Reviews of Recent Recordings
Urs Leimgruber + Evan Parker
Chicago Solo, recorded in 2009, invokes Evan Parker’s 1995 recording (on Okka Disk) of the same name in which Parker first applied himself at length to solo tenor saxophone. It also invokes the Chicago milieu in which Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and Anthony Braxton first gave regular voice to improvised horn solos, now a central form in improvised music. It is Leimgruber’s most developed solo statement to date. It consists of three pieces, entitled simply “One, “Two” and “Three.” “One” is an epic soprano solo, a voyage of 27’23” in which Leimgruber begins with tenuous high notes then gradually asserts his varied voices, which wander, explore, shift mood, combine, disperse and transform auditory terrain (there is an oasis of fluting bird sounds), all with a commanding interior logic.
In “Two,” a 19-minute tenor solo, Leimgruber transfers many of the same techniques to the deeper horn, though the effect of the piece is utterly different. It is as if the pieces of sound are breaking together, fragmenting into one another, thus rather than a line--a melody, even-- breaking up into micro components, a phrase, a line, a sequence will suddenly arise out of the fragments and sonic wisps with which he works. This tenuous melody will launch another, more secure, arpeggiated and multiphonic line, and so on. Often the characteristic sounds of one of the saxophone’s zones will leak into the next like a sonic glance backward, a question about the meaning or even the presence of a relationship.
The relatively brief “Three” return to soprano and an assemblage of high squeaks and quavering multiphonics. It may suggest a man testing doorbells for another dimension or a shakuhachi virtuoso summoning hypothetical birds.
Twine comes from a duo concert recorded at The Loft in Köln in 2007 when Leimgruber and Parker were touring together. The two are extraordinary duo players as well as soloists and the music is often overwhelming in terms of the sheer complexity and rapidity of the interaction. It is frankly too dense to isolate or describe passages from either the two long tenor duos or the soprano duo that they bracket. I was reminded of the group Quartet Noir in which Leimgruber plays with Joelle Léandre, Marilyn Crispell and Fritz Hauser. One would expect, in even the subtlest hands that such a group would start to sound like the saxophone with rhythm section that it so clearly resembles visually. Instead it almost never sounds like one, because Leimgruber doesn’t assume the saxophone’s insistently foregrounded position. Instead he burrows into the music , his lines emerging through those of the bass, piano and drums, so that the result is an absolutely cohesive quartet music. He is a master conversationalist, much of which, of course, consists in getting other people to talk, or more appropriately in these situations, to go on, to elaborate, to get it all out. At times here the horns play together as a continuous outpouring of lines in which one will sympathetically echo the other, respond , cajole, cluck sympathetically. Often it’s musical dialogue played at such velocity and density that you’re never quite sure where statement ends and comment begins. Or, if it’s two soloists simply rushing on, how do they manage to be so alike, so attuned to one another’s time and lines? Twine is a very special performance (string, entwined, between, twins, the uniformity of rope).
Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch
One could count on one hand the number of high-profile female bassists currently working in jazz and improvised music; Joëlle Léandre and Esperanza Spaulding come to mind, but very few others. Adding Lisa Mezzacappa to the short list in the near future is a good bet; the Bay Area bassist’s CV is as varied as her talents are impressive. A former student of Henry Threadgill and Myra Melford, Mezzacappa has worked with Meredith Monk and the Sun Ra Arkestra in addition to leading and co-leading a number of bands, including the chamber-esque electro-acoustic quintet Nightshade, metal jazz band Go-Go Fightmaster and the film noir trio Citta di Vitti. What Is Known is the debut recording of Bait & Switch, a reconfiguration of Go-Go Fightmaster that plays what Mezzacappa affectionately terms garage jazz.
Basing her thorny compositions on transcriptions of fragments culled from the improvisations of such seventies-era avant-garde heavyweights as Air, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch delivers a raw, unfettered dose of primal expressionism that also works as sophisticated modern jazz. The album's only covers are a beautifully understated bass solo interpretation of Air drummer Steve McCall's "I'll Be Right Here Waiting" and a riotous tear through Captain Beefheart's "Lick My Decals Off, Baby," with Mezzacappa's labyrinthine originals drawing inspiration from similarly divergent sources.
Throughout these convoluted episodes, John Finkbeiner's grimy electric guitar salvos, Aaron Bennett's woolly tenor saxophone eruptions and Vijay Anderson's percussive maelstroms drive the music with a visceral blend of focus and frenzy. Eschewing conventional forms in favor of oblique narratives, Mezzacappa's episodic tunes follow their own twisted logic, balancing the spectral impressionism of "The Cause & Effect of Emotion & Distance" with the withering volume of the title track. Encapsulating an array of expressive instrumental sonorities, the quartet's cogent interplay is a compelling feature of this dynamic session, exemplified by the drummer-less trio interlude of "Richard's House of Blues" and a pair of pithy duets on "Ponzi" – first between Anderson and Mezzacappa, followed by Bennett and Finkbeiner. The quartet’s headlong approach towards collective and individual improvisation is balanced by their contrapuntal precision during pre-written sections, providing dramatic contrast and expansive detail to Mezzacappa's vibrant compositions.
Regularly overshadowed by the East Coast, the West Coast jazz scene has been responsible for fostering the careers of a number of key avant-garde innovators over the decades, from Bobby Bradford, John Carter and Horace Tapscott in the ‘60s to present-day luminaries like Nels Cline and Vinny Golia. An impressive debut, What Is Known embraces this lineage, establishing a foothold for Mezzacappa in this revered continuum; expect to hear more from her in the future.
The Microscopic Septet
Well-known to NPR audiences for the Fresh Air theme, the comprehensive reissue in 2006 of the Microscopic Septet's back catalog by Cuneiform Records brought renewed attention to the dormant band's oeuvre. Released on two double disc sets augmented with numerous unreleased out-takes, The History of the Micros, Volume One: Seven Men in Neckties and The History of the Micros, Volume Two: Surrealistic Swing collected all four of the group's original 1980s albums; Take the Z Train, Let's Flip!, Off Beat Glory and Beauty Based on Science (The Visit). The highly enjoyable reunion album Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform) followed two years later, featuring new performances of previously unrecorded tunes from the band's extensive songbook.
For this project, the reformed septet's principal composers, pianist Joel Forrester and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, delved into the music of Thelonious Monk, a touchstone for their respective sensibilities and their shared history. Enlisted by Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Forrester played piano for Monk at the legendary jazz patroness' home, where the celebrated artist spent his reclusive final years, albeit with infrequent reaction from the man himself. Forrester first met Johnston in 1974 after hearing him play Monk's "Well, You Needn't" from a third floor apartment window in New York City. The rest, as they say, is history. Since its founding in 1980, the Microscopic Septet have gone on to play numerous variations on Monk's work, but have only ever recorded one tune, "Crepuscule With Nellie" on Off Beat Glory.
Friday The 13th:The Micros Play Monk compiles a cross-section of the iconic pianist's compositions, ranging from the most well-known to infrequently played pieces like "Gallop's Gallop." Splitting arranging duties, Forrester and Johnston's swinging approach to Monk's quirky angularity and offbeat phrasing is both respectful and irreverent; their interpretations are far looser than the average Monk cover, yet closer in spirit to the originals even when liberties are taken with the source material. Invoking the bop idiom's penchant for quotation, Johnston, Forrester and the rest of the septet pilfer from Monk's own compositions rather than scouring the Great American Songbook for harmonic interpolations – refracting the legendary pianist's oeuvre upon itself, like a hall of mirrors.
Subtle differences can be heard between Forrester and Johnston's arrangements, with Forrester's approach often the more understated of the two. Johnston tends towards playful re-imaginings, recasting Monk's work with genre inflections, such as the tango inspired "We See" or a punkish variation on "Teo," Monk's tribute to the legendary producer, Teo Macero. Dominated by Dave Sewelson's multiphonic baritone screeds and Richard Dworkin's Ellingtonian jungle rhythms, "Teo" burns with a fearsome vitality that recalls the septet's youthful heyday two decades ago. Johnston's surreal, connect-the-dots interpretation of "Friday The 13th" honors Steve Lacy's relationship to Monk, book-ending a scintillating piano trio interlude with Dali-esque chorales of cascading counterpoint from the horns. Johnston's noir fixation gets a nod on "Misterioso," transposing the original theme into a cinematic blues vamp.
Forrester's cerebral approach towards Monk's legacy is filled with subtle quotations and musical asides. His gorgeous take on the lovely "Pannonica" balances mellifluous piano filigrees with an impassioned saxophone coda that flirts with ecstatic expressionism without devolving into meandering cacophony. A supple work-out on "Worry Later" features a piano cadenza laden with suggestive stride overtones – a historical precedent Monk himself was fond of – before Johnston joins for a euphonious duet that recalls their early pre-Micros days. Finding concordance with Johnston's stylistic approach, Forrester's Latinized variation on "Epistrophy" closes the date, building on the tune's underlying rhythmic character.
There have been plenty of Monk tributes throughout the years, some worthwhile, many forgettable, but few with the intrinsic connection to the material that The Micros Play Monk exudes. Though widely revered for his harmonic and rhythmic advancements, Monk was as much an advocate of the tradition as he was an innovator. The Microscopic Septet has championed a similar inside/outside attitude for almost three decades, long may they persevere.
William Parker Organ Quartet
It is helpful to view Parker’s two latest releases as part of his campaign to show that the avant-garde can and does connect to, is relevant to, a wider community. Each album foregrounds its relationship to a wider African American experience in a different way. I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield builds itself around the songs of Chicago soul singer Mayfield. Anchoring his own music in popular culture highlights the shared values, sending a message that the avant-garde music is based on many of the same spiritual and political values, even if it doesn’t sound the same as soul music. Recorded in concert at various locations, I Plan to Stay a Believer also includes local gospel and children’s choirs singing Mayfield’s uplifting songs along with Parker’s band. The connection to a larger community can’t get any more direct than that. Uncle Joe’s Spirit House grows out of a form of jazz that once had a wide popular following—the B-3 organ combo. The album doesn’t sound like Jimmy Smith any more than the Inside Songs sounds like straight up Northern soul, but it clearly makes a gesture toward a style that enjoyed great popularity in the African American community in the late ’50s and ’60s. It’s a modest disc, but full of terrific ideas and utterly original within the organ-combo genre. The album’s dedication to Parker’s aunt and uncle on their 65th wedding anniversary emphasizes the avant-garde music’s ties to a family life we all recognize and most of us share.
Parker has already released a concert recording of Mayfield songs on the Italian RAI Trade label. It’s a superb album of one of Parker’s most intriguing concepts. But the double CD, I Plan to Stay a Believer, offers a more complete picture of the possibilities in the music. It’s drawn from six different performances in Europe and America, some featuring local choruses in addition to the Inside Songs band, which includes saxophonists Sabir Mateen and Daryl Foster, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, pianist Dave Burrell, drummer Hamid Drake, singer Leena Conquest, and poet Amiri Baraka. On a few tracks Lafayette Gilchrist subs for Burrell and Guilermo E. Brown subs for Drake.
The music weaves free jazz, soul music, the blues, and gospel into a clear and powerful example of the African American music continuum. “If There’s a Hell Below” is a good example of this continuum in action in the music. Conquest gets right to the gospel-soul heart of Mayfield’s song, and like the song’s composer, she tempers the lyrics’ political outrage and keen social observation with irony and compassion. But as she sings, the band is already shifting the foundation away from the strictures of popular music. Over the course of twenty minutes, the music morphs from a free-funk Barnes solo into a wildly swinging passage for piano trio, and a Sabir Mateen tenor saxophone free-jazz conflagration. The changes all sound spontaneous, not arranged; Parker simply let’s the music go where it will—and it goes quite far.
The music also places Mayfield’s incurably upbeat calls for unity and action next to the righteous wrath of Amiri Baraka’s poetry without seeking to resolve the differences between them. Baraka’s strident poetry on the version of “This Is My Country” recorded at the Vision Festival erupts in the midst of gospel choir exultation. Although the anger and joy seem to tear the music in two different directions, heard in such close proximity, they also begin to seem connected in some way, as if they share their origins in a common experience of injustice and a common need for freedom.
The local choruses that join the band on five of the eleven tracks tie the music to particular communities while adding a raw beauty and vitality to the music. The Massachusetts chorus heard on “I’m So Proud/Ya He Yey Ya,” may sing a bit tentatively, but no matter, they sing with feeling and Parker’s composition sits right in their comfort zone, putting them more at ease. New Life Tabernacle Generation of Praise Choir from Brooklyn, participants in the Vision Festival concert, is more polished and disciplined and performs with a fervor equal to Parker’s band. But it is a chorus of French school children who practically steal the CD. They hold nothing back as they sing “This Is My Country” and “New World Order” and their exuberance and whole-hearted joy can’t help but fill you with hope.
At times, Uncle Joe’s Spirit House feels more like a personal anniversary present to Parker’s relatives than anything else. And yet it’s very modesty and loving purpose calls into question what exactly “avant-garde” means and what role it can play in our lives. It’s not art for art’s sake but a life-affirming gift given in admiration to a couple that lived exemplary lives. It is avant-garde music with a meaningful social function as well as artistic integrity.
Riding on drummer Gerald Cleaver’s grooves, kicked along by Cooper-Moore’s organ accents, born aloft by Parker’s continuous flow of vamps and lines, with a warm layer of melody provided by saxophonist Foster, it’s a particularly joyful album. It’s post-Larry Young organ music, in the sense that it doesn’t lean on the bop-blues-and-ballads formula of earlier organ combos, but its looser, street feel and angularity separate it from Young as well. As is the case on the Mayfield songs disc, different popular forms are alluded to, but not strictly adhered to. “Ennio’s Tag” is based on a bossa nova rhythm, but the band treats it as a malleable foundation, grooving on the relaxed atmosphere it creates, but not playing it like Brazil ‘66 either. “Let’s Go Down to the River” has a gospel feel to it. Compositions such as “Jacques Groove” and the title track have pronounced beats, but the band puts them through many transformations in performance. Foster has a strong, but not at all macho sound and a keen sense of melody when he solos. He manages to be both accessible and canny in his navigation of this deceptively mercurial music. He is gentle and soulful on “Document for LJ,” and ardent on “Let’s Go Down to the River.” Cooper-Moore is in many ways the heart of the band, as he was in Parker’s In Order to Survive ensemble. He uses Parker’s composition to guide his solo on the title track and picks up on the grooves and references in the music without ever being literal about anything. He seems to take special joy in the organ’s powerful sound when he comps, dropping accent chords that tip the beat this way and that, laying down thick layers of countermelody or deep harmonies to plump the music with extra sound and vitality. Parker has more unconventional ways to swing the music than any bassist alive. Uncle Joe’s Spirit House does not storm the gates of heaven the way some Parker discs do, but it fulfills its human-scaled purpose with warmth and verve and musical integrity.
One of the more persistent myths about free jazz since the 1960s is that it some how turned its back on “the people” because it doesn’t sound like popular music or jazz from a previous era. A foolish notion. Parker’s latest CDs tell us that the avant-garde can sometimes be grounded in a commonly experienced culture, and that it is always grounded in a common humanity.