Reviews of Recent Recordings
Jeb Bishop Trio
Trombonist Jeb Bishop’s music sounds new, but it feels old. Beneath the trappings of new jazz, lies a swing-era sense of fun and plain enjoyment in music making. This trio doesn’t have to exorcise a devil or reveal a godhead; they have high spirits and joie de vivre to communicate. It’s free jazz based on sheer pleasure.
In his first album as a leader since Afternoons (Okkadisc) nine years ago, Bishop works with a new, lean, responsive trio featuring bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly, that pivots freely in whatever direction Bishop’s compositions points them. They sound perfectly comfortable with one another and they keep the music uncluttered, witty, and buoyant. Bishop’s tunes set the tone for each performance, giving everyone an idea or two to chew over as they solo without over-directing the band. The catchy hook on “Awomblin’” sends them off on a good natured stroll. “The Elliptical Blues” points them at the blues, but doesn’t confine them to a strict form. “#3 (Cleo)” and “The Lateness of the Hour” are well-crafted melodies that inspire lyrical improvisations. The punchy interlocking parts of “Dusk,” give everyone rhythms and a groove to have fun with. And having fun is a big part of their music. They don’t push the music so much as play with it. The play can get quite intense and involved, as it does on “Jacket Weather” and “Full English,” but it never looses its vibrant good humor.
Bishop is full of ideas and vitality throughout. He sounds ironic on “Dusk” with muttering asides and elaborate phrases trailing off without entirely resolving. But his solo on “#3 (Cleo)” is sincere and heartfelt balladry with phrasing that lies somewhere between singing and speech. His work with a mute on “Awomblyin’” might call to mind Roswell Rudd, but there are really no obvious debts or influences in his playing. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and long overdue update from one of Chicago’s most potent improvising voices.
Paul Bley + Franz Koglmann + Gary Peacock
Annette is dedicated to Annette Peacock, an artist of rare, uncompromising vision. Though the singer-songwriter’s popular music has enjoyed considerable caché among connoisseurs over the past few decades, it is a series of melodious instrumentals she originally wrote for Paul Bley’s trio with bassist Gary Peacock in the mid-1960s that has stood the test of time.
With a refined sense of subtle tension, tender lyricism and nuanced dynamics, Koglmann’s reimagining of these unadorned melodies taps a wealth of emotions. Peacock’s songs typically explore the darker side of human experience, primarily through the use of dissonance and minor keys. Koglmann seizes upon this, bringing myriad, complex moods to the fore.
Koglmann’s arrangement of “El Cordobes” transforms the original, seeding the melancholy tango with doleful, Iberian-tinged allusions to Sketches of Spain and a series of virtuosic exchanges between Bley and Peacock. Although better known for her melancholy pop songs, Bley’s rousing solo rendition of “Kid Dynamite” reveals how easily facets of the jazz tradition can be applied to Annette’s compositions, as he incorporates everything from pithy blues figures to blazing stride runs.
The haunting ballad “Albert’s Love Theme,” a sensitive duet of discreet long tones plied by Koglmann and the bassist, is more typical of the composer’s oeuvre. But Annette’s writing is also occasionally impish and sarcastic, as suggested by the appropriately titled “Cartoon” and “Mr. Joy”; the trio’s call and response on the former tune is as capricious as their opulent harmonies on the later are palliative, confirming her extensive emotional palette.
Testing the versatility of Peacock’s compositions, the trio revisits “Touching” and “Blood” twice, offering dramatically different versions of each. The first take of “Blood” features the trio at their most melodramatic, with the second highlighting the bassist’s tunefulness. Bookending the record, Bley’s modal reading of “Touching” opens the album with rich multihued chords, while Koglmann and Peacock’s duo variation ends the set with a far more austere account, closing a heartfelt ode to an artist of singular talents.
Anthony Braxton + Gerry Hemingway
As the tongue-in-cheek title implies, there are elements of reflective self-awareness and simultaneous shared experiences in this inevitable, preconscious, but unpredictable reunion. Braxton and Hemingway no doubt know each others’ tendencies and temperament so well that they can probably synchronize their pulses and internal clocks, as they say happens to longtime live-in partners. Yet, shrewdly, they took precautions to avoid rote responses or familiar designs. Ironically, this meant that, despite their histories (separately and together) of working with compositionally-based material – in the full 21st century understanding of that term – they decided to, simply, improvise, with the only predetermined factor being the draining sand of an hourglass to establish the length of each of these four “Inventions.”
Of course, there’s nothing simple about improvisation, especially in the hands of such conscientious and ingenious practitioners as these. In conversation with Graham Lock in the accompanying booklet, they acknowledge the breadth of “spontaneous” strategies that inform the improviser’s art in a duo setting – including alignment and misalignment of phrases or rhythms, thematic and/or timbre-inspired concepts, intensity, dynamics, referential or oppositional relationships, and even humor and “challenge-based” impulses. (Hemingway admitted to enjoying the latter, saying “I’m the one who pushes for that tension because I want to kick his ass – it’s so much fun.”) Though free to choose from a vast array of compositional details in an open, intuitive, primarily interactive environment, their decision on a time frame does suggest a “space” to be filled, like the large-scale canvases of the Abstract Expressionist painters, who adopted their own spontaneous processes to define the painting’s form. Thus each 60-minute “Invention” feels like a coherent whole, a long form of shifting shapes and colors, and not a sequence of unrelated moments.
To this end, Braxton utilizes the full family of saxophones, from sopranino to contrabass, and Hemingway adds steel drums, marimba, vibes, small percussives, and electronics (“triggered and non-triggered samplers”) to his trap set; as they maneuver from instrument to instrument each affects not only what the other is playing in the moment, but the overall arrangement and atmosphere. Braxton’s contribution involves episodes of his personal melodic nature, but he frequently distorts the line with threads, splats, drips, and smears, and creates extended passages of pure chiaroscuro. The alto saxophone is his most resilient horn, ranging from delicate to squirrelly to ferocious gestures, but the behemoth contrabass sax affords the most drama – most notably its subtle, sustained, growling, nerve-tingling ambience in the final “Invention 8207PM.” Hemingway employs a galaxy of rhythms; subdividing Braxton’s phrasing, shading his line with variations of texture and tone, altering the pace, bowing cymbals, injecting his own marimba patterns, and monitoring the electronics – a surprising effect each time they emerge.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that the music sounds like neither nostalgia nor old dogs learning new tricks; rather, it’s simply experience, sensitivity, and vision, made audible.
Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra
There’s no hyphen in the band name? Is this “hyphenate” music? One search – and this the confession of a man who distrusts internet searches – yielded ‘world fusion’ as a label, which seems so vapidly open-ended as scarcely to begin addressing veteran percussionist Anthony Brown's approach. The communitarian ethos of groupings like this – and similar bands fronted by Horace Tapscott, Jon Jang, Fred Ho and others – is not as uniquely Californian, ‘West Coast’ or even American as is often thought. European radio orchestras are often rainbow coalitions of talent from all over the place. Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath was a fascinating alliance of South African and British musicians. What’s interesting about them is how the different philosophies mesh and negotiate. Brown’s explicit aim here is to explore the African and Asian elements of John Coltrane’s music, which means concentrating on “Africa”, “Dahomey Dance”, “India” and a nice version of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” – a Coltrane favorite – at the end.
Dave Burrell + Leena Conquest
As John Litweiler detailed in his book of the same name, the Freedom Principle of ’60s avant-garde had as many meanings and interpretations as musicians who played under its banner. For pianist Dave Burrell it has meant the freedom to explore not only the music that lay “outside” conventional jazz song form, harmony, and rhythm; it has given him license to indulge his lively interest in the American songbook, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Puccini, as well as to write lovely, lyrical songs, and an opera of his own. In short, it’s given him the freedom to not make an undue fuss about categories that might block him from moving in any direction in which he wants to take his art. The fascination of his art lies in the creative tensions between all these impulses in his music, the dialog between past and present, consonance and dissonance, tenderness and brute power, pre-defined and improvised form. He is the consummate “inside-outside” player.
The music from Burrell’s opera, Windward Passages, with a libretto by Monica Larson, has been a touchstone in his recordings since his 1979 hat hut release of the same name. His new duet album with Leena Conquest is a long overdue extended vocal exploration of some of this material and other songs co-written with Larson. It’s somewhat surprising that Burrell has never recorded these lovely songs with a singer before. With the exception of a Black Saint album with David Murray, also (and confusingly) called Windward Passages, on which Larson and Burrell recite “Cela Me Va,” and Esquisses for a Walk… (Nocturne), an obscure entry in the Burrell discography on which French vocalist Laurence Allison appears on four tracks, all the versions that Burrell has recorded of his collaborations with Larson have been instrumental. Perhaps he had to wait to find a singer so perfectly suited to them as Conquest; she simply wipes the other vocal versions from your mind.
Is it possible to sound statuesque? Somehow, Conquest does. She possesses a combination of dignity and sensuality that is simply imposing. Her singing gives love songs like “Intuitively” and “So Spiritual” a feminine strength, a regal bearing that isn’t uptight in the least, thanks to the sheer grace and physicality of her delivery. Her approach lies somewhere between the kind of polished singer Ellington often favored and the worldly blues-wisdom of Billie Holiday. She has commanding, husky low notes that ground her translucent, gossamer high notes, so that “Fade to Black” and “So Spiritual” are both prayerfully ethereal and earthy. She understands that a Burrell-Larson song needs clarity and articulation in delivery and only a minimum of inflection and embellishment—the words and melody carry the day. They play to her strengths as a singer. When she scats on “The Box,” “Downfall,” and “With a Little Time,” she’s less assured and more likely to be merely decorative or to reflect what Burrell is playing.
After more than three decades of playing some of these songs, Burrell knows how to lay bare their essence, how to expose their inner conflicts, and set off their hidden beauties to best effect in his improvisations. His solos on “So Spiritual,” the tango-inflected “With a Little Time” and “Crucificado,” and “Teardrops for Jimmy” grow directly out of the compositions. The entire recital is taken at slow tempos, and some variety would have been welcome, but Burrell is so expert at swinging the tunes, keeping the momentum moving forward, that the tunes never feel like they drag. On “Teardrops for Jimmy,” he marks the time using chords and single notes played with a gentle steady hand, inserting rippling embellishments for contrast and tension. The songs touch on many popular forms, but Burrell never feels constrained by their conventions. “The Box” moves from stride to rhythm deconstruction and back. “Fade to Black” fragments as it reaches its climax, then restores order with a serene conclusion. “Cela Me Va,” which Conquest gives its definitive reading, has a nice cabaret intimacy. At less that 36 minutes, it’s a short recital, but as Spencer Tracy says of Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, there ain’t much there, but what’s there is “cherce.”