Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
David Murray Black Saint Quartet
There are many pianists with a protean dimension to their playing; however, far more often than not, the more they turn themselves inside out, change color and form, and send tentacles to every branch of the tradition, the less we know about who they are at their core. It’s quite the opposite with Lafayette Gilchrist. Every turn he takes – be it through the West Texas of Speckled Red, the New Orleans of Morton and Professor Longhair, or the East Coast circuit that pianists from Les McCann to Andrew Hill trekked – brings the listener closer to what makes him tick, which is soul. Yet, for the Baltimore-based pianist, soul is not a static ideal, one as dependable and finite as, say, an Otis Redding record. In Gilchrist’s music, soul is necessarily dynamic, which is why Soul Progressin’ is such a pertinent title. It goes to the heart of how Gilchrist morphs a composition through shifts in accents and attack, irregular patterns, and temperament. There’s often a flinty old soul feel to Gilchrist’s idiom-rich playing that scrapes against his hard-hitting horn charts and the almost pneumatic power of his section mates. The grooves accommodate the bounce of Gilchrist’s playing and the zeal with which his New Volcanoes pounce on the charts; the grooves provide initial cover for Gilchrist’s sly pivots, those points where a boisterous barrelhouse riff suddenly takes on M-Basey idiosyncrasies, or the tight funk slips into an almost Ethiopian lope.
Though Gilchrist makes no claims about a Baltimore sound with New Volcanoes, there is a case that could be made. Gilchrist’s cohorts represent the diversity and vitality of the city’s scene, be it funk bands like Fertile Ground, a regular platform for trumpeter Freddy Dunn, jazz units like tenor saxophonist Gregory Tompkins’ Monk project, or improvising groups like 3081, an increasingly high-profile venue for tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Dierker. Subsequently, there’s a distinctive grit to New Volcanoes, be it in the grooves laid down by bassist Anthony “Blue” Jenkins and drummer Nathan Reynolds, or the ensembles and solos of the horns, fleshed out by alto saxophonist Gabriel Ware and trumpeter Mike Cerri. It’s almost impossible to imagine this band coming out of New York, Chicago or even New Orleans. Their steeliness and idiosyncrasies are straight out of Charm City; they are the exact vehicle Gilchrist needs for his music at this point in his matriculation as a leader.
With David Murray’s Black Saint Quartet, Gilchrist circumscribes his rag-time-to-bust-a-rhyme approach with New Volcanoes within a decidedly modernist approach to the dual roles of accompanist and soloist, one that measures well against the standards set by John Hicks in an earlier incarnation of the tenor saxophonist’s working quartet. Gilchrist favors boisterous voicings that stretch over three and even four octaves; he outlines the harmonic movement of a given piece by combining snippets of the melody and chromatic asides, often sending his hands in opposite directions to widen or pinch pitch relationships; and he has impeccable timing for the dramatic groundswell and the decaying utterance. Similarly, Gilchrist’s solos have some of the magisterial qualities of Hicks’; but he also has a very pointed attack, whether he is slashing through the changes or caressing them. It is an essential skill set for Murray’s time-tested, something old, new, borrowed and blue set list for a quartet date like Live In Berlin: a barnstorming opener like “Dirty Laundry;” an aching ballad like “Sacred Ground” (one of his best, just behind “Ming”); the Coltrane-inspired “Murray’s Steps;” and “Waltz Again,” which is both lithe and shadow-streaked.
Gilchrist, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Hamid Drake mold the feel of a piece chorus by chorus, phrase by phrase, and beat by beat. There is a constant volley of ideas among the three, whether Murray is playing or not; that generates incandescent moments that shape the overall direction of the piece. They are flash points in the pieces that Murray unfailingly hits with an exclamatory phrase or textures. Their precise detailing lets Murray revel in his altissimo, confident that the inevitable quaver or screech will be sufficiently buttressed by their cross rhythms, thus registering as incisive vocal qualities. This band is a juggernaut; Live In Berlin makes a slam-dunk case.
Ingrid Laubrock + Liam Noble + Tom Rainey
Jazz buskers? There’s an honorable history, I guess. One thinks of Lol Coxhill stringing old tunes along a thread of freer ideas at his pitch on London’s Hungerford Bridge, or Charles Gayle on the New York streets, a kind of latter-day Moondog. Sonny Rollins you really can’t include, up there in the ironwork of the Williamsburg Bridge, though the Ayn Randish loftiness that implies is misleading, since he was only there to make sure the pregnant woman living through the wall wasn’t disturbed at night by his scales and long tones. And here’s Ingrid Laubrock, who learned her craft down in the warm-draughty tunnels of the London Underground, playing in and to – and I’d say about – the human flow. Nothing lofty or remote or forbidding about this music, or any that has gone before. It breathes and cries and nurtures.
Rudresh Mahanthappa and the Dakshina Ensemble featuring Kadri Gopalnath
For a couple decades at least, improviser-composers of a dual cultural heritage have used jazz as a laboratory for sorting out a hyphenated identity. They search for a music that finds common ground between seemingly conflicting cultural inheritances, which partakes of neither fully, but includes elements of both that attract them. Usually, these fusions use aesthetic choices to help musicians clarify their personal relationship to their ancestral and native cultures. This foregrounding of identity issues transcends mere sociology only when the resulting music stands on its own. John Zorn’s Masada, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and the work of violinist Jason Kao Hwang are recent examples of compelling music arising from close examination of ethnic roots. For that matter, at its roots, jazz itself is in many ways an attempt to make sense of an African and an American heritage.
On Kinsmen, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa succeeds admirably in making compelling music from an examination of his Indian-American heritage. He made his debut as a leader with Mother Tongue (Pi Recordings), which featured jazz compositions based on the verbal and rhythmic inflections of seven different languages found on the subcontinent. His follow up album, Code Book (Pi Recordings), placed ethnic concerns on a back burner in favor of using mathematics and cryptography to structure music, but on Kinsmen, Mahanthappa once again foregrounds identity issues with an ensemble whose make up is literally from two cultures. Joining him on alto is Kadri Gopalnath, hailed in India as a “true genius of Carnatic music” for his mastery of the predominantly vocal classical music of southern India on the saxophone. He and two members of his ensemble, violinist A. Kanyakumari and Roovalur Sriji, who plays a barrel drum called a mridangam, form the Dakshina Ensemble with Mahanthappa, guitarist Rez Abassi, bassist Carlo de Rosa, and trap drummer royal hartigan (sic).
The Dakshina Ensemble plays with a precise-approximate unison feeling similar to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time or the Sun Ra Arkestra, or Duke Ellington’s orchestra for that matter. Band members may play the same notes, but with their own rhythmic and tonal inflections – the Americans giving the compositions a swinging feel, the Indians interpreting the tunes through their own sense of time. At times the Indians play countermelodies or embellishments, relating to the main melody and rhythm in much the same way they would to a vocalist in a traditional Carnatic ensemble. (The saxophonists share composing credit for the frequent simultaneous melodies coursing through each piece.) The American jazz players follow the rules of jazz: the guitar comping behind soloists, the bass providing rhythmic-harmonic support, the drummer keeping time and accenting. Some elements work equally well in both South Indian and jazz contexts – the increasingly fast and short exchanges between Gopalnath and Kanyakamari on “Ganesha” and the final brilliant exchange between the saxophonists on “Convergence (Kinsmen)” work as the old jazz practice of “trading fours” and as a traditional element of Carnatic performance. The Carnatic alap, an out-of-tempo introductory improvisation to a raga, suits both Indian and American players quite comfortably, too. Abazzi, de Rosa, Gopalnath, and Kanyakumani each get a short one, and each unaccompanied soloist gives the form his own interpretation. The blues, however, is unknown in Carnatic music and its presence in the ensemble always sounds surprising. Overall, it’s a gloriously varied and textured group sound, so specific to these artists that it’s utterly unique, but founded on such a deep sense of fundamental humanity and respect that it’s universal as well. The inner tensions never rise to conflict, they give the music its warmth and energy and the resolution of the tensions yields tranquility and balance.
Gopalnath, with his deep, ripe tone, slightly nasal, but powerful and full, is a commanding presence. He plays with such fluidity that at times you hardly hear individual notes, just a ribbon of bronzed sound. Occasionally a note will pop for rhythmic emphasis, but the course of his lines remains largely smooth and relaxed, yet they generate terrific energy and excitement. On “Kalyani,” his phrases glide incrementally into higher registers and back down with majestic deliberation, while on “Snake!” he surges ecstatically over the ensemble. Kanyakamari is likewise a riveting soloist. On “Kalyani,” his lines, festooned with elegant grace notes, build slowly by adding a few notes to each successive phrase; on “Longing” his quivering high notes are exquisitely expressive.
Mahanthappa doesn’t hog the spotlight, but his contributions are always keenly felt, especially on “Convergence (Kinsmen)” and “Snake!,” the uptempo piece that is one of the album’s overall highlights. Abazzi has his feet very comfortably planted in the music’s two worlds on “Kalyani” and “Ganesha,” on both of which his smoothly floating lines and jazz inflections mingle in a synthesis of Eastern and Western styles.
Mahanthappa has forged an identity strong enough to hold up in any circumstances. The trio Mauger, with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway, the emphasis is on structured free jazz. It’s a measure of Mahanthappa’s ability that he fits so seamlessly with the two long-time collaborators and plays with confidence in this more loosely structured environment. On “Accuppa,” he mixes short phrases, longer lines, and vocalized sounds that mesh with the flow of the piece from ambiguity to sharply defined tempo to deconstruction and reassembly. His sense of melodic development structures his playing on the free improvisation “Bearings.” And on Dresser’s “The Beautiful Enabler,” he spins variations on variations on variations that carry the music far from the starting point only to circle back. The trio setting is ideal for Dresser and Hemingway, letting all the subtleties of their playing come through. Dresser’s arco cries and moans on “Meddle Music” are a marvelous match for Mahanthappa and the interlocking of his plucked lines with Hemingway on “Flac” creates a complex skein of rhythm and color. Hemingway’s choice of mallets on “Intone” gives his playing a resonant boom that pairs well with Mahanthappa’s fluttering streamers of notes. This is an unlikely setting for Mahanthappa, but it’s one that he should return to whenever it’s possible.
Michael Moore Trio
Few composer-improvisers can charm a listener like Michael Moore. His cool, silky tone, a bit dry, but not unpleasantly so, attracts your ear to his playing. His compositions seem effortlessly lyrical, but there’s always some odd little touch to grab your attention: a line that, it suddenly occurs to you, has been progressing for an inordinately long time; an ambiguously suspended ending; or an unforeseen change in direction that takes you off guard. His fully realized albums (and there are many) are always tightly conceptualized, clearly thought out, but not creatively restricted. This combination of modest beauty, sly intelligence, and clear focus is entirely winning. His three most recent releases on his Ramboy label, each quite different from the other, are excellent examples of his warm and subtly subversive art.
Holocene features a trio with accordionist Guy Klusevcek and cellist Erik Friedlander. Moore has explored similar sonic territory before on two albums by his trio with keyboardist Cor Fuhler and cellist Tristan Honsinger, Air Street and Monitor (both on Between the Lines), and on Bering (Ramboy) with pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Mark Helias. The music is subdued and melancholic, but full of extraordinary textural and timbral detail. Although Moore provides compositional framework, much of it sounds pulled out of thin air, with freely circulating references to classical, folk, and jazz intersecting with gently flickering tones colors and chamois-cloth textures. Each piece has a distinct character, with approaches rarely repeating themselves and no player typecast in a single ensemble role.
The resulting music ranges far and wide, if quietly. On “To and Fro” Moore’s bemused, long-legged melody picks out big dainty steps around Friedlander’s Baroque musing and Klusevcek’s note clusters. “Well on Our Way” sounds like a refined world-folk lament with Friedlander’s cello moaning and sobbing as if over a dead child’s grave. “Jodi Jones” finds Klusevcek and Moore in a wistful contrapuntal duet, knotting and parting in a slow pas de deux. On “Dark Christmas” Moore and Friedlander poke and nibble, nip and flutter like sad waterfowl afloat on the still pool of serene accordion sounds. “Accumulation” is an unsettled, anxious round with the trio members moving in concentric circles. “Unity” begins with unison on the theme, then breaks up into staggered phrases. Moore’s absolutely vibratoless, almost matter-of-fact delivery is remarkably expressive, if only by dint of its understatement and his thoughtful unaccompanied solo feature, “Discrepancy,” is unforced and beautifully structured.
According to Moore’s liner note, Fragile is a collection of pieces dedicated to “caring people,” the family, friends, and acquaintances who extend their kindness to traveling musicians. There’s a danger that the music could get cloying, but the playfulness of Moore’s wit and the understatement of his playing lighten his sincere feelings for the music’s dedicatees. The result is music of tremendous warmth and that uses humor and an oblique sense of musical narrative to express an underlying depth of feeling. Moore’s quartet with pianist Harmon Fraanje, bassist Clemens van der Veen, and long-time cohort drummer Michael Vatcher never loses its balance on the fine line that Moore stretches between sincerity and irony. Fraanje finds many shades of feeling on his duet with Moore, “Miss Yosemite” and adds a touch of Debussy coloring to the slow, bluesy “Families Be So Mean.” Bassist van der Veen’s strumming and neatly plucked lines provide dark carpeting for “Fragile.” Vatcher, who is always looking for a different way to have at a beat or pulse, comes at each piece from different angles, but goes about his work without drawing attention to himself. His drum work comments on the groove as much as it marks it out.
Some of the pieces are simply elegant constructions, such as “Paint as You Like,” “A Friend Stays the Night,” or “The Troubadors”; they overflow with tenderness and gratitude with just a hint of whimsy. Sometimes the surrealist in Moore gets the upper hand, resulting in amazingly diverse pieces like “Sanctuary,” the sad and cryptic “Miss Yosemite,” or mysterious “The Smell of Novato.” Some of these tunes I hope he revisits in other settings, “Old Grey Stella” and “Families Be So Mean” are a terrific melodies that could be profitably explored again and again. Clarinetist Ab Baars joins Moore on “Yahoo Day,” a wry duet worthy of Eric Satie, and “A Friend Stays the Night.” Whatever the approach, each composition is like a beautiful gift made with care and love for their subjects.
Recorded more than a decade ago in 1996, Sweet Ears, the third Ramboy release by Moore’s quintet, The Persons, features the band’s final line up with guitarists Danny Petrow and Nick Kino, cellist Ernst Reijseger, bassist James “Sprocket” Royer, and drummer Vatcher. “Based on the idea of harmonically interlocking electric guitar riffs and grooves,” as Moore explains in the album’s brief liner note, the band’s amplified energy and rhythmic drive make it an unlikely setting for Moore; perhaps that’s why he likes it. The sound of the two guitars dissolves from surf music to New Wave to country twang to psychedelic rock to jazz; they are rarely pinned down for long. The interlocking grooves are similarly slippery, rocking on “Vicki/Sweet Ears,” a tango slink on “Humoroso,” a beautific free jazz wail on “Sluggo.” And sometimes the music is just its own thing, a clanging core of guitars creating a delicious tension while the cello runs rings around them and Vatcher batters and banters away, egging them on. As always with Moore, there is serious musical thinking about manipulating form and genre to move the music beyond conventional boundaries into something new. The Persons harbors these ideas within the music, but this band comes across as more extroverted and fun than either of the other two ensembles.
William Parker Quartet
Bassist-composer William Parker’s quartet may be the best working band in jazz today – it’s certainly one of the most exciting. No one in the band ever simply marks time; there’s a stream of invention from reed player Rob Brown, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, drummer Hamid Drake, and the leader that never lets up. Their notes seem to have a gravitational attraction to one another; they fairly slam together and fuse into one joyful sound. Every track on their third CD contains examples of their unexcelled collective and individual brilliance. On songs (Parker’s term) such as the “Groove Sweet” medley and “Four for Tommy,” the music undergoes continuous, beautifully synchronized transformation, the foursome’s elaborations on the melodic and rhythm elements of the tunes growing ever more urgent and celebratory. During Brown’s lyrical solo on “The Golden Bell,” a dedication to the late (and criminally neglected) trumpeter Arthur Williams, you can hear him feeling his way along, drawing inspiration from Parker and Drake, spontaneously sculpting his notes and phrases with careful detail. Drake and Parker shift their approaches to accommodate what the horns play with great sensitivity on the title track. As a Harmon-muted Barnes crafts short phrases, leaving irregular spaces around them as he places them carefully to generate tension and release, Parker embellishes the groove and Drake dances around the trumpeter’s licks with bouncing, melodic tom-tom fills. When Brown surges in with longer, more flowing lines, the rhythm team stretches out their own lines in response and stream in parallel to him. Parker and Drake move with a unity of purpose that’s rarely, if ever, been equaled in jazz. When the horns drop out, what you hear is not one instrumentalist accompanying another’s solo, but a williamparkerhamiddrake solo, a single musical entity. There’s something singing at the center of Parker’s deep woody sound, something that animates his bass lines with an intense warmth and humanity, and it radiates outward through the group. The quartet embraces every possibility in the music with equal enthusiasm—pure sound, melody, groove, pulse, are all treated as viable modes of expression. Their liberated and disciplined use of the music’s possibilities makes this a deeply hopeful and uplifting album.