Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
(continued)

 

Food
Quiet Inlet
ECM 2163

Food continued to function as a duo after the departure of Arve Henriksen and Mats Eilertsen, but their places are effectively – and more than effectively – taken here by trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist Christian Fennesz, who’s perhaps more usually associated with jaggier musical territory than this. The group’s broadsheet reputation (in the UK, at least) as post-Miles ambience chasers is frankly mystifying. The interaction between saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Thomas Strønen remains so consistently thoughtful that there is no hint of post-anything about this second ‘duo’ record. Food has become a significant musical marquee in its own right, exploring territory which has seceded from most of the stylistic flags – Nu-Jazz, post-jazz, ambient – and declared unilateral independence.  Ballamy’s sojourn in Scandinavia has proved even more creatively stimulating than fellow Loose Tubes alumnus Django Bates’s exile there. The intelligence and depth of feeling one always sensed in Ballamy’s playing, even when it was garnished with word-play and sophomoric humour, has hardened into something genuinely authoritative; when he duets with Molvaer on ‘Cirrina’ and ‘Chimaera’, the two horns harvest musical information from a bewildering range of sources.

A more convincing provenance for what Food does might be Joe Zawinul. There are a couple of ‘In A Silent Way’ echoes on ‘Dweller’ and ‘Fathom’, but there is also a strong echo of Tony Oxley’s Baptised Traveller on the latter cut, which ends the album; Fennesz’s guitar most obviously calls to mind Jim O’Rourke’s warped and becalmed lyricism, but there is also an echo of Derek Bailey’s chiming swell chords, almost orchestral in their weight and internal detail. And the blend of ‘acoustic’ and processed sounds right through the group points in a similar direction.

Ballamy provides much of the surface interest, with a keening tone that owes more to Shorter than to Garbarek, clinched by the sheer harmonic daring of some of his modulations. It’s Strønen, though, that one needs to focus on to understand the direction of this group. He has mastered the kind of slow, sprung rhythm that one heard in Edward Vesala’s work. The pulse is so evanescent one wonders from moment to moment if it is still there or has fractured. It’s pointless to dwell too much on what is happening ‘live’ and what has emerged in post-production. Every gesture seems precisely weighted and carefully located. This is music of real beauty and great underlying strength.
–Brian Morton

 

Frank Gratkowski + Hamid Drake
Frank Gratkowski + Hamid Drake
Valid 1014

Beyond the presence of saxophonist Kidd Jordan and a few lesser-known artists like multi-instrumentalist Rob Wagner, New Orleans is hardly considered a hot bed of innovation in the contemporary creative music world, despite its reputation as the birthplace of jazz. Occasionally however, serendipity trumps conventional wisdom. An extended weekend visit to New Orleans in March 2009 by German multi-reedist Frank Gratkowski and drummer Hamid Drake resulted in a duo concert recorded and released by Valid Records, one of the very few labels documenting the scene's more adventurous side. Possessing the crystal clear audio of a studio session, this intimate live date perfectly documents the acumen of two veteran improvisers.

Masters of their respective instruments, Gratkowski and Drake's congenial rapport has been honed since 1996, when they first met as members of pianist Georg Graewe's quartet. No stranger to the duo format, Drake has been the sole accompanist to a number of imposing reed players, including Fred Anderson, Peter Brötzmann, and Mats Gustafson. Gratkowski's discography boasts collaborations with such luminaries as American drummer Gerry Hemingway, Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos and German-born pianist Achim Kaufmann. Together Gratkowski and Drake expound on a variety of approaches, engaging in affable, fully improvised dialogues that transcend preconceived notions of leader and accompanist.

Gratkowski revels in the harmonic freedom afforded by this stripped-down format. Circumventing conventional melody and harmony, he relies on repeated motifs and nuanced variations for structural clarity, pitching dynamics from breathy sighs to caterwauling screeds. Drake complies in equal measure, instigating shifts in mood, tempo and rhythm. On the turbulent "Brother G's Walk," the first of four long cuts, Drake's edgy funk permutations prod Gratkowski's increasingly acerbic alto flights into a feverish exchange of circuitous lines. "Square Root of Distraction" features the multi-reedist's slap-tongued bass clarinet building from hushed tones to a stream of flutter-tongued staccato phrases and bent notes, underscored by Drake's colorful hand drumming. The intervallic cadences and asymmetrical rhythms of Post-bop tradition are invoked at the outset of "Well, It's Complicated" before exploding in a torrent of multiphonic alto blasts and punkish march rhythms. "Varm Somehow," exudes a more subtle approach, as Drake quietly accompanies Gratkowski's woody clarinet before the inevitable climax, bringing the set to a satisfying close. 
–Troy Collins

 

ICP Orchestra
ICP (049) Orchestra
ICP 049

A developing institution for over thirty years, the orchestral wing of Holland’s Instant Composers Pool has enjoyed its present form with only a couple of changes in personnel since the mid-90s. As these recordings from 2009 demonstrate, the group’s manically witty mix of jazz elements and free improvisation maintains its vigor.  Pianist, leader and principal composer Misha Mengelberg draws inspiration from the great rhythmic machine of jazz, the propulsive swing of Ellington and Monk and stride piano, and he hitches that sense of swing to the deforming impulses of Dada, tunes launched happily to their own destruction in a paroxysm of joy. If the discourse first took form between Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink in the ‘60s, it’s an evolving tongue that’s spoken with comparable fluency by every member of the orchestra, a tentet that possesses both a string section—violinist Mary Oliver, cellist Tristan Honsinger and bassist Ernst Glerum—and a reed section--Ab Baars, Tobias Delius and Michael Moore on saxophones and clarinets.  The compositional style of the ICP Orchestra begins with Mengelberg—he wrote or co-wrote six of the 11 pieces—but compositions and arrangements by Baars, Moore and Glerum demonstrate the extent to which the mix of swing era sectional propulsion and open-textured “cool” jazz harmonies have become the compositional framework for the group’s excursions. Moore’s “Sumptious” is a wondrous mix of nostalgic elements configured in such a way that you can’t quite fix an  image in memory—his own alto rising through Bennink’s vibrant snare rattle, trombonist Wolter Weirbos’s  vocalic spew and the “pops concert” pizzicato of the string section to achieve a new polytonality. Part of the joy here resides in how many ways the group can find to merge consonance and dissonance and the array of meanings that can be gleaned from the fractures. Although the pieces have their own identities, the program unfold like an ICP concert, a dense tapestry in which rolling themes suddenly give way to one of Oliver’s pensive solos, Baars’ skewed geometry, Delius’s barnyard industrial collection of sounds, or perhaps one of trumpeter Thomas Heberer’s sweetly orthodox improvisations parachuted in from Los Angeles circa 1956. In lesser hands this all might grow tiresome, but it’s testimony to the ICP’s resourcefulness that they are still finding things to hinge and unhinge anew.   There are two pieces here by two of the Orchestra’s most frequently summoned ancestors: Herbie Nichols’ “Busy Beaver” and Ellington’s “Sonnet in Search of a Moor,” both arranged by Baars and each a gem.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Lee Konitz + Chris Cheek + Stéphane Furic Leibovici
Jugendstil II
ESP 4059

It’s no secret Lee Konitz has devoted his career to searching for musical challenges; witness the breadth and diversity of his sixty-plus-year discography. And yet, ironically, he has challenged himself most often by continuing to confront the standard jazz repertory of the ‘30s and ‘40s – whether the Tin Pan Alley songbook or paraphrases drawn from its familiar chord structures – in a manner, adapted from his studies with the psychologically-motivated Lennie Tristano, which proposes that an infinite variety of musical solutions to these puzzles are available to be excavated not just from the specific nature of the material itself, but his own imagination. To achieve this, his determination and tactics have been so distinctive that his playing – especially his approach to melodic variation – has affected a powerful stylistic pull such that all but a handful of his collaborators over the years have been swept along in his wake. I mention all of this by way of introduction precisely because this is not what you will hear on this disc.

For Jugendstil II, bassist and composer Stéphane Furic Leibovici has crafted an environment that presents not only the canny veteran Konitz, but the listener as well, with musical and conceptual challenges. Though recorded first (in 2005), this second volume to reference the artistic movement “Jugendstil” (or “Jugend style,” the name of the German response to the late 19th and early 20th century’s Art Nouveau, taken from an influential magazine of the time) shares with its namesake a sense of fluid, sinuous, sensuous shapes abstracted from Nature. As with the earlier volume, Furic Leibovici has composed a large part of the music in a style that reflects his penchant for chamber music – the previous release, sans Konitz, included a sequence of variations dedicated to Elliott Carter, and his Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (Soul Note, 1996) adapted music of Aaron Copland – which he has opened up for the improvisers in a way that recalls the equally soft-spoken yet intense later Jimmy Giuffre trios. Tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek has been a defining presence in Furic Leibovici’s evolving soundscape since the latter’s debut recording, Kishniev (Soul Note) in 1990. Bringing a free spirit like Konitz into this pre-designed group dynamic was a calculated risk.

The results are fascinating. Furic Leibovici’s compositions offer intervallic relationships and melodic contours that point Konitz in unexpected harmonic directions, outside of the modulations found in his usual repertoire, and he responds with typically probing yet surprising embellishment. The interplay between the two saxophonists is remarkable; there is a closeness of intent that makes their phrasing nearly indistinguishable at times, and Cheek softens his tone and reaches up into the tenor saxophone’s highest range frequently, playing above Konitz’s alto as his former partner Warne Marsh sometimes did. Without the impetus of a rhythm section per se, several of the compositions sustain a similar, subdued mood, compelling the listener to notice the nuances that shape the lattice-like lines. Others stand apart – “A Music of Tranquility,” where the saxophonists’ hover above a repeated G in the bass like bees around a sunflower, and the Ornette-ish “Local Heroes” with its tart horn harmonies. If there was a programming misstep, it was to include the two pieces orchestrated for the trio plus flute, clarinet, celesta, harp, and mallet instruments – the sweetness of the impressionist-composed ensemble is at odds with the savory character of the saxophones. Nevertheless, there’s much to appreciate here. Credit Furic Leibovici with illuminating an Old Master in a new light.
-Art Lange

 

The Mark Lomax Trio
The State of Black America
Inarhyme 1005

At its best, jazz is about immediate recognition that red-lines the Yeah! response. Fewer and fewer jazz recordings arc that circuit each year, so when one comes seemingly out of nowhere, better take notice. Mark Lomax’s The State of Black America is such a recording. The drummer hasn’t popped out of thin air – he’s had stints with Ellis Marsalis, Marlon Jordan and others – but familiarity with his CV doesn’t prepare you for this CD. Leave aside initially the all-art-is-political tip of The State of Black America, as potent as it is. Lomax doesn’t just extend the legacy of Sonny Rollins’ late ‘50s trios and Elvin Jones’ 68 trio; he gives it a gleaming sharp edge. Lomax, tenor saxophonist Edwin Bayard and bassist Dean Hulett can light it up. Their brinksmanship at treacherous tempi is immediately established with the opener, the sarcastically titled “Stuck in a Rut.” It’s hard to tell who’s chasing who on this almost ten-minute workout; suffice it to say that it’s to the wall. This track really speaks to Lomax’s connection with Jones in terms of leavening power and bounce. Bayard negotiates the divide between Rollins and Trane more nimbly than most; he can also be lyrical at a roar. Hulett has a finely-calibrated attack, a plump sound and plenty of drive, particularly in a solo that draws upon Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison in a well-informed manner.

One of the smarter things Jones did on his Blue Note dates with Garrison and Joe Farrell was to follow a scorching opener with a limpid, brushes-stroked, mood-cooling tune like Lomax’s “The Unknown Self.” After Bayard states the pensively churning theme with just the right breathiness, Hulett steps up with another strong solo, as he probes a few core phrases with a mix of tenderness and determination; throughout the piece, Lomax gently whisks his cohort’s playing, and moves slightly to the fore as Bayard closes with a restatement of the theme. Another of Jones’ most endearing gambits was his ability to create loping grooves by mixing rim effects and tom accents. Lomax changes that up on “The Power of Knowledge;” he initially uses this approach to build momentum; but as the piece starts to steam, the music takes a series of unexpected turns through various rhythmic feels and freely improvised spaces. The trio reignites their burners for “To Know God is to Know Thy Self” a molten Coltrane-inspired summoning of the spirits, highlighted by Bayard’s multiphonic blasts; it is such a singeing performance that nothing could quell its furies except a long drink of the blues like “Blues for Charles (who split B4 the Butterfly Flew In).” Too often, a slow blues is just filler; however, Lomax, Bayard and Hulett reiterate how rigorous a proposition it is, and how grace-granting the results can be when expression and discipline are precisely measured. It is a fine counterintuitive end to one of the year’s best jazz records.
–Bill Shoemaker

Leo Records

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