Reviews of Recent Recordings
Muhal Richard Abrams + Roscoe Mitchell
In his thoughtful program notes, George Lewis poses the question, “What might a new American classical music sound like in a post-colonial world?,” suggesting that there are no boundaries to limit the discourse of creative musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson offered a similar answer, back in the mid-20th century, when asked about the inherent difficulties in developing an American classical music when confronted by the established European tradition. “It’s easy,” he said, “All you have to do is be American, and write any kind of music you want.”
That, in essence, is what Abrams and Mitchell have done in the orchestral works that fill two-thirds of this welcome release. The compositional choices they have made reflect separate solutions to the sound potential of the orchestral medium itself, each utilizing the full breadth of post-Schönberg harmonic procedures; an individual, intuitive sense of dramatic expression; and the expanded palette of colors and corresponding intensities available to them. Mitchell’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” composed in 2002, is a dynamic context for Joseph Jarman’s poem of that name, sung by Thomas Buckner, exposing the spiritual and physical isolation, alienation, beauty, and pain symbolized by the city. Ranging from hymn-like melodies to sectional explosions, Mitchell’s music is in a continual state of flux, simultaneously supporting the poem’s stark imagery and seeking a resolution that the words do not provide. Abrams’ “Mergertone,” from 2007, is built upon a similar restless energy, transforming internal tensions into surging brass and percussion, yearning string suspensions of motion, and a heroic piano commentary.
As an introduction to the orchestral works, they offer an improvisation of rhapsodic mood and slowly expanding dimensions – Abrams’ piano a constellation of illuminating details, and Mitchell’s alto saxophone, like Robert Browning’s depiction of heaven, reaching for the unknown just beyond his grasp. After years of shared and similar experiences, they know how to control the variables of proposition and response to construct an environment of eloquent logic.
Chicago Underground Duo
Since 1997, cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor have been collaborating as the founding members of the Chicago Underground, a loose collective that ranges in size from duo to sextet. Left to their own devices, Mazurek and Taylor embrace a wide variety of genres and styles, utilizing a vast array of instruments and effects to conjure a highly personalized sound world. On their fifth album as a duo (and tenth under the banner of the Chicago Underground), they split songwriting duties, unveiling a multiplicity of approaches that range from ambient electronic soundscapes and mellifluous ballads to polyrhythmic grooves and avant-garde sound experiments.
The first duo album not conceived in Chicago, Boca Negra was recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mazurek's current home. Named after a term coined in the Canary Islands, Boca Negra translates into English as "Black Mouth," representing an endless intake of information, reflected in the record's stylistic diversity. Mazurek and Taylor drift casually between tribal primitivism and high tech futurism, fusing the two on the opening cut "Green Ants." Introductory flurries from Mazurek's clarion horn incite Taylor's roiling toms as the duo locks into a rousing, ritualistic dialogue that veers from spry call-and-response to supple introspective discourse. A ruminative wooden flute interlude provides respite before the tune climaxes in an electronic delay-enhanced wash of prismatic color. "Confliction" explores similar conceptual territory, beginning with an uncharacteristically austere cornet and piano duet before kicking into an animated, amplified vamp that recalls Mazurek's work with Tortoise and Stereolab - an aesthetic further explored on the atmospheric electronica of "Hermeto." Driven by a hypnotic bass ostinato, Taylor's infectious trap set work on "Spy on the Floor" establishes a propulsive groove, fueling Mazurek's anthem-like choruses. Conversely, cuts like "Quantum Eye" and an abstract reinterpretation of Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" exude a moody, cinematic ambience, trading kinetic momentum for ethereal impressionism.
The duo's radical reinterpretations of indigenous cultural traditions comes to the fore on "Left Hand of Darkness" and "Laughing with the Sun," in the form of electronically augmented mbira and distorted cornet. The later track, whose bittersweet melodic motif is filtered through layers of distortion, occasionally drifts so far into the red that timbral separation between instruments blurs, yielding an alien sound world similar to the ring modulator dominated "Roots and Shooting Stars." Despite Mazurek and Taylor's esoteric interests, their commitment to conventional melody, harmony and rhythm resurfaces on the attractive closer, "Vergence," which features Mazurek's muted horn floating over Taylor's crisp programmed beats and lush synth washes.
While Mazurek spends much of his time in Brazil, and Taylor currently resides in New York, the Chicago Underground Duo continues to expand their hometown's rich legacy, instilling a restless creative vision with all-inclusive diversity. Eradicating all notions of genre, Boca Negra is another stellar effort in an extensive and varied discography.
Circulasione Totale Orchestra
Norwegian reed player Frode Gjerstad first assembled the Circulasione Totale Orchestra in 1984, then reorganized it a couple of years ago to reflect the inter-generational nature of freely improvised music and its evolving discourse. Apart from assembling his favorite players, Gjerstad’s concept of the band is implicit in the name, a constant movement of all parts, the form itself the dynamic implicit in the assembled ensemble and the individual forms and languages of the players, the act of creation a constant interaction.
It’s fairly straightforward to describe what’s here: three CDs, 45, 60 and 65 minutes long, each documenting a recent concert. It’s a 12-piece band. The personnel is constant for the first two CDs, then, for the third , one of the drummers, Paal Nilssen-Love, and one of the bassists, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, are replaced by Hamid Drake and Per Zanussi, respectively. The rest of the band, in addition to Gjerstad, consists of Americans (cornetist Bobby Bradford, saxophonist Sabir Mateen, and vibraphonist Kevin Norton), British-scene luminaries (Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums and Nick Stephens on bass) and Scandinavians (Morten J. Olsen on electronics and drums, Anders Hana on guitar, Børre Mølstad on tuba, and Lasse Marhaug on electronics). It’s not just multi-national: it’s also multi-generational and polystylistic. While the senior players may spring from the roots of free jazz (most notably the 75-year-old Bradford), there are musicians among the Scandinavians who are about fifty years younger, most notably Hana and Olsen who together perform as the duo Moha!, an improv noise band closer to the free rock improvisation of Thurston Moore.
This multi-generational dimension means that even if the players share an ideology they possess very different hearing and historical experiences relative to their languages—and what, when, where, how and why they acquired them. That gives the music a different dimension, a complexity in which materials are often exchanged and greeted in fresh ways. It also gives a different focus for the listener, highlighting how one matches up and interacts with this music. My ear likely gravitates to Gjerstad and Stephens, since my hearing experience is closer to theirs, and I might organize space/sound in similar ways; then, too, a certain verbal bias will jump at the found sound voices in the electronics. Some of the electronics sound precisely like something “wrong” with the playback apparatus, Marhaug evidently exploiting traditional notions of fidelity, static and noise to press into a new area. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bradford can create the illusion of a blues concerto for cornet, while Norton implies canyons of space with just a few carefully placed vibraphone notes.
If improvisation is often a choice of disciplines and edges – free jazz contra free improvisation; contrasting degrees of interactivity; acoustic versus electronic – then the spectrum and choices here are broader. Linear threads function as temporary points of view. When Bradford is playing he tends to act as a central organizing intelligence (at least for this listener, it may be different for other listeners, and may be very different within the band). The saxophonists, Gjerstad and Mateen, have a similar role, though the stasis signalled by a trill may be contrary movement. The principal of dialogue may be strongest in the relationship between the two, evidenced by the duet that gradually arises on the third disc, first launched by the orchestra which then departs to leave the two winds alone. Other elements seem radical and divergent – the bass roars of the tuba and the electronics, as well as the omni-directional rhythmic fields developed by the bassists and drummers.
There’s far too much here for any reviewer to give a sense of its sheer quantitative wealth; I’m happy just to point in the band’s direction.
Philly Joe Jones Dameronia
In the early 1980s, jazz became self-conscious about its past. The atmosphere was ripe for players of earlier generations to step forward and lay claim to the work they did in the past. Many could assert the music’s worth in a public way that had not been possible until then. A younger generation, many of them trained in college jazz programs, also were coming of age and tributes to the musicians they loved and learned about began to proliferate. Many of the resulting recordings grew formulaic and most never approached the same artistic merit as the artists being celebrated.
Look, Stop and Listen comes from the first wave of artist tributes and it’s one of the most successful. Recorded in 1983 by drummer Philly Joe Jones’ Tadd Dameron tribute nonet, Dameronia, with special guest Johnny Griffin, is a follow up to their 1982 Uptown debut, To Tadd, with Love. Its success owes much to the fact that it’s not by a revival band made up of youngsters who can only play at the music; the band is heavy with bop veterans of Dameron’s generation. They are not reviving the music so much as they are continuing to do what they always did.
Although he was never a great pianist, Dameron was nevertheless one of the great composer-arrangers to emerge from the bebop era. Dameron summarized his approach in his most quoted statement, “When I write something it’s with beauty in mind. It has to swing, sure, but it has to be beautiful.” And indeed he had a knack for creating beautiful music. He wrote melodies over bop harmonies so pretty that you hardly noticed how advanced they were. He punctuated adventurous phrases with catchy hooks that anchored them in the blues or the danceable riffs of swing music. Tunes such as “Good Bait,” “Our Delight,” and “Hot House” became bop standards. “If You Could See Me Now” was an early Sarah Vaughn hit. As an arranger, he voiced things so that the lower registers were earthy and firmly anchored and the upper registers sang and he let all sorts of gorgeous harmonies and colors play in between. Even his uptempo numbers seem to have the poignancy of a ballad tucked away somewhere in them.
Philly Joe played with Dameron in the latter part of his career (which was curtailed by drug abuse and ended by cancer at the age of 48), and he made sure his tribute band possessed the requisite beautiful sound and swing to play Dameron’s arrangements, transcribed for the group by Don Sickler. They play the music not just with enthusiasm, although there’s plenty of that, but with understanding as well. Jones gave every component of his kit a distinctive, full sound, and on the title track he proves he was no mean orchestrator of the kit’s colors, textures, and densities. Griffin is characteristically voracious, gobbling up “Our Delight” and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe” (the only piece not written by Dameron, but an apt choice of a tune written by one of his best students). Griffin statement of the melody of “If You Could See Me Now” and his solo, full of gruff tenderness and lyricism is one of the album’s highlights. “Focus” brings out the poet in everyone with Frank Wess, Benny Powell, and Virgil Jones all in top form. Wess in particular conveys a sweet-natured earthiness and buoyancy especially well suited to Dameron’s music. Baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, the other Dameron veteran in the band, is featured on “Theme of No Repeat.”
Dameronia may have been a last flowering of a style that was fading into history, but certainly the music is not historically irrelevant. Dameron’s ideas about orchestration and voicing are part of the modern jazz arranging vocabulary. To be sure, Dameron left a book of gorgeous tunes. But pieces like “Dial B for Beauty” and “Theme of No Repeat,” as lovely as they are, were pointed in unusual, if not avant-garde, directions. There is also something inspiring about Dameron’s remarkable craftsmanship, the sort of deeply disciplined approach to the construction of melodies and arrangements that liberates the imagination. Certainly Golson’s composing and arranging for the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet drew sustenance from the Dameronian spirit. Early Sun Ra charts like “Enlightenment” also show an appreciation for Dameronian beauty and construction of line. And it’s not too much of stretch to hear the lingering echoes of Dameron’s music in Julius Hemphill or Ed Wilkerson’s Eight Bold Souls. The essence of Dameron’s achievement can’t fade. It’s what jazz is all about.
Uptown’s exemplary Flashback Series of historic issues has unearthed another little gem of a session and given it the deluxe treatment. This time, it’s a Kenny Dorham Quintet featuring Joe Henderson broadcasting from an obscure Queens bar in January 1963, just months before they made their Blue Note debut on Una Mas. This Alan Grant broadcast, nicely cleaned up for CD release, will not change your perception of either Dorham or Henderson. It is the record of a gig, one set from the life of two very good, very sophisticated, and very swinging musicians. The set has its peaks and valleys. The tunes are standards like “I Can’t Get Started” and “Summertime,” a couple Dorham originals, including “Una Mas,” and pianist Ronnie Mathews’ “Dorian,” a lovely modal tune that is state-of-the-art circa 1963. The rhythm section—Mathews, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer J.C. Moses—is solid, but not inspired. If the set is not earthshaking, it is a good one, and a valuable window into the partnership between Dorham and Henderson, which lasted less than two years, but resulted in some of the best music either of them ever recorded.
They were a classic pairing of contrasting sensibilities that beautifully complemented each other. Dorham was not a flashy player. His solos are mostly unadorned melodic statements that lie in the middle register of the horn, played with a dark, sour-cherry tone with soft, rounded edges. But Dorham was a dazzling harmonic thinker and an expert manipulator of his sound. For instance, Bob Blumenthal points out in his liner note essay that Dorham is “deep into his substitute changes bag” on “I Can’t Get Started.” His phrases glance off the chords like a stone skipping over the surface of a pond. In their measured beauty they are lyrical and logical, yet strangely oblique. He’s obviously listening intently to his tone, too. He buffs the final note of a phrase until it shines, tears away at an edge until it frays, rounds off another into a graceful curve. On “Summertime,” he puts a sassy growl in his tone that gives his solo a rough blues inflection. “Autumn Leaves” displays a similar refinement to his rhythmic approach, as he contrasts phrases of staccato notes placed before and after the beat with legato lines that lag behind it.
Henderson was a more voluble and ornate soloist and sometimes given to sideways leaps in logic that break up the linear flow of his ideas. Although he was Dorham’s equal as a harmonic thinker, he was just as capable of soul-jazz blues and funk, and sometimes mixed the two within a single solo. On “My Injun from Brazil” (an early title for “Una Mas”), Henderson unites these two sides of his playing, working together funky riffs and more daring phrases into a thoughtful, approachable blend that served him so well on records like Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” “I Can’t Get Started” is a fine example of his more baroque side, with phrases coming to rest on harmonically interesting end points, and lines spirally along crooked paths that don’t end where you might expect them to.
Although other musicians understood his talent, Dorham was perhaps too refined for popular appeal. He didn’t achieve much commercial success with his quintet with Henderson. It’s a pity because the early ’60s were arguably Dorham’s peak years. He never made another album as a leader after 1964’s Trompeta Toccata with Henderson. With so little available from this period, this disc is a valuable addition to Dorham’s legacy.