Reviews of Recent Recordings
Marilyn Lerner + Ken Filiano + Lou Grassi
It starts in media res with ‘Wild Analysis’ and without the tentative pawn-pushing of the even the best wholly improvised sets. The group aesthetic is so completely realized from the start that it’s difficult not to suspect some element of pre-determination. More formally structured improvisation, though, almost always betrays a follow-the-leader mentality which is entirely absent here. It’s a daring gambit, gutsy and strong. It might have been sustained for one more track, but “Nightwings” flitters across an ink-dark skyscape, with Lerner’s soundbox touch whisperingly mysterious and bassist Filiano delivering a darkly resonant response, like a voice from under trees. And it’s about this point one recognizes that percussionist Lou Grassi isn’t just the third member of the group but the one who defines its internal spaces, like a bunch of fireflies in a thicket. To say he shows a light touch is a bit like saying Paul Motian is more subtle than Keith Moon.
David S. Ware
Still, Mateen and Ware share a historical vantage and have used their respective spiritual motivations to articulate a music that honors the past while proclaiming that now is the time. Nothing places a musician’s voice in starker relief than a solo concert; subsequently, the appearance of URDLA XXX and Saturnian (solo saxophones, volume 1) provides a rare opportunity to hear Mateen and Ware outside the exigencies of playing with others. Certainly, the circumstances of Ware’s solo concert are far more dramatic than Mateen’s; Saturnian documents Ware’s first public performance since his transplant, while Mateen’s album celebrates the 30th anniversary of the esteemed French lithography workshop. And, it is also noteworthy that this is Ware’s first solo album to also feature his manzello and stritch – he solely played tenor on his lone prior solo album, Live In The Netherlands (1997; Splasc(H)). Mateen’s album maintains his pace of releasing a solo recording approximately every seven years; as was the case with his ‘97 self-produced album, Symphony for the Creator, Mateen is heard on multiple horns (in this case, alto clarinet and saxophone), percussion and voice (the 2004 No Label release, Seeing Colors, is an all-alto saxophone program).
Arguably, the fundamental difference between Mateen and Ware on these recordings is temperament. On URDLA XXX, Mateen comes across as a relatively unfettered celebrant, while Ware remains the acutely disciplined aspirant on Saturnian. Mateen’s program is more overtly shaped like a service, opening with procession-like use of bells, pivoting on a homily-like recitation, and ending with jubilance. Ware’s solos have an unrelenting intensity not usually associated with meditation. Mateen’s use of the blues trajectory of Charlie Parker and Jimmy Lyons has the off-the-cuff ease essential for the resonant citing chapter and verse. The vernacular has been thoroughly distilled in Ware’s playing for decades now, and seems so even more in this solo concert. For all of its power, Ware’s playing here has a stunning introspective quality, one easily attributable to the circumstances surrounding the concert, and to Ware’s decision to return with a solo concert, the most stark and intimate of contexts.
Subsequently, we bear witness to Ware and congregate with Mateen. Both experiences are thoroughly engaging as art; however, Mateen and Ware’s agendas extend far beyond art. They are both on a mission, resolutely; but, they engage the listener quite differently. Ware keeps the listener on the edge of his seat by avoiding easy resolution of his materials; to this end, his riveting attack, broad timbres and sharply angled phrases are spot-on. Mateen draws the listener in with more conventional gambits of tension and release, sometimes employing lyrical phrasing and dance rhythms. Ware leaves the listener awe-struck, but drained; by virtue of being less overwhelming, Mateen’s album is the more energizing. Still, both albums are important statements, not only within the scope of the artists’ respective discographies, but in terms of identifying the tenets of early 21st Century Spirit Music.
Trumpeter Sei Miguel lives in a sonic world that's all his own. Like the music of Thelonious Monk or Joe Maneri, Miguel’s style is obviously a deliberate construction that begins with the weeding out of the conventional and trite, continues with a rethinking of musical essentials, and results something utterly personal and with very little precedent. The eccentric rhythms, the very deliberate use of silence as a part of the music, and the coordination of sounds in the ensemble are totally individual.
When he improvises, Miguel tends to focus tightly on the middle range of his instrument and string together short phrases of carefully selected notes. Everything is wrapped in pregnant silences, as if he were a painter stepping back from his work, contemplating his next stroke. Sometimes he develops his motifs in linear way, as he does on “Pássaros,” sometimes he juxtaposes seemingly unrelated phrases, as he does on “Indagação.” Sometimes he plays very little. On “Amor” he remains silent except for playing a phrase of no more than five notes about two-thirds of the way through the piece.
His manipulation of his tone is just as controlled and unique as every other aspect of his music. It’s a lovely, warm sound, surrounded by a soft, frayed ruffle that gives it a rounded edge. Sometimes he swallows a note, making a phrase sound vulnerable or tonally ambiguous. But there is a quiet strength in the sound that lends his eccentric statements a powerful authority.
His group, featuring alto trombonist Fala Mariam, Rafael Toral on modulated resonance feedback circuit (what we might have called “live electronics” in simpler times), electric bassist Pedro Lourenço, and percussionist Cesár Burago, besides giving Miguel an unusual palette of sounds to work with, are clearly well schooled in his novel approach. The overall effect is art that is closely imitating nature. An irregular rhythm played on a frame drum, never repeating itself exactly, picks its way along as electric bass notes drop like water off a leaf. The electronics whistle and flutter like wind in the trees, and the alto trombone twitters away like a bird. It’s as if each sound has a purpose or life of its own and you are listening to a random confluence of noises as you walk in the woods. There is the same sense of stillness. And the timing of each sound often cannot be anticipated, as each note appears and disappears as if obeying its own law. The music is, of course, not random, but the product of artfulness, the hardest kind of all – the art that doesn’t sound like art. This is brilliant, idiosyncratic music from an independent minded composer-instrumentalist.
Dedicated to women who have inspired her, drummer Allison Miller's BOOM TIC BOOM presents an infectiously accessible variation on contemporary jazz that deftly navigates inside and outside traditions. For her sophomore release, Miller is joined by veteran pianist Myra Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose, both of whom are well-attuned to Miller’s concepts. Although her 2005 debut, 5am Stroll (Foxhaven) established Miller as a talented composer and deft improviser, this session's stripped-down piano trio format encourages greater risk-taking - more so than the earlier album's traditional quartet formation allowed.
Though she is easily capable of overwhelming percussive maelstroms, Miller instead suggests kinetic potential behind the kit without overplaying her hand. This efficacious approach has made her an in-demand drummer, with experiences that straddle a variety of genres. In addition to co-leading numerous bands, she serves as accompanist to country singer Brandi Carlile, folk icon Ani DiFranco and pop legend Natalie Merchant, as well as jazz artists like Marty Ehrlich and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Her highly diverse palette lends an organic sensibility to the session's many styles and moods, without feeling forced or programmatic.
Miller's ahead-of- the-beat phrasing and incisive percussive commentary is delivered with palpable élan. A generous leader, she shares the spotlight with her band mates and wields her sticks with an unpretentious virtuosity devoid of pyrotechnics. Such driving momentum demands a highly responsive and empathetic bassist, whom Miller has found in Sickafoose, a fellow DiFranco band member. Together they weave an elastic rhythmic tapestry that is simultaneously in-the-pocket, and filled with the sort of congenial interplay born of a longstanding musical partnership.
From the rollicking sway of "Cheyenne" and the fatback, Meters-inspired groove of "Big Lovely" (dedicated to Miller's friend, retro soul singer Toshi Reagon), to Mary Lou Williams' funky "Intermission" and a contemporary re-harmonization of Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," the trio expounds far and wide. Such versatility has its price however; Melford's syrupy chords on the Carmichael tune border on the saccharine, but are fortunately counterbalanced by a series of gorgeous harmonic variations on Williams' slinky Afro-Cuban classic.
"Cheyenne" provides a definitive example of Miller's artistry. Her opening salvo recalls Elvin Jones in his prime, while the tranquil second half – where she finesses an array of spare melodic variations with minimal accompaniment – takes a page from Max Roach. Melody comes to the fore on "CFS (Candy Flavored Sidewalks)," featuring a guest appearance by Jenny Scheinman, whose lyrical violin leads the tune from free pointillist beginnings to a soaring, hoe-down inspired finale.
Serving as the trio's conceptual focal point, Melford garners the most time in the limelight, infusing Miller's compositions with a bluesy, exotic fervor. Her boppish attack on "Fead" and Williams' "Intermission" are album highlights – visceral stabs of pianistic invention bolstered by a finely-tuned rhythm section. Melford's labyrinthine "Be Melting Snow" and dulcet tone poem "Night" are featured prominently. The former highlights the rhythm section's quicksilver interplay and Melford's melodic sensibility, before transforming into a showcase for Sickafoose's introspective bass musings. The later provides the album with an atmospheric coda, ending on mellifluous piano tones and plangent bass accents. Miller sits out most of the piece, revealing a composer's ear for detail, and a truly magnanimous leader's generosity.
Paul Motian + Chris Potter + Jason Moran
No drummer leaves his sidemen as exposed as Paul Motian. His playing is so spare and tangential that soloists are thrown back on their own resources. He is more concerned with crafting statements that can stand on their own, with carefully developed motifs, implied melodies, and attention to color and texture, than simply keeping time. But every so often he’ll interject and accent or phrase that lets everyone know he’s aware of everything happening on stage. The many slow tempos he calls force players away from the pet licks they might rely on a fast tempos. Every gesture a soloist makes stands out in high relief and any slack is glaringly obvious.
Those who can rise to Motian’s challenge, produce some of the best music of their career. On Lost in a Dream, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter turns in a towering, imaginative, emotionally rich performance that’s one of his best on record. On “Casino,” he’s a superb musical storyteller, moving from uneasy, harmonically stretched melody to a cathartic outpouring of notes and then on to a spacious conclusion full of resignation and wisdom. “Birdsong” is an emotionally exposed performance as well, rigorous and unsentimental, some of his most mature work on record.
Potter has had several years’ experience with Motian by now, but pianist Jason Moran is a relative newcomer. Not surprisingly, his playing is less assured, but shows every indication that he’s searching for his own approach to the demands of the music. On “Birdsong” and “Casino” he takes a minimal approach, worrying two or three note phrases into different patterns and paying special attention to the weight and placement of each note. If Potter is the band’s storyteller, Moran is its poet. He spends a lot of time at the extremes of the keyboard, almost as if he’s trying to compensate for the lack of a bassist with one hand, and play the soloist with the other. The effect is to leave a large airy space in the middle that gives the music an intriguing sonic balance. He tends to play it a little safer harmonically and goes for a conventionally pretty sound more often than not. When he finally cuts loose with richer harmony and less predictable phrasing on “Ten,” it’s a welcome contrast.
A strong debut from what seems like another classic Motian ensemble in the works.