Reviews of Recent Recordings
Charles Hayward + Han-earl Park + Ian Smith + Lol Coxhill
Mathilde 253 is one of those ‘name’ groups that sprang fully-formed from a single playing moment - in fact the very moment at London’s Café Oto last April that is documented on this debut CD – but seems to have been around for much longer. As far as the individual players are concerned, trumpeter Ian Smith is now a significant figure on the Emanem axis of British improvisers; news that Mathilde 253 are shortly to tour Ireland with Wadada Leo Smith has certain comic potential but also prompts the thought that a second trumpeter, even a distinguished international guest, might be gilding the lily. Ian Smith is a formidable technician and a profoundly intuitive music maker, with the ability to deliver exactly the right sound, or very often the right sonic texture, at the psychological moment. An ideal group or ensemble player, he seems remarkably free of ego in performance, often preferring to wait out passages before delivering a tiny killer stroke. One knows that this was a Miles Davis stratagem, but it’s the other Smith he resembles most completely, though some of his articulations here sound as if they might be influenced by Bill Dixon.
Oliver Lake + Christian Weber + Dieter Ulrich
At least one of every musician’s most formative gigs is as a member of an audience. That’s the case with Zürich-based drummer Dieter Ulrich. He was in the crowd that was blown away by saxophonist Oliver Lake’s electrifying 1977 Willisau festival performance with Michael Gregory Jackson and Pheeroan akLaff, released as Zaki on Hat Hut. Nearly thirty years later, having compiled a strong journeyman’s CV with Day & Taxi and others, Ulrich and bassist Christian Weber played a club date with Lake, presumably a one-off going in. However, the chemistry was considered to be exceptional by all, and a 2009 tour was organized, including a coming-full-circle set at Willisau. For A Little Dancin’ was recorded in studio mid-tour and it reflects that point where initial enthusiasm is morphing into familiarity, resulting in well-meshed interplay that frequently throws sparks. Lake composed all but one of the album’s ten pieces (the title piece was penned by Ulrich); his hallmark fusion of angular themes, irregular forms and deep blues feeling is present in each of them. They require a full spectrum of tactics from Weber and Ulrich, from laying down springy grooves to fleshing out thematic materials and improvised spaces in a co-equal manner. Weber’s presence is a bit surprising, as he is more likely heard in non-idiomatic, electronics-laced settings; but he supports counter lines on pieces like “Backup” with a plump sound and his occasionally pugilistic attack fuels blows like “Spots;” more importantly, he complements the balance of power and agility Ulrich achieves sound-wise with a small ride tom and bass drum. They don’t have the decades-reinforced gravity of Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, Lake’s partners in Trio 3; but this is not Trio Second String, either. The proof is in Lake’s playing – his sound is as piercing as ever, his trademark spikes in intensity continue to be hair-raising, and his lyricism remains lean with only a trace of sentiment. Anyone who can run with Oliver Lake deserves credit; double or triple it for anyone who, like Ulrich and Weber, inspires Lake to make an ensemble an ongoing concern.
Dave Liebman Group
Dave Liebman is the great communicator of contemporary jazz. Though hardly a revolutionary himself, it has been his task and, one suspects, his pleasure and privilege to disseminate its most radical ideas in a form that is both accessible and uncompromised. Almost no aspect of the music, from fusion to free, seems to have evaded him and his discography is now very large indeed, ranging from the intriguing syntheses of Lookout Farm and Quest (two singularly underrated co-ops with which he was associated; the latter has been active again of late) to his own classic Drum Ode (which represents a singularity in jazz recording if not playing – all that percussion! where to place the mics? how to find a balance?), exercises in unaccompanied saxophone which seem more important every time they come out of the box, and, more recently, a steady attention to the lessons of the great modernists.
Roscoe Mitchell + The Note Factory
The little big band tag usually applied to octets falls short in describing Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory; calling it a chamber orchestra is also off-point. That’s because boundaries-busting rigor and versatility is required of his wide-ranging compositions, evidenced by the four contrasting pieces that comprise this 2007 Burghausen Jazz Festival performance. The title piece is daunting, a half-hour traversing of muffled gasps and overtone-rich drones to full-throated exhortation. It is a particularly precarious proposition due to the sheer mass of sound that two pianos and two drum kits can produce, even without the explosive potential of twin horns and basses. Yet, pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn and drummer Vincent Davis and Tani Tabbal produce such finely calibrated increases that the details of the low bowed moans of bassists Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead (who also plays cello) and the whispered harmonics and long tones of the saxophonist and trumpeter Corey Wilkes remain distinct in the mix. Such a long wind-up all but demands a downpour of intensity, and for a good while it remains in doubt whether the expectation would be fully met; in the interim, however, Mitchell parses out iridescent nuggets, particularly the initially timorous, slowly elongating trumpet and alto saxophone phrases that pivot the piece away from its haunting opening movement and towards line-based free polyphony. The horns lay out, giving the pianists an open field; urged on by the basses and drums, Iyer and Taborn ratchet up the intensity, trading hard-hitting runs. But, it is left to Mitchell to take the music to the boiling point, his soprano spooling out serpentine lines, its musette-like tone giving them a serrated edge. Wilkes quickly follows with trombone-low gurgles that ascend through the registers, culminating in ecstatic blasts that signal the piece’s surprisingly quick end. The sly opening ensemble of “Quintet 2007 A For Eight” works a completely different set of muscles. Mitchell uses well-placed pauses and stabbing dissonant notes to offset the flow of the vernacular-rich material, the pungency of the resulting halting strut is dependent upon an exact reading of the score. “Trio Four For Eight” has a delicate notated opening, with dovetailing flute and cello lines gently supported by spare piano chords and malleted toms. The tranquil tone wafts into the ensuing sequence of small group improvisations, largely sustained by Bankhead’s elegant cello. The closing “Ex Flover Five” has a formal bearing, one that begins to fray with an increasingly turbulent piano duet. As the basses and drums heat up, the horns backdrop with short terse phrases and long tones; the last signaling a breath-catching moment of calm before Mitchell’s biting alto lines sends the ensemble careening to a final burst of notated material. Whatever you call Mitchell’s Note Factory, it should be accompanied by rarely used superlatives.
Perry Robinson Trio
It’s not difficult to explain Perry Robinson’s uniqueness as a jazz clarinetist – chalk it up to vast experience in improvisational settings (next year will mark 50 years since his debut recording on Savoy), a familial background in folk music and blues, as well as an early ear-opening encounter with the music of Arnold Schönberg (a strong presence in southern California where Robinson was raised), and his own curiosity with klezmer, Middle Eastern and other World Musics, all of which make their mark, explicitly or implicitly, on this newly issued 2008 session. The folk influence is represented by a dreamlike version of “Joe Hill,” the famous pro-union anthem composed by his father Earl Robinson, here featuring recitation of (a portion of) the lyrics, whistling, bass harmonics, soft drum patter, and a gentle clarinet rendition of the melody. Robinson’s clarinet staggers and swoons its way through “Mountain Soup,” an original blues in the style of a work song, and his “Funky Giora” (a reference to Giora Feidman, probably the most famous klezmer clarinetist?) draws directly on the modes, bent pitches, and sustained drones of Middle Eastern tradition. The Schönberg connection is not as obvious, but may be felt in the intervallic variations, in and out of tempo, of the jagged theme “Unisphere.” More likely, however, it comes across in the quixotical harmonic sense that also prompts some listeners to compare Robinson to the sublimely precarious Pee Wee Russell – evident in spiraling melodic contours that hinge on off-kilter notes and shift into surprising tonalities (as in “Sooner Then Before”).
It’s tempting to focus solely on Robinson’s deceptively wispy, asymmetrical solos, but this is a cooperative trio, meaning that longtime collaborators drummer Ernest Bier and bassist Ed Schuller receive an equal amount of solo space – the latter adopting Slam Stewart’s manner of voice echoing the bass line. Still, it’s no slight to them if the canny veteran holds the center of attention, as Schuller seems to symbolically acknowledge with his “From A to Z,” a two-part composition that could be interpreted as evoking both the clarinetist’s eccentric and sentimental sides. Endearing music.