Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Thomas Larcher
Madhares
ECM New Series 2111

Austrian composer Thomas Larcher uses meticulously engineered cell structures and draws upon a well-versed understanding of European classical music not simply to explicate his designs across the canvas of a composition, but to set up the type of electric moments equally appreciated by learned listeners and newcomers. Madhares bears this out arguably better than his previous ECM New Series albums because it is comprised of a string quartet and two works for orchestra and soloist, settings in which excitement is all but demanded. Larcher understands that such excitement can be ignited by a truly startling sound. Prepared piano doesn’t automatically qualify as such, but Larcher’s riveting rhythmic passages on “Böse Zellen” (which roughly translates as “Free Radicals”), nail-gunned by pianist Till Fellner, gives a familiar combination of muffled and metallic sounds new impact. The same can be said of the bursts of vigorous sawing that distinguishes violist Kim Kashkashian’s performance on “Still.” These jolts are far from gratuitous episodes; they are intricately woven into scores requiring the precise execution of every last minute detail of ensemble colors and dynamics. Dennis Russell Davies is the right helmsman for Larcher’s orchestra music; he deftly steers Münchener Kammerorchester through the subtle treacheries of the scores. “Madhares” is the collection’s best example of how Larcher taps sources as diverse as Schubert and Nepalese music to create a work of vivid contrasts, where bright intricate figures coexist with shadowy timbres. The latter is reinforced by the placement of coins on the strings in the first movement, which produces an eerie tremelo effect.  Quartour Diotima maximizes both the mystery and excitement Larcher has carefully embedded into the score, resulting in a thoroughly engaging performance.  A string quartet would ordinarily seem anti-climatic after two works for orchestra; but “Madhares” confirms Larcher’s ability to create powerful music, regardless of the size of the ensemble.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Yusef Lateef + Adam Rudolph
Towards the Unknown
YAL/Meta 012

It’s ironic that Yusef Lateef was named a NEA Jazz Master, since the pioneering multi-instrumentalist totally rejects the J word in regards to his music. Additionally, despite his important contribution to jazz’s cultural passage from entertainment to art in the US, Lateef’s music has implicitly undermined the notion that jazz is a uniquely American art form for more than a half-century. Beginning in the 1950s, Lateef’s music made myriad connections to the whole of both Africa and Asia that are now considered part and parcel of jazz’s purview, even though his use of indigenous instruments – and not in an ornamental role, but as lead voices – posited the idea that jazz was a constituent of a planet-wide music sensibility. Lateef’s articulation of Autophysiopsychic Music supports this universal perspective, as cultural specificity is conspicuously omitted from its definition as “music which comes from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”  As he approaches his 90th birthday in October, Lateef remains an envelope-pushing composer and conceptualist; the sense of design and purpose in his playing is as strong as ever. A collaborative project with percussionist Adam Rudolph, Towards the Unknown bears this out; split between percussionist Adam Rudolph’s “Concerto for Brother Yusef” and Lateef’s “Percussion Concerto (for Adam Rudolph),” it confirms Lateef’s long-standing capacity for challenging and even provoking his listeners to hear music in a context larger than that circumscribed by the J word.

Featuring the 11-person Go: Organic Orchestra Strings, Rudolph’s six-part work gives Lateef ample space to test his stamina, sound and idea flow. Does his tenor have the gale force of a 45 year-old workout like “Semiocto” from Psychicmotus (1965; Impulse!)? No, but it has something that has been equally central to Lateef’s playing – a specific edge, which separated his sound from that of contemporaries like Coltrane and Rollins, a distinctive blending of attack and phrasing. Perhaps more importantly, Rudolph’s piece synthesizes the ancient and the contemporary in a way that is reminiscent of Lateef’s boundary-stretching albums for Atlantic in the late ‘60s. Rudolph wisely frames the piece with Lateef’s gently plaintive voice, supporting Lateef’s singing in the opening movement with pentatonic writing for strings, and underlining his recitation of a poem about hunger and good works with keyboard drones and sinter to close the piece. For the first half of the piece, Rudolph emphasizes the contrast between Lateef’s earthy tenor phrases and the strings’ ethereal glissandi and short pizzicato bursts, some of which are improvised, triggered by Rudolph’s cues; yet when Lateef switches to flutes in the last movements, there is a pivotal and elegant watercolor-like merging of timbres. This is an elegantly structured work and a brilliantly insightful portrait of Lateef.

Lateef’s two-movement percussion concerto is more tightly scripted than Rudolph’s. Figures ripple precisely through the 13-piece Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, led by veteran New Music conductor Petr Kotik; dynamics are calibrated for dramatic effect; nothing is obviously malleable, except for Rudolph’s unaccompanied hand drums solos. While there is an organic feel that crops up in passages like the brisk call and response between Rudolph’s Baganda xylophone and the ensemble, an austere tone permeates much of the materials, placing the work more squarely in the realm of formal concert music than the alt space Rudolph has carved out with his work with Go: Organic Orchestra. However, Lateef’s meticulous score is not the explication of a compositional theory or method; rather, it addresses a deeper common purpose shared by otherwise disparate musical traditions – the projection of a greater realm. To this end, Lateef’s concerto succeeds, as the heat of Rudolph’s solos is complemented by the relatively cool gravity of Lateef’s score. It is a ponderous work, but not in the sense that it is labored or unwieldy; it is heavy, though, and it does require what is commonly referred to as committed listening. But, the other side of that bromide is equally true; the committed listening does pay off handsomely.

Because jazz is perpetually on a generational cusp, partnerships like Lateef and Rudolph’s are valuable beyond words. Towards the Unknown makes the case convincingly.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Dave Liebman + Evan Parker + Tony Bianco
Relevance
Red Toucan RT 9338

The explicit reference point here is Rollins and Coltrane on the 1957 Tenor Madness. It would be unwise, though, to apportion roles, though Tony Bianco seems to be channelling Philly Joe Jones for much of these Vortex performances, recorded in London for BBC Radio 3. This was a first encounter between two of the leading saxophone players of the day, and the closeness of understanding from the very first moments bespeaks a substantial common lineage. Liebman himself identifies both men as having “evolved from the Coltrane aesthetic” and hears the result of their meeting as two different approaches to a common language. There are other similarities. Both are tenor men whose dependence on the soprano at periods has proved to be variably fruitful and limiting. I still contend that both have produced their most distinguished and lasting work on the bigger horn.

It goes off without undue preamble. Bianco stokes up a powerful rhythm that instead of a single consistent line rather suggests pockets of kinetic energy that sit sequentially in time, but with significant overlaps, so that one episode from the horns seems to cross-fade into another. The percussionist’s energy is astonishing, not so much for its physicality as for its control. It is some of the most precise “free” drumming you’ll ever hear and even though the second set begins (and ends) in a more reflective mode, there is a baseline current to which Bianco always returns. I hear a lot of Max Roach in him, too, but it’s Philly Joe who remains the most obvious ancestor, even if the counts are different and differently distributed.

It’s pointless, of course, to attempt a line-by-line comparison of what Liebman and Parker are doing. Throughout, both play with a muscular thoughtfulness and the music here is characterised by palpable intelligence rather than any obvious outpouring of emotion. However, it’s by no means chill or remote, and it’s worth noting that “relevance” doesn’t just mean fitness to context but also the ability to rise up or mitigate; as a student of earlier English writing, and particularly some of the more rugged Elizabethans, Parker would surely know that. The more lyrical passages, of which there are not a few, seem affirmative not least because these two giants happily deign to play in tune, which is by no means guaranteed nowadays. The most inviting metaphors come not from philosophy or architecture, but from engineering: forces in balance, thrust and exhaust, mass, motion and ‘work’ in its precise sense.

I fell out terminally – and that’s terminally as in final, not merely as in unpleasant – with the first Mrs Morton over which was superior, intelligence or emotion. This was at a time when people did actually fight over such things, rather than just who put out the trash. There were, needless to say, other factors, but my speaking up for intelligence opened the seacocks to a wash of pejoratives, of which “soulless” and “male” spring back to mind. We are all prone to the pensée d’escalier, but it was only days later, and coincidentally having seen Evan Parker play solo in London, that I came up with the obvious retort: that intelligence, when combined with energy, is a kind of emotion and one that is less deviously varied across our human cultures. It is notoriously hard for a Celt to judge whether a Japanese person is embarrassed or amused, or for an “Oriental” to see past the dry-as-dust irony that passes for humour on the Celtic fringe, but I defy anyone – “jazz” lover or not, free music initiate or not – not to detect the intelligence that resonates through every moment of this music. Though the style may seem unmodish now, possibly even a little old hat, and consciously so in its referencing of music half a century old, but it remains defiantly relevant, and, more important, it relevates.
–Brian Morton

 

Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth
Deluxe
Clean Feed CF174CD

Chris Lightcap, one of the more enterprising Downtown bassists to emerge in the past decade, has built an impressive discography as a sideman, accompanying such luminaries as Rob Brown, Joe Morris and Craig Taborn, among many others. Deluxe is the Clean Feed debut of his Bigmouth ensemble, an augmented variation of his quartet, whose previous two albums, Lay-Up and Bigmouth, were both released on the Fresh Sound label.

An instrumentalist with a robust tone and flawless timing, Lightcap's melodious writing is his true talent, much like fellow bassist/composer Ben Allison, whose work Lightcap's slightly resembles. Many jazz composers draw from the pop music of their youth for inspiration, but Lightcap integrates rock-oriented tonalities and conventional harmonic progressions into a compositionally advanced jazz context more successfully than most.

Though fairly straightforward, this harmonious and often cathartic approach is met head on by the dual tenor front-line of Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby, whose lush horn voicings soar over the shimmering Wurlitzer chords of Craig Taborn, as Lightcap and drummer Gerald Cleaver drive infectious themes home with élan. Special guest alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo makes a strong appearance as well – his biting tone and quicksilver cadences elevating the three cuts on which he plays.

Placing an emphasis on melody first and foremost, the opener, "Platform," is an exemplary demonstration of the band's interpretive prowess. Taborn's probing variations on the tune's supple theme are embellished by Cheek's plangent tenor, who passes the baton to Malaby for a rousing finish; if Taborn's warm Wurlitzer tone is the heart of Bigmouth's sound, then Cheek and Malaby's breathy unison tenors are its soul. Selflessly elevating the front-line's buoyant lyricism, Cleaver's workman-like downbeats and subtle percussive asides conspire with the leader's stalwart contributions, providing the quintet with a steadfast rhythmic foundation.

The epic Americana of "Silvertone" and the lilting waltz-time "Ting" feature D'Angelo's terse alto, which waxes lyrical through the first half of "Silvertone," then re-appears at the coda, joined by Cheek and Malaby. Building in intensity at the finale, the three saxophonists peal off epic sheets of sound that transcend the tune's modest beginnings.

The remaining tracks also plumb euphonious melodies, rich harmonies and carefree rhythms, with Lightcap revealing a fondness for subtle Afro-Latin accents and subdivisions of three-quarter time, featuring both on the jubilant "Deluxe Version." The band's mellifluous tendencies come to the fore on the wistful ballad "Year of the Rooster," with "The Clutch" spotlighting dulcet interplay between Cheek and Malaby over a brisk syncopated rhythm. Malaby and Taborn reveal their more extreme inclinations on the pensive "Two-Face," taking the tune out with a rancorous burnout that raises the bandstand. Only the appropriately titled "Fuzz" acquiesces to conventional rock music clichés, with Lightcap's distorted bass and Cleaver's thunderous trap set palpitations invoking populist strains.

A stellar example of accessible, forward-thinking new jazz, Deluxe pulls at the heartstrings and moves the body, without forgetting to exercise the mind.
-Troy Collins

 

Nicole Mitchell’s Sonic Projections
Emerald Hills
RogueArt ROG-0027

It’s difficult to point to a “typical” album by flautist-composer Nicole Mitchell. This is always a good sign for an artist; it’s an indication of continuing creativity and growth. Mitchell has a distinctive voice as an instrumentalist and a composer, but she hasn’t settled into a formula for her music. With Sonic Projections, a quartet featuring tenor saxophonist David Boykin, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Chad Taylor, she moves in directions she hasn’t traveled with any of her other ensembles.

In the handful of recordings she’s released, Mitchell has resisted repeating herself. All her recordings display a lively curiosity in the expressive possibilities of different instrumentations and musical forms. Her Black Earth Ensemble is in the classic Chicago Great Black Music mold, using jazz methodology to explore or deconstruct different styles of African American music. But she doesn’t limit the group, either, recording the extended Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12), as a kind of oratorio for voice and jazz ensemble. The freewheeling Indigo Trio with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake emphasizes collective improvising and groove. Her Black Earth Strings reshapes many of her ideas to the capabilities of a string ensemble.

Sonic Projections makes fewer genre references than Black Earth and it blurs the line between composition and improvisation through continuous musical dialog. They make busy, dancing music, full of graceful interplay over elusive rhythmic pulses. The music is eventful, but it never feels overcrowded. Mitchell is so intent on communicating with her listeners that her music is always clear, uncluttered, and direct.

Her band maintains that clarity, too, focusing on the composition’s structure and intent in their soloing and in their carefully balanced ensemble sound. For instance, they give “Chocolate Chips” a unified performance by letting the jumpy, fragmented theme guide them through a series of duets and solos. “Visitations” takes many twists and turns as it unfolds, opening with a tense, jarring duet for Taborn and Taylor, then winding downward into stillness for a trio of flute, tenor, and piano before Mitchell winds the group back up for a tangled, high-speed conclusion. “Affirmations” weds the spiritual uplift reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders heard in Boykin’s soloing with the band’s chamber AACM leanings, a curious, blissful fusion that’s quite moving. The written material of “Wishes” threads its way behind Mitchell’s lines, which she plays with an airy, spherical tone and a throbbing vibrato, like a less jarring Anthony Braxton composition.

Mitchell is full of ideas and it’s pleasure to hear where she lets them take her. So far, it’s been somewhere new each time she records.
–Ed Hazell

New World Records

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