Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
A quick glance at this disc’s personnel might suggest that Satoko Fujii – possessor of a résumé overflowing with orchestral, trio, and various mixed combo sessions – would be the quartet’s guiding light, but in fact all seven of the program’s Iberian/Sephardic-influenced compositions were devised by trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Tamura casts the instrumentalists into specific roles: his trumpet is the romantic lead, Fujii’s accordion is the glue that holds the unpredictable arrangements together, Norikatsu Koreyasu provides an impeccable bass foundation, and acoustic guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura is the flamboyant wild card. Ripe melodies abound, like the lyrical and thematically straitlaced “Reconcile” or the hothouse waltz “Patrol,” some with flamenco flourishes or a smidge of tango. But when the mood threatens to become too sentimental, a theme will morph into a harmonically distended shape, or the music will take a radical turn into free space – such as the guitar/accordion and trumpet/arco bass duets that interrupt “Beyond,” or the ragged, distorted confrontation that follows the rhapsodic solos in “Battle.” These occasional altercations, along with the concise, pointed titles (“Kuro” means black, or dark, and the accessible, folk-song melodies do gradually reveal chiaroscuric tints) may imply a hidden, extramusical program. Ironic or not, the music oozes charm.
To say that Hans Hassler plays the accordion, even that he freely improvises on it, does not describe precisely or perhaps in any real sense what the words “play” and “accordion” might mean in this context. Yes, he plays the accordion, in the sense that anyone might play the instrument, but he also plays with the listener, with the putative heritage of the accordion and with whatever expectations the listener might have of the instrument, while rekindling his own associations and memories through the instrument. In this sense Hassler is a meta-accordionist, not simply playing the instrument but playing with any identity that we might impose on it or construct around it. At times here the accordion is literally a thing that makes sounds, thus we get the accelerated panting of the bellows or the clicking of the buttons and keys with notes unarticulated. At other times we get the sheer and sudden power of the accordion as a lap-top imitation of a cathedral organ, as in the 1’14” of “Accordplosion.” But it is also the accordion as instrument of sentiment and farce and object of derision.
There is a long standing tradition in which critics insist the accordion is not irritating, that it is an instrument like any other, that it might be given to sublime flights of virtuoso invention. In this construction, one might listen to vintage accordion bopper Art Van Damme the way one listens to, say, trumpeter Tony Fruscella, as sign of a refined taste. However, as one who once saw David Tudor play a piece in which he spilled an accordion onto the floor, I have to think there’s something special about the instrument, something that invites a certain malice. Hans Hassler has played the accordion in pop bands and rock bands as well as in jazz and improvised music and part of what he brings to the accordion is a willingness to explore its irritant core – its heritage of polka and tango and its ability to make banal music sound more banal with a kind of uninflected wheezing. There is a stretch in “SoGeKű—UpMi!” in which the most irritating accordion practice session sounds like it’s been looped; there’s another moment in the final “Bitte sehr! Sehr” in which triads and scales are accelerated awkwardly. It is this playing with the audience’s assumptions that may make a listener so grateful when Hassler invents freely, generously, wittily and virtuosically. The 17-minute title track, for example, is continuous and sustained invention, a work that not only stretches the instrument musically, but which also seems to explore sentiment and memory in ways that are beautiful and which possess a compound, if gentle, irony. At times Hassler will take on a convenient pattern, then stretch and repeat it the way a visual detail might appear in a funhouse mirror, the commonplace identity stretched or distorted into new meanings.
Recorded with remarkable presence, this is the work of an original musician, one who not only moves freely from the folk traditions to the sonic potential of his instrument but through its clichés and reception history as well.
James Choice Orchestra
The James Choice Orchestra is a 23-member ensemble developed to explore relationships between composed and improvised materials. There’s no evidence here of a James Choice, perhaps a joke about James Chance or the James Last Orchestra; instead it’s a group with four leader/ composer/performers – saxophonists Matthias Schubert, Frank Gratkowski, Norbert Stein, and tubaist Carl Ludwig Hűbsch – each of whom is represented here by an extended composition that works with the themes of the 2007 Köln festival: improvisation and the music of the late Luciano Berio. The four resulting works draw on various elements of the Italian composer’s complex methodology—choice, collage, an emphasis on voice and text, certain elements of serialism—and integrate them with various improvisational structures.
Each of these pieces has its special points of interest, including often brilliant execution of difficult materials. In an orchestra that includes musicians as distinguished as Thomas Lehn on synthesizer and guitarist Scott Fields, the work of the vocalists – singer Barbara Schachtner and Isis Krűger, who does something that’s likely best enscribed by Schoenberg’s term “sprechtstimme” – is heroic. What’s most striking, though, is the extent to which the orchestra achieves a consistent identity here, its four composers all finding ways to pay homage to Berio that are consistent with the collective voice of an improvising orchestra, sometimes even with the individual timbral identities of the players. It’s a substantial achievement in the on-going dialogue between large-scale composition and improvisation.
Steve Miller Trio
Gig tapes, informal recordings, and unreleased sessions are invaluable research tools for some, long buried treasures for others. They flesh out the partial skeletons that pass for many artists’ discographies, give form to yellowed press notices, and authenticate passing references in oral histories. However, not every dusted-covered box of tapes found in an attic or at an estate sale is worth bringing to market; a commitment to quality as well as a commitment of resources is required. Reel Recordings has met this threshold in its first stages of building a catalog of British jazz and improvised music culled from musicians’ open reel tapes. Already, the Ontario-based label has made substantial additions to the discographies of Ken Hyder, Ray Russell, and Gary and Pam Windo. These latest releases fill in blanks on the respective discographies of Elton Dean and Mike Osborne, two of the most creative saxophonists the UK has produced.
The bulk of the Steve Miller date was recorded when Dean performed with pianist’s trio with bassist Tony Moore and drummer Eddie Prévost as part of the Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists series at London’s Bull and Gate in November 1985, a week after the trio’s gig with Lol Coxhill that yielded Miller’s Tale (Matchless). This is not free jazz in the sense that the switch is thrown and thirty minutes of unabated high voltage ensues; rather, this is free jazz where old-school descriptors like “freewheeling” and “hard-driving” are apt. There are plenty of squalls, where Dean’s stinging saxello collides with Miller’s clusters (which pack a surprising punch, given that he’s playing a spinet), Moore’s splayed phrases (reminiscent at times of Barry Guy’s, who was then Moore’s mentor), and Prévost’s barrages. But, the most intriguing passages occur when the quartet embraces what were by then jazz conventions: robust strolls, with Dean chortling and yelling on top of Miller’s crisp comping, Moore’s walking line, and Prévost’s provocative grooves (he wasn’t called “the Blakey of Brixton” in his pre-AMM days for nothing); brightly-hued, block chord-anchored vamps that unavoidably brings the late stages of Coltrane’s classic quartet to mind; and pensive shards of melody repeatedly deforming and reforming with the section’s rubato crests and ebbs. Each of these passages are enhanced by the quartet’s hit and run pacing, making this a set that calls for an encore, which comes in the form of a ’76 trio track with Dean (on alto), Miller and drummer Pip Pyle; a smoldering, bluesy rumination on a skeletal chord progression.
The Osborne album features two quartets, each with trumpeter Dave Holdsworth in the front line; the set-long “Ducking & Driving” was recorded in 1980 with bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Brian Abrahams, while “Journey’s End” and the flag-waver “All Night Long” were recorded a year later with bassist Paul Bridge and drummer Tony Marsh. Although the later date has many merits – the infrequently heard Bridges and Marsh are particularly resourceful in terms of sustaining momentum through less orthodox means – “All Night Long” barely lays a glove on the definitive ’75 Willisau performances with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo. “Ducking & Driving” is the major addition to Osborne’s discography. Osborne was renowned for not writing down his compositions or giving his groups a set list, choosing instead to introduce material without warning. On this occasion, Osborne’s choices span the trenchantly Ornettish opening theme and the walk-tall hard bop line introduced shortly before the half-hour mark. This required his cohorts to hear the pick up note, even in Osborne’s most harrowing howls, and nail the entrance; as well as respond to the sudden shifts in tone, attack and rhythm in his solos. Still, for all of the happenstance, “Ducking & Driving” (and the quotes should probably be doubled, as “the piece” could be a few stand-alones that he just put together without much or any forethought) has more of the bearing of a long form composition than “the medleys” on, for one, All Night Long (Ogun). Credit Holdsworth’s idiomatic flexibility, Mattos’ adept use of texture and sprinting tempi, and Abrahams’ finely calibrated bounce and strong footwork. This is an excellent example of how Osborne’s passion was the glue of his music.
Double Sunrise Over Neptune is the third major recording by William Parker to be released in the past 18 months. In addition to their respective virtues, these albums collectively attest to Parker’s ability to build pools of musicians that can then be incorporated in whole or in large part into larger ensembles, each time creating a distinctive ensemble sound. Parker’s long-standing quartet with trumpeter Lewis Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake is at the core of the soulful Raining on the Moon sound. On the Godard-inspired Alphaville Suite (Rogueart), the earthy swing of the quartet plays off Parker’s alternately elegant and sinewy parts for string quartet, which gives the music a frequently urbane, even noirish feel. The quartet and three of the string players – violinist Mazz Swift, violist Jessica Pavone and cellist Shiau-Su Yu – account for slightly less than half of the sixteen musicians Parker assembled to debut grant-funded compositions at the 2007 Vision Festival.
What distinguishes this ensemble from prior Parker projects is the strong multi-kulti tip provided by the stunning vocalist Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, oud player Brahim Frigbane, and double reed avatar Bill Cole; guitarist Joe Morris’ banjo, and Parker’s doson’ngoni and double reeds are also deployed at key points to supply more colors. Parker also heavies up the saxophone section with Sabir Mateen on tenor and Dave Sewelson on baritone for those ensembles that bear the closest resemblance to Parker’s Little Huey albums. This exponentially expands Parker’s orchestration options over the course of the three lengthy pieces (the album also includes a sub-one minute snippet of “O’Neal’s Porch”). The palettes Parker produces are so invigorating that it is inconsequential that he is using such stock-in-trade methods as building layers of materials on foundational bass lines – played on this occasion by Shayna Dulberger – or cross-fading between scored and improvised materials. Parker doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when he paints a standard model with such vivid colors that it glows and even blazes, depending on how fast it spins.
Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite (JCOA) and Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head (A&M) repeatedly come to mind when listening to these performances; not because Parker references them in any way, but because he has so refreshingly melded what are arguably their most profound facets. The Cherry magnum opus epitomized how the trumpeter heard elements of one culture’s music in that of another; and created pieces that, for example, insinuated traditional musics from Africa and Asia are siblings, not distant cousins. This was cogently realized through Cherry’s writing for strings, and Parker’s has a similar flow and sheen. The Coleman album is often cited as a watershed document of his Harmolodic theory, even though the track featuring the Master Musicians of Joujouka is not as prominent in these assessments as it should be. On Double Sunrise, there is a Harmolodic-like melding of harmony, melody, rhythm and unison, but, with few notable exceptions like the intense tutti near the end of “Lights of Lake George,” the ensemble’s sound is far afield from the clanging guitars and thumping drums of Prime Time,. The piercing, gestalt-inducing buzz associated with reed instrument-rich North African traditional music is front and center when “Morning Mantra” commences with Cole and Parker’s wailing fanfare; but for the most part, Parker mixes the non-Western instruments into various combinations with their Western counterparts to create pungent episodes.
Parker seems to have a plurality of those improvisers associated with Vision Festival who are best equipped for the challenge. They all shine at least once on the album. In addition to Morris, who mostly favors a flowing approach to line and has the sing-song aspect of Hamolodic comping down cold particularly on “Morning Mantra,” violinist Jason Kao Hwang deftly roams the cultural frontiers. Drake and drummer Gerald Cleaver can create supple, odd-metered cross-rhythms and then bring on the jazz furies. The balancing of non-Western scales and Milesian spark in Barnes’ solo not only exemplifies these moments, but also the respectful circumspection the Western musicians bring to the table. However, the album’s most memorable passages are those where the cross-cultural exchange is front and center, the spellbinding call and response between Bandyopadhyay and Brown on “Morning Mantra” being the case in point. The accumulation of these moments result in one of the year’s few truly profound recordings.