigor to Dixon’s dark vision.
On Dixon’s two pieces, “Entrances/One” and “Entrances/Two,” he orchestrates a slow, undulating downward slope into silence. In each, the progression from beginning to end feels complete, paced with the assurance of a master storyteller-philosopher. His unforgivingly funereal melodies materialize over soft ensemble drones, or enter cloaked in blocks of sounds throbbing with subtle internal shifts in voicings. Sometimes more spare subgroupings of instruments offer contrast and variety of timbre. In his solos, Dixon vents his rage and sorrow with stark lyricism, suppressed screams, airy howls, and gusts of white noise. It’s a devastating, precise performance; he seems to mourn the fading of each note as if it were all he had in an otherwise cold, indifferent universe.
Mazurek’s “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (for Bill Dixon)” is based on a graphic score and sounds more episodic and disjointed than Dixon’s pieces. Many of the episodes, however, are well suited to Dixon. A passage for trumpet and orchestra bells and another featuring trumpet and Nicole Mitchell’s flute are each sonically attractive. A full-orchestra improvisation provides an appropriately agitated setting for some of Dixon’s most ferocious sputtering. Perhaps even more affecting are the passages in which Dixon goes his own solitary way apart from the rest of the band. For instance Dixon holds himself aloof from a lilting African flavored beat and continues his moans and lamentations in the midst of others joy. There’s no cheap happiness from Dixon as he sinks downward into darkness on extended wings.
Musicians tend to cringe when critics hail their newest recording as a giant step or quantum leap because, far more often than not, the recording only represents their first opportunity to document what is proclaimed as being new, not its actually inception. From the musicians’ perspective, they have been percolating these ideas for years, if not from the outset, so they think such a recording is more a matter of updating the official record. Sucker Punch Requiem is such an album. Even longtime observers of Lisle Ellis’ work will find much in this homage to the iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, that they have not heard on the bassist’s previous albums: ghostly soundscapes conjured through voice and electronics; finely etched chamber ensembles; themes that refract advanced jazz essences from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Undoubtedly, Ellis has mulled over some of these concepts as long as he has Basquiat’s work. Ellis first encountered Basquiat’s graffiti in lower Manhattan during his late ‘70s student days; the title is taken from one of Basquiat’s tags: “Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files.” Basquiat again became a touchstone for Ellis when he immersed himself in painting during the late ‘90s. Ellis also cites the painter’s influence in his contemporaneous first forays into electronic music, which has fully flowered in recent years, not only through his own projects, but in venues such as What We Live. Though the tracks featuring Ellis’ electronics in tandem of those of vocalist Pamela Z have a starkness that can likened to aspects of Basquiat’s work, there is an almost antithetical refinement in several ensembles – particularly the writing for flutist Holly Hofmann and saxophonist Oliver Lake, and the comping of pianist Mike Wofford and drummer Susie Ibarra – that shapes the work through jarring juxtapositions of style and temperament. Ellis only begins to merge the two settings towards the end of the album, first by having trombonist George Lewis, ever the flexible improviser, ride the draught of the electronics, and then plying Z’s voice. The impressive range of materials would be daunting for most bassists, but Ellis is spot-on in every setting, whether he is supplying propulsion with the efficiency of a Percy Heath or countering his colleagues’ extemporizations with everything from blunt-force phrases to darting runs. Some recordings present a thorough brief for a musician’s depth as a composer, while others offer a convincing case for his or her acumen as an improviser; Sucker Punch Requiem does both.