Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Chris Abrahams + Clare Cooper
The form of this 2-CD set was determined by a CD’s capacity for 99 index points over the course of its approximately 80-minute running time. An average duration of less than a minute was required to squeeze keyboardist Chris Abrahams and guzheng player Clare Cooper’s 198 “germ studies” onto a pair of discs. This creates the impossible proposition of hearing each piece as a discreet entity. Many of these tracks – calling them pieces is somewhat dicey – aren’t long enough even to create a blur as they come and go. By comparison, a John Zorn smash-up is lugubriously Feldmanesque. This promotes a different type of listening, one that is paradoxically remote and immediate. On the one hand, the durations of the studies generally preclude development of materials and a deepening of the listener’s engagement. On the other, Cooper’s resourceful manipulation of the guzheng and Abraham’s extensive inventory of samples create an ongoing stream of collar-grabbing sounds. Subsequently, Germ Studies makes for surprisingly easy, satisfying listening.
As If 3
The name is the clue to their point of view – an enticingly eccentric one at that. Though all three members are active participants on the Dutch scene (with bassist Raoul van der Weide and drummer Wim Janssen previously having teamed up in Guus Janssen’s trio), the musical fruit of this collaboration suggests less a common ground than a mutually accepted, if temporary, mindset of wary speculation and creative skepticism. These nine original pieces reveal qualities of spontaneous construction – tempos that emerge, drift, and dissolve before being reestablished; separate, barely related details that ultimately click together; conflicting gestures; familiar, yet abstracted motifs that skirt around the edges of song – while maintaining a firm grip on ensemble rapport. A good deal of this is due to pianist Frank van Bommel, whose previous projects include surveys of the Dick Twardzik and Eric Dolphy songbooks. The noirish, unruffled poise is his, whether it’s echoes of hip ‘50s swing (“Ball Shelly”), modest Wynton Kelly-type riffs (“Horsecombing”), modes of lyrical compression (“Klinkklaar”), or open intervals resonating in space in homage to Morton Feldman (“M.F.”). The plots thicken, though, as van der Weide’s harmonic and textural digressions and Janssen’s terse rhythmic responses complicate the mood. The result is a trio that plays not only “inside” and “out,” but turns the conventional piano trio format inside-out as well.
Bassist Ronnie Boykins was Blanton to Sun Ra's Duke: when they were unavailable, both leaders often used two double basses, and the Ellingtonian sound of early Sun Ra bands owes much to the arco and pizzicato work of this agile, melodic player. Later, in the Sixties, he pioneered the use of bowed altissimo range, paralleling the work of Sun Ra's reeds. After 1965 he maintained a loose relation with the Arkestra, and by 1975 he was mostly working on his own projects while carrying on notably diverse collaborations, which included Muddy Waters, Horace Parlan, Johnny Griffin, Sarah Vaughan and memorably Steve Lacy. In 1980, his career was cut short at 44 by a fatal heart attack.
Boykins definitely shared the same wide ranging intellectual approach of Sun Ra – he created a club for the presentation of African-American Culture even before entering the Arkestra, and his son is a renowned filmmaker. The band on this CD includes many interesting and independent personalities not related to the Arkestra, the most known being probably drummer Art Lewis; others hovered on the margins of the jazz underground, like the bluesy tenor saxophonist Monty Waters, who had a long stay in Europe and recently passed away, or trombonist Daoud Haroom who devoted himself to his chosen faith, Islam – if you're interested in untold stories of the survival of Islamic influences in the post-slavery in America, his personal pages at http://www.nuradeen.com/HajjHaroon.htm are a mine of provocative information.
The CD opens with the long title track, based on a hypnotic bass ostinato; the sound of the group is very open and airy; with two percussionists but no piano, the only technically harmonic instrument being the bass itself. There is a prevalence of light colors (soprano saxophone and flutes) and a distinctly modal/oriental mood in the solos by the three reeds, with the saxophones at times resembling shenais or zurnas. After Haroom’s solo, Boykins makes a remarkably coherent statement with quick movements through the registers, switching between arco and pizzicato, before finally reverting to the original figure doubled by the trombone while the reeds state the themes.
“Starlight at the Wonder Inn” is a Sun Ra-sounding title, like most of the album’s compositions; the melody exposed by the bowed bass bears resemblance to “Prelude to a Kiss” and after the exposition, Boykins keeps accompanying and soloing with the bow while the winds keep the harmonic background, quite a tour de force. “Demon's Dance” is a quirky, Monkish theme which gives way to a collective improvisation based on the theme structure, while “Dawn” opens with slowly accumulating impressionistic material before speeding up for the winds' improvisations. The lively, lilting “Tipping on Heels” sounded familiar and it haunted me for days before I realized that it sounds like a Brotherhood of Breath piece more than any Sun Ra composition ever did; pity that it ends very abruptly, almost if the tape ran out before the end of the piece. The final track finds Boykins experimenting with tuba over a carpet of tropically lush percussion, with all the musicians in the group playing drums, rattles and whistles, Arkestra-style; the final minutes develop over another bass ostinato, symmetrically with the first piece, fading out at the end.
With a title as memorable as any, this lone effort of Boykins as a leader stands out as the testimony of an original artistic personality with strong musical, esthetic and philosophical connections to a pan-African concept, where music has a communal and spiritual value. His other sessions show his importance as instrumentalist, but this is the only chance we have to appreciate his compositional and arranging style. Kudos to ESP for making this widely available again.
Graham Clark + Stephen Grew
Gianni Lenoci + Carlos Zingaro + Marcello Magliocchi
These two CDs have some conspicuous points in common, but greater degrees of difference. Each is a work of free collective improvisation, each has European musicians and each features the instruments most strongly associated with European classical music, the violin and the piano, though admittedly Serendipity adds percussion to the mix. What’s far more interesting, though, is that it’s at that point almost all resemblance ends.
With a developed vocabulary from Bach to the present, violinists and pianists have a rich tradition to bring to free improvisation. On improvisations series one violinist Graham Clark and pianist Stephen Grew operate within a highly traditional definition of instrumental function and vocabulary. The style bridges high modernism and post-modernism, and you’d be excused for thinking at many points that you’d wandered into a recital devoted to newly discovered works by Bartok, Webern, and Stockhausen. That’s not the duo’s limitation but its character, a complex dialogue that makes little reference to the usual associations of improvised music. The 14 tracks are simply numbered, and there’s nothing here to suggest that Clark was once a member of the rock band Gong. When the two alternate percussive effects as accompaniment to one another on “No. 7,” or Grew uses some piano preparation on the “No. 13,” it actually comes as a surprise. What the music possesses is a narrow brilliance, by which I intend nothing negative. The numerous short tracks have the taut discipline and spiky clarity of etudes, while the nearly 20-minute “No. 9” extends that clarity of execution and design to a startlingly dense expressionism so purposefully executed that it sound like it’s being read very quickly. Grew’s work is new to me, but like Clark he’s an improviser of the first order.
Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro joins Italian pianist Gianni Lenoci and percussionist Marcello Magliocchi for an extended improvisation on Serendipity, its five segments, recorded in 2007 at the Bari Jazz Festival. It immediately suggests another musical terrain, broadly touching on folk idioms and world musics, and with an emphasis on widely varied textures. Lenoci’s opening prepared piano hints strongly at the resonant buzz of koto, cheng or zither, and ZIngaro chimes in with the broad resonance that characterizes Carnatic violin music, resonating with the other instruments in a sympathetic hive of sound. While the group can scrutinize textures usually thought of as “classical,” it’s just one tool in their repertoire. When Lenoci initiates the second segment with a particularly clear and well-shaped (“classical”) line, it seems to trigger in Zingaro an episode of whining harmonics, wobbling, de-tuned phrases and sudden spizzicato. When the three later find themselves on the same page, the tremolo clusters sound like a page of Messiaen, and “Part 4” concludes with a lyricism so intense it’s almost painful. By the final segment, Magliocchi includes dense metallic clatter and sudden sliding pitches that suggest some of the percussion of Harry Partch or John Cage, building a maelstrom of sound with Lenoci’s struck and scraped bass strings. Zingaro surmounts it all with some brilliant scattershot runs in a luminous three-way effort that really does suggest serendipity. With all their varied textures, timbres and tonalities, the five movements have the coherence of a single, continuous exchange.
Steve Lehman Octet
There’s an awful lot happening on this exciting new disc from saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman. Ideas from jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary classical music intersect and cross-pollinate in really fruitful ways throughout. It doesn’t sound superficially eclectic; instead everything is fused into a single lively and intelligent voice.
Lehman has studied with composer Tristan Murali, who has developed a musical system he calls spectral music. The system is based on the physics of sound—attack, decay, overtones, and timbre—rather than traditional Western system of tempered harmony.
Lehman’s use of spectral harmony, microtonal intervals based on an instrument’s overtones, creates truly arresting sonorities on “Echoes” and “No Neighborhood Rough Enough.” It’s a bit like Gil Evans, but with far more subtle internal movement and the tight chords have longer hang time, they linger and slowly fade like dissipating fog. The technique is more than a novelty. Lehman uses the spectral music ideas systematically and creatively, pairing the overtones of different instruments for some unique timbres, and places them with a framework for improvising that compels players to think about the sound of their instruments in new ways and challenges traditional harmonic thinking. On “Echoes,” Lehman’s frictionless glide over the mirrored orchestration hits piquant intervals. Repetition of small rhythmic and melodic cells, coupled with a slightly acid, penetrating tone lend his solo an arresting urgency. On “No Neighborhood Rough Enough,” he navigates the intricacies of the composition’s mathematical jungle of rhythms and harmonies so fluently that his solo always an outgrowth of the prevailing ensemble tension.
On pieces that make use of more conventional material, Lehman’s voicings still carry a sensual sheen and he launches themes and counterthemes from different angles and at unexpected moments to keep everything just off balance.
Lehman has used spectral music to rework the harmonic basis for his many of his compositions, but he also has an ear cocked toward contemporary pop music, especially hip hop, for a new rhythmic foundation for them. The beat laid down by drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is informed by funky hip-hop inflections, but is far less regular, more supple and prone to variations in tempo, displaced accents, and conversational interactions. Sorey, in effect, plays Tony Williams to Lehman’s Miles Davis, fully realizing and developing the rhythmic underpinnings that give the music its unique feel.
Jackie McLean’s Blue Note albums with Grachan Moncur III and Bobby Hutcherson are another touchstone for Lehman’s music, especially his use of vibraphonist Chris Dingman. The overtone-rich vibes works beautifully in the spectral pieces, of course, but Dingman, who plays almost continuously throughout the album, defines and opens up the conventional harmony, too. He reinforces the beat sometimes, but at others his displaced accents work with Sorey to generate an ambiguous push-pull against the beat.
The horn section responds sensitively to Lehman’s compositional demands, smoothly handling the jump cuts of his arrangement of GZA/Genius’s “Living in the World Today” as well as the undoubtedly difficult demands of the spectral music charts. Mark Shim is a far more disruptive soloist than Lehman, overflowing and cross cutting against the arrangement of “Alloy.” Trombonist takes a lyrical, subtly sweet solo on that tune as well. The tuba player Jose Davila, like Dingman and Sorey, is almost always in action, adding his voice to the rhythmic underpinnings as well as soloing with a declamatory brio on “As Things Change (I Remain the Same).”
Clearly, Lehman is a musician bursting with ideas and he’s realizing them with consistently engaging and original results.