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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Bill Dixon
Tapestries for Small Orchestra
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-03-008

Bill Dixon is an iconic figure as often cited for the anti jazz establishment politics he championed in the '60s as he is for his innovative, timbre-centric approach to the trumpet. Over the past four decades, he has produced a revered but somewhat sparse body of work, capped by an unprecedented rash of activity in recent years. His 2008 collaboration with trumpeter Rob Mazurek, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey), was followed by the release of 17 Musicians In Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity), recorded live at the 2007 Vision Festival that honored him. Tapestries for Small Orchestra is another massive undertaking, a triple disc set that finds Dixon joined by an octet that includes a quartet of trumpet players influenced by Dixon's aesthetic.

Comprised of two audio CDs containing over two hours of newly commissioned music and a DVD featuring a half hour documentary about the recording session at Firehouse 12 studios, this collection provides revealing insight into Dixon's working method. Dixon's collective aesthetic has long run counter to conventional jazz tradition; grandstanding virtuosity is anathema to his cooperative concept. Maintaining conceptual consistency with his inimitable writing style, he avoids routine melodic phrases dictated by tempo or pulse while soloing and inspires the same from his empathetic sidemen. Eschewing conventional notions of melody, rhythm and harmony, he articulates texture and tone with extremes of velocity and volume, sounding as visionary today at age 84 as he did on his seminal 1967 RCA recording Intents & Purposes. The minimalist ideal of the "single note as a symphony" finds credence in these epic meditations when long tones are sustained across multiple bar lines. Elsewhere, Dixon punctuates dark, introspective atmospheres with rancorous activity, and coils ghostly harmonies into dense thickets of dissonance.

Embracing tonal abstraction beyond the innovations of Don Cherry and Lester Bowie, Dixon's raspy cadences have inspired a small but gifted group of younger trumpet players, four of whom are members of this ensemble. Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, and Rob Mazurek are all progenies of Dixon's ideology, yet each has developed his own approach to the instrument, providing Dixon's elastic structures with both individualistic detail and a communal cohesiveness. With their sinewy glissandos and coruscating fragments, bass/contrabass clarinetist Michel Cote, cellist Glynis Lomon and bassist Ken Filiano provide an earthy contrast to the trumpeters' ethereal, reverb-laden flourishes. Legendary percussionist Warren Smith unveils a kaleidoscopic array of shades and hues on vibes, marimba, trap set, tympani and gongs, providing scintillating accents and an understated sense of perpetual motion. His ebullient dialogue with Dixon's pedal tone phrases and Filiano's pointillist bass on "Slivers: Sand Dance for Sophia" is a highlight, reminiscent of the early experiments of the AACM. Though he primarily serves as a colorist, Smith also delivers a few pulse-quickening percussion barrages, most notably on the strings-dominated "Phrygian II."

Brought to life by these phenomenal players, Dixon's orchestral approach to improvisation is further detailed in the DVD documentary, which includes interviews with Dixon and the ensemble, as well as footage of three complete performances and an alternate take of the brooding opener, "Motorcycle '66: Reflections & Ruminations." For the uninitiated and the skeptic, Dixon's concept may be as oblique as Ornette Coleman's Harmolodics, Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures or Anthony Braxton's Tri-Axiom Theory; but for Dixon aficionados and those interested in the endless possibilities of sound, there is a surfeit of remarkable music contained in this collection.
–Troy Collins

 

Die Enttäuschung
Die Enttäuschung
Intakt CD 166

Die Enttäuschung is a Berlin-based quartet consisting of trumpeter Axel Dörner, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen. They’ve been working together since the 1990s, often devoting themselves to the repertoire of Thelonious Monk. In fact they’re so good at Monk repertoire that Alex von Schlippenbach enlisted them as the rest of the Monk’s Casino quintet, his project to record and perform Monk’s entire compositional output. Here the members of the quartet perform their own compositions. Away from Monk material, the band isn’t particularly Monk-ish (the absence of a piano alone will do that); instead it’s a free jazz quartet strongly tied to certain rhythmic and dialogue traditions associated with the first Ornette Coleman quartets, a bouncing rhythmic exuberance in which kernel patterns are batted back and forth between drums, bass and horns (if you were looking for something similar in Monk it would be most apparent in the early ‘60s quartet that included Charlie Rouse and the very melodic drummer Frankie Dunlop). Although the individuals don’t otherwise strongly invoke any members of the classic Coleman bands, there’s an internal dynamic, a qualitative dimension, a joy and a playfulness that are uncannily similar, the combination of rhythms and horn lines at times insistently invoking certain passages from Free Jazz, a sudden confluence of Don Cherry and Eric Dolphy, say, along with a matching up of rhythmic patterns from Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. It’s a definite tradition and it occasionally surfaces in the compositions. Dörner’s “Tja” will suggest the walking-bass-as -melody of Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” (itself a Monk tribute), while Mahall’s “Rumba Brutal” has a Latin tinge distinctly like the one in Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita.” The last track, Jennessen’s “Bruno,” sounds very much like something cooked up by the New York Art Quartet, another important band in the same tradition. So while Die Enttäuschung (the name translates as “The Disappointment,” by the way) can’t be credited with incredible originality, it hardly matters. They manage to talk among themselves on their own themes in a fluent, mature idiom as engagingly as one could hope to hear.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Egberto Gismonti
Saudações
ECM 2082/83

Egberto Gismonti’s stature as a guitarist has been acknowledged for decades, the praises of his singular ability to meld Brazil’s indigenous, colonial and modern musical traditions measurable in pounds of paper. Yet, most of the superlatives prompted by his searing, serpentine lines, his staggeringly complex picking and fingering and his immaculate articulation on an unforgiving ten-string instrument ignore a compositional sensibility that values the protean. Structure and method are frequently blurred in Gismonti’s music, which more often conveys a stream of consciousness or an associative process than the execution of a design.

The compositional impetus of Gismonti’s music is suffused not just in his solos, but also in the duets with his guitarist son Alexandre that comprise the bulk of the second disc of the 2-CD Saudações (two solos by Alexandre and an ebullient, samba-infused set-closing solo by Egberto round out their program); the spikes in voltage and the splashes of alluring color tend to register exclusively as improvisation. This makes the pairing with “Sertões Veredas – tributo à miscigenação,” a seven part work for a 17-piece strings ensemble, so illuminating. Performed by conductor Zenaida Romeu’s Camerata Romeu, the 70-minute work is rife with passages where robustly sawed traditional calls and fiddle tunes are turned inside out to reveal an almost John Adams-like urbanity, movements where buoyant and desultory folk melodies comingle with a Villa-Lobos-like elegance, and moments where agitated staccato phrases suddenly swell with carefree dance rhythms. “Sertões Veredas” is as kaleidoscopic as any of Gismonti’s guitar recordings.

Subsequently, “Sertões Veredas” places the duets and solos in a significantly different light than would be the case if they had been issued alone. Compositional purpose can now be read into the solar flare-like tangents one always presumed to be sudden bursts of purely improvisational inspiration. The brilliance of the Gismontis’ playing is undiminished, however, by an increased awareness of Egberto’s compositional prowess (glints of which are detectable in the solo penned by Alexandre, a lissome choro). The bar is particularly high for the Brazilian composer and musician: the sweeping melodies, intricate harmonic movement, and brisk rhythms must signify ease, ripeness and wonder. Egberto Gismonti achieves this on Saudações in two settings that are practically polar opposites.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Jon Irabagon
The Observer
Concord Jazz CJA-31319-02

This rather unlikely session matches Jon Irabagon, best known as the saxophonist in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, with the supremely polished  rhythm section of Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. Irabagon’s contract with Concord is part of his reward for winning the 2008 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, chosen by an elite panel of Wayne Shorter, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom, David Sanchez and Percy Heath. It’s clearly a step inside for Irabagon, away from the ironically intoned idioms of MOPDTK, but it’s also a fitting vehicle for his talents. Irabagon often invokes his predecessors: there’a touch of Cannonball Adderley and Arthur Blythe in the breadth of his sound, while the fleet modal playing can at times suggest Gary Bartz. There’s also plenty to distinguish Irabagon, including a personal variant on the “inside-outside” approach to changes. His rendering of Gigi Gryce’s “The Infant’s Song” is both gentle and exploratory, with his solo developing into lighter and higher, increasingly evanescent sounds. There’s another rarely-heard, vintage bop ballad, as well, Elmo Hope’s “Bar Fly,” rendered movingly in a duet with guest pianist Bertha Hope. Irabagon brings a different eloquence, an expansive boppishness, to Tom MacIntosh’s “The Cup Bearers,” while his own tunes might have resided happily on many mid-60s Blue Note records, especially “Joy’s Secret” and “Big Jim’s Twins” where he’s joined by trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  The tunes have a strong sense of form and distinctive melodies, and “January Dream” might well turn up in other musicians’ performances. Irabagon turns to tenor for two tunes, with the bossa-nova “Makai and Tacoma” possessing some of the airy warmth of Charles Lloyd. In general it’s a convivial session, Irabagon and the band working well together. Each musician contributes fine moments, like Reid’s spare accompaniment to the theme of “The Infant’s Song” or Lewis’s sparkling work at brisker tempos. Barron is at his usual tasteful and inventive best, generating a lucid complexity with evident ease. For his mainstream debut, Irabagon emerges as a consummately lyrical musician with a subtly individualist take on the tradition.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Minamo
Kuroi Kawa - Black River
Tzadik 7720

Kuroi Kawa - Black River is the expansive follow up to California-based violinist Carla Kihlstedt and Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's debut, Minamo (Henceforth Records, 2007), which consisted of a pair of live recordings made in 2002 and 2005 at festivals in San Francisco and Austria. Adopting the title of their first album as the duo's name, Minamo translates from Japanese to English as "the surface of the water" which, as Fujii has indicated, "reflects many things and it covers hidden, unknown depths."

A double album featuring one disc of studio recordings and a second documenting a live concert, these fully improvised sessions are remarkably cohesive, despite subtle differences in approach. The studio set focuses on thematically concise miniatures, exploring an assortment of moods across eighteen brief improvisations that range from thirty seconds to six minutes. The second disc features six lengthy pieces recorded live at the 2008 Vancouver International Jazz Festival, with no overlap between the two sets.

Balkan rhythms, visceral free jazz expressionism and austere neo-classical formalism all figure heavily in Fujii and Kihlstedt's improvisational flights. Drawing upon numerous experiences, they make a congenial duo, finding accord in a polystylistic aesthetic based on common interests. Their diverse discographies demonstrate a strong affinity for soulful Eastern European folk forms; Fujii's work (in her husband trumpeter Natsuki Tamura's nostalgic Gato Libre ensemble) echoes Kihlstedt's similar efforts in Charming Hostess, 2 Foot Yard and Tin Hat. At their most fervent, they reveal an unbridled quality fueled by years of touring with heavily amplified aggregations; Fujii with any number of electro-acoustic units, from quartets to big bands; Kihlstedt in the art-rock Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Fred Frith's Cosa Brava. Despite their potential for caterwauling excess, the majority of their intimate dialogues are imparted with a rich sense of classical dynamics, informed by their conservatory educations.

Exploring the myriad timbral possibilities of the violin/piano sonata format, the duo's brief studio excursions embrace a wealth of sonic detail. The vigorous call and response studies "To Ho - East" and "Arabesque" are exhilarating games of cat and mouse, while "Mado Wo Akeru - Open the Window" and "Tsuchi No Naka - In the Ground" are mystical modernist works built from extended techniques. Scraping the strings inside her piano, Fujii summons obfuscating waves of metallic noise as Kihlstedt's fragile violin parries with melancholy refrains. On a less arcane level, "Rakuda – Camel" offers an unadorned work of delicate counterpoint, featuring Kihlstedt's dulcet pizzicato and Fujii's tender staccato, and the plangent "Kibo – Hope" invokes the Old World with its reedy accordion and distant trumpet violin.

The long-form improvisations of the second disc reveal the duo's unflagging energy and conversational rapport, yielding the same dynamic extremes as the nuanced studio sessions, but at a more relaxed, naturalistic pace. Casually transitioning between styles, the thirteen minute title track trades a bombastic intro for austere pointillism reminiscent of the Second Vienna School before gradually modulating into an opaque vortex of abstract gypsy themes. Conceptually moving from West to East, they craft exotic sound worlds on the spectral "Murasaki No Natsu - Purple Summer," as Fujii's kaleidoscopic prepared piano and the duo's ghostly vocalese unveils a ritualistic air akin to Javanese gamelan. Vacillating through sonic extremes, the haunting "Aoi Saka - Blue Slope" showcases Kihlstedt's plangent lyricism underscored by Fujii's scintillating filigrees, while the slashing rhythms and angular melodies of "Akai Kaze - Red Wind" summon emotional heights reminiscent of the great Russian composers of the previous century.

At the beginning of a fertile partnership, Kihlstedt and Fujii have already established a high water mark for their future endeavors. Kuroi Kawa - Black River is improvised chamber music that ignores boundaries and confounds preconceptions at every turn.
-Troy Collins

Cuneiform Records

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