Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Tony Malaby Cello Trio
Tony Malaby is a freethinker, who didn’t come to New York from his natal Arizona until he was 26, which is old enough not to be seduced. He doesn’t obviously subscribe to any notion of improvisation as “self-expression” or a branch of the therapeutic arts. His soloing is thoughtful, not unemotional but certainly not gushing. “He Lacked The Imagination To Suffer” on the 1993 Nine Winds date Cosas may not refer to himself, but it makes a nicely sardonic point. Ever since then, he’s experimented with slightly unusual combos, with a trombone, a guitar, and with very strong bass players – Mike Formanek, William Parker, Drew Gress – and light, quick-witted percussionists.
Musica Elettronica Viva
Founded in Rome in 1966 by a cluster of young expatriate, academically trained but disenchanted musicians – equally influenced by and nevertheless suspicious of the formal restrictions of twelve-tone composition and the chance-derived license espoused by John Cage (but certainly leaning towards the latter) – and some like-minded locals, MEV started out as a radical commune of idealism, with music as a metaphor for their anti-establishment attitudes (not merely musical, but social and political) and rebellious activities. Early performances frequently featured an open-ended piece called “The Sound Pool” (not represented here) which invited audience participation. They invented their instruments, mostly amplified found objects and homemade low-grade electronics, or distorted conventional ones, and like their contemporaries, AMM and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, sought to create music of a “fundamental unity” (in co-founder Frederic Rzewski’s term) through free-association and democratic principles. At first, as the enclosed 1967 version of “Spacecraft” shows, it took the shape of a tapestry of intentionally indefinable sounds – percussive rumbles and buzzing, swooping electronic waves outlining a patchwork crescendo of joyful noise. No doubt received as shocking and chaotic then, it’s now possible to recognize a textural ambiance and vocabulary of details that have been accepted and assimilated into various composed and improvised musics today.
Though their basic philosophy of a spontaneous group dynamic and formal relativism may have remained the same, as MEV’s membership changed over time so did the direction and function of the music – dramatically so. By 1972, acoustic instruments cooled down the tonal palette; specifically, in “Stop the War,” Garrett List’s jazzy trombone chops and Karl Berger’s marimba patterns set against Rzewski’s classical piano references and song quotations (“When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Taps”) offered an ironic focus on abstracted source material and theatrical (and not merely metaphorical) gestures. The music was still constructed intuitively, but uninhibited ritualistic fervor had been replaced by degrees of design and pointed commentary. When Steve Lacy joined List and the remaining core of founders (pianist Rzewski, electronicist Richard Teitelbaum, and multi-instrumentalist Alvin Curran), MEV’s process became more closely identified with free improvisational practices – the first of two 40-minute sets from the Stedelijk Museum (1982) drifted through ensemble combinations and individual statements, while the second even began with a group theme before evaporating into episodes of hold-your-breath delicacy and tightly wound interaction. Performances at New Music America (1989) and Ferrara, Italy (2002) allowed the horns more room for solos and counterpoint, and the electronic component, often understated previously, grew orchestral; the music from Ferrara also included recorded samples of Sidney Bechet, Stravinsky, and a Turkish or Indian ensemble, Rzewski took several rollicking piano interludes, and a characteristic song by Lacy (sung by List) served as spine to hold the hour-long performance together. MEV’s commitment may not have changed over the years, but their approach and breadth of material did.
The eight lengthy pieces in this impressive, unexpected, welcome four-CD, 40-year retrospective practically double the amount of MEV’s music currently available. Given the risky nature and ambitious scope of MEV’s enterprise, it’s not surprising they reveal flaws (passages of vagueness or, conversely, overly literal symbolism) as well as strengths (their provocative Ivesian simultaneity, and engaging juxtapositions of mood and material), but what’s more important is that they provide additional illumination on MEV’s role in the still largely undocumented evolution of spontaneous composition.
John O’Gallagher Trio
Dirty Hands isn’t a revelatory album, but it is a remarkable one. By taking a middle path between the buoyantly rhythm-induced free phrasing of Ornette Coleman and the casually intense linear labyrinths of Lee Konitz, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher achieves a personal approach to loose-limbed, lyrical improvisation that derives from both but sounds like neither. Setting aside his previous interest in extended compositional maneuvers (with influences ranging from Shorter to Schönberg), he and his partners (bassist Masa Kamaguchi, drummer Jeff Williams) shrewdly balance individual spontaneity and ensemble empathy; they respect each other’s space, negotiate an instinctive course of action, and subtly complement the prevailing direction – whether it involves surprising twists of melody (“Swelter”), surging rhythmic impulses (“F Line”), or sparsely etched, nearly transparent details (the first half of “Lessons of History”). The group sound is colored by Kamaguchi’s fragile, spider-web patterns and Williams’ chiaroscuric brushwork. As the primary instigator, though, O’Gallagher keeps things moving by continually adjusting the nature of the melodic line. He may begin by linking together a few angular intervals, toss in a couple of asides that comment upon but don’t develop the melody, then quicken the pace and thicken the line with embellished notes and heightened dynamics. As it gradually takes shape, he may drift into wistfulness, or stretch it taut and sinewy like a clenched muscle. He has a poet’s ear for phrasing in free verse, and alters his tone at will – biting and brittle with a cry at the top of his range (“Bed Bugs”), tart and piping (“”Borderline”), or rounded and fruity, like a ripe zinfandel (“F Line”). But it’s not a music of extremes; compact gestures and alert circumspection provide character enough.
Some singers make you ignore or forget what’s going on around him or her. Usually, it’s for the better, as when Sarah Vaughn’s devastating performances all but made the gooey strings engulfing her all but disappear. Omara Portuondo’s Gracias is an exception to the rule, as she is so captivating that the abundance of smart decisions in terms of arrangements and instrumentation take two or three spins to fully seep through to the listener. The first elements that distinguish the music from most contemporary Cuban music is the broad bass lines that propel the music from oblique angles and the presence of tablas, a combination sufficiently reminiscent of Oregon to prompt a personnel check that proves the impression to half right: Trilok Gurtu is on board for most of the 13 tracks, as is Avishai Cohen, who seems determined to channel Glen Moore. Add in Richard Bona’s one-man-band guest shot, as well as the frequent splashes of Roberto Fonseca’s electric piano and co-producer Swami Jr.’s Brazilian-airy 7 string guitar, and the resulting palette proves to be quite distinctive, even in the face of occasional, air-brushed string arrangements. However, all of these components do not dislodge Portuondo from the epicenter of this album even for one second. It is not surprising that her voice remains lithe and sensuous; what is particularly impressive is that these qualities are magnified in the sparser arrangements, the most extreme of which is the playful “Cachita,” a duet with tweenie singer Rossio Jiménez supported only by clave. More often, a small guitar-hinged group is employed, which proves to be equally effective on the gentle breeze-like title piece and Silvio Rodriquez’s torchy chestnut, “Rabo de Nube,” where a lush arrangement is arguably indicated. And, while most of these decisions place Portuondo in a contemporary light, there’s the occasional, well-timed dollop of old-school Cuban music like the broad gestures of pianist Chucho Valdés on “”Nuestro gran amor” that are pungent reminders of Portuondo’s rich history.
You have to have been in Trieste on an autumn morning, or to have read Claudio Magris, fully to appreciate Enrico Rava. Mist, terns and gulls crying plaintively, muttering ‘Scuse’ as you bump into James Joyce’s Chaplinesque effigy on the bridge, distracted by the peeling frontages of what was briefly an international city. Rava has always played like a man out of time, long, suspended phrases that have only the remotest kinship with those of his supposed “influence,” Miles Davis.
Here he is, though, paying tribute to a city he – as well as Miles - came to regard as home. Rava followed Gato Barbieri to New York in 1967 and spent half a dozen years there. Even if it didn’t shape him temperamentally or creatively, it provided a rich proving ground for his music. “His” city isn’t uptown or downtown New York, though, but the reversed-out profile of an island-polis, glimpsed in silhouette, its lines simple rather than stark or bleak, its spaces unusually vacant, single sounds eerily heightened in low light and fog.