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Wadada Leo Smith + Ed Blackwell
The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer
Kabell 111

The great drummer Ed Blackwell is absolutely on fire in this CD, it's as if trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is riding a dragon and not always holding on tightly. This is far different from Blackwell's duet albums with another trumpeter, Don Cherry, Mu (in two LPs, 1969) and El Corazon (1982). Instead of Cherry and Blackwell's cheery, free-spirited tunefulness, Smith and Blackwell present intensity and large designs. There are strong flavors of African drum patterns in Blackwell's irresistibly swinging rhythms, plus in the many passages when trumpet and drums momentums coincide, Blackwell's interplay kicks hard. His drum kit has dark resonances because he prefers skin-and-wood sounds over metal sounds, and the complexity and energy of his lines adds to the emotional darkness. Is there a strain of anger here? The two Smith vocals are different – Blackwell is spare, almost stark in "Seeds of a Forgotten Flower" and he invents catchy duets with Smith's mbira and then tightly muted trumpet in "Don't You Remember."

Over Blackwell's inspiring rhythms, Smith's trumpet arcs and curves are detached, speeding, slowing, sometimes rubato, with freely moving space between his phrases. Yet there's fire in his attack and sound – he does feel with Blackwell. Some solos are thematic improvisations, like the title track with its rough trills and the opener "Uprising," with its opening fanfare and descending melody. In the longest track (nine minutes), "Buffalo People: A Blues Ritual Dance," the feeling between him and Blackwell is especially close. His lines are so freely moving and melodically abstract that his weaknesses as well as his strengths are exposed. For instance, the CD has lots of passages of long, spaced trumpet tones alternating with busy passages, like a reflex. He mumbles more than sings the two aforementioned songs, which he seems to be improvising in pentatonic scales.

Special thanks to Wadada Leo Smith for rediscovering this 1986 Brandeis University concert and issuing it on his own label.  
–John Litweiler

 

Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore
Three Kinds of Happiness
Not Two MW 846-2

Though routinely employed by multi-instrumentalists as a doubling horn, the bass clarinet is rarely chosen by reed players as their sole instrument. Those who have are often haunted by the looming presence of Eric Dolphy – some unfairly, many justifiably so. Jason Stein, one of Chicago’s rising young artists, has made this bold choice, as documented on his 2009 album of unaccompanied solo improvisations, In Exchange for a Process (Leo), and two prior Clean Feed releases with his Locksmith Isidore trio, ‘08’s A Calculus of Loss and ‘09’s Three Less Than Between.

Locksmith Isidore’s third recording, Three Kinds of Happiness is infused with a greater degree of conventional tonality and formal structure than either of its previous long players. Stein’s recent embrace of more traditional antecedents enriches his edgy New Thing-inspired writing with accessible, sing-song melodies, crisp clean lines and punchy, in-the-pocket grooves. By self-imposing structure on his tortuous compositions, Stein reveals himself to be a capable writer of memorable themes, one whose admitted fondness for Steve Lacy’s mercurial streak is apparent not only in the terse angularity at the root of “Arch And Shipp,” but the similarly punning title of the brisk swinger “Man Or Ray.” Stein also shares Lacy’s fondness for idioms, invoking Eastern European revelry in the soaring opener “Sammy’s Crayons” and avant-blues fervor on the evocative “More Gone Door Gone.”

Limiting his textural explorations to striking accents and petulant asides, Stein punctuates circuitous thematic variations with brusque squalls and split tones. His predilection for dramatically constructed arcs reveals the influence of former teacher David Murray, though Stein generally eschews the intervallic patterns pioneered by Dolphy – and championed by Murray – that regularly trip-up many of his contemporaries. Avoiding clichéd register leaps, Stein prefers to navigate the middle and upper regions of his horn with a pliant, fragile lyricism that occasionally recalls Harry Carney and Coleman Hawkins.

Whether finessing a bop line or swinging the blues, Mike Pride’s muscular drumming virtually steals the show. His crackling brush and stick work drives the trio with a jubilant attack that lifts the spirit, especially on “Man Or Ray,” where his rollicking drum solo takes center stage, resonating with a snap-crackle-pop ebullience worthy of Roy Haynes’ early Prestige sides. Jason Roebke offers ideal accompaniment regardless of the setting, providing smartly concise arco double stops on the jaunty opening of the elliptical “Ground Floor South.”

Named after his grandfather’s occupation, Locksmith Isidore continues to reflect Stein’s respect for family and tradition; the wistful ballad “Little Bird” is dedicated to his younger sister, and the exotic “Crayons For Sammy” is inspired by his half-brother’s childhood love of drawing. Flush with heartfelt conviction and adventurously swinging small group interplay, Three Kinds of Happiness is Stein’s finest record to date, conveying Plato’s perfect ideal of the titular theme, devoid of sadness; happiness now, happiness later.
-Troy Collins

 

Oluyemi Thomas + Sirone + Michael Wimberly
Beneath Tones Floor
NoBusiness NBCD 20

Reed player Oluyemi Thomas has said that music has an element of prayer in it. That’s certainly true of the music on this album with bassist Sirone and drummer Wimberly; its supplication, compassion, and sanctified joy is prayerful indeed. It’s also artfully contrived free jazz improvisation that makes brilliant use of contrasts in color and texture, instrumentation, and structure.

Oluyemi’s instrumental evocations and abstractions of the human voice, which he plays on bass clarinet, flute, soprano sax, and musette, have a soft-edged lilt that conveys both strength and an essential lovingness. His unique bass clarinet conception, totally unlike Eric Dolphy’s, is especially infused with the sound of the human voice. He uses a personal intervallic vocabulary that gives a characteristic profile to his lines and phrases, which echo speech cadences as he works his way from short phrases into longer and longer ribbons of textured color.

The trio, which the San Francisco-based Thomas assembled for the 2008 concert at New York City’s Brecht Forum captured on this CD, are sure hands at free jazz improvisation. Each improvisation develops organically at its own pace, and without any fixed plan. The first three tracks form a suite nearly 17 minutes long. In contrast, “Dream Worlds” is just a tidy three minutes long, but they pack a lot into it, from a bass and drums duo to a drums and soprano sax dialog to a concluding trio. “Heavenly Wisdom” evolves in an additive manner, beginning with Thomas’s opening bass clarinet solo which Sirone and Wimberly successively join.

Besides their careful attention to instrumentation and forms, the contrasts in color, texture, and sound among the trio members further contributes to the music’s variety. Each of Sirone’s notes are decisive, they hit hard, almost with a suppressed fury. His low notes thunder and throb, but there’s a willow-switch litheness and lightness of color to his higher notes. On “Spirit of Ifa” and the title track, the sharp report of his plucked notes cut through the ensemble. The hyper-Paul Chambers rasp and soaring arch of his bowing on “Mystic Way” creates waves of sound that envelops and complements the surging and increasingly ecstatic bass clarinet of Thomas. Wimberly plays drums with attention to dynamics, melodic contours, density, and colors, all of which work to put him on an equal footing with his band mates even as he contributes the rhythms that keep the music pulsing.

More than elegant formal musical elements make this a disc worth listening to, however. Thomas, Sirone, and Wimberly play with a fervor imparted by a belief that what they’re creating is more majestic, vaster, than the individual. There’s a genuine feeling of praise and celebration, a hope borne of faith in a spiritual realm, and an energy and urgency that’s needed to break the bonds and illusions of this world and reach a higher truth. Beautiful stuff.
-Ed Hazell

 

Weasel Walter + Mary Halvorson + Peter Evans
Electric Fruit
Thirsty Ear THI 57196

Widely known for organizing numerous Chicago-based free jazz, noise and no wave bands since the early nineties, drummer Weasel Walter’s recent relocation to New York (after a brief sojourn on the West Coast) finds him in the company of kindred spirits, such as guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Peter Evans. Leading lights of the fertile Brooklyn scene, Halvorson and Evans have won widespread critical acclaim over the past decade for their innovative musical concepts and virtuosic mastery of extended techniques. Operating as a true collective, these three gifted artists revel in unfettered expressionism on their debut studio recording, Electric Fruit, a wry title that expresses their view of the ageless conflict between the artificial and the organic.

Save for the impressionistic tone poem “Metallic Dragon Fruit,” which closes the album on a somewhat meditative note, the date’s six lengthy improvisations bustle with capricious sonic deviations that follow the whims of spontaneous invention. Avoiding the muddled cacophony that can easily dominate freely improvised sessions, Walter, Halvorson and Evans’ considered listening skills and congenial interplay facilitate a dynamic balance between bombastic clamor and languid pointillism.

As the trio’s implied ringleader, Walter provides incessant forward momentum with metallic flourishes and virtuosic displays of punkish frenzy. He also plays against type, refuting his longstanding reputation as an avant-garde enfant terrible by revealing a predilection for richly detailed aleatoric musings. Alternating with Walter as key instigator, Halvorson elicits a protean array of cadences, building focused linear frameworks from extreme intervals, while intermittently using crushing distortion and scorching sustain to amplify her angular attack. Evans alternates between ornate, pneumatic lines and oblique, diaphanous refrains, regularly engaging in circular breathing marathons that underscore the session with hypnotic microtonal detail.

Though frenetic contrapuntal discourse typifies the date’s overall sensibility, there is occasional respite from the threesome’s insectoid confabulations. Upending the trio dynamic, each artist abstains from performing at random intervals, allowing introspective duets and solo cadenzas to take center stage – in contrast to the bristling group improvisations that dominate the set. At their most restrained, Halvorson’s cascading, harp-like arpeggios, Evans’ muted brass ruminations and Walter’s multihued accents convey a curious, fleeting lyricism. These delicate interludes reveal the subtle charms of an understated approach, making Electric Fruit a far more intriguingly varied collaboration than expected.
-Troy Collins

 

World Saxophone Quartet
Yes We Can
Jazzwerkstatt JW098

Original members David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett welcome James Carter and Kidd Jordan into yet another edition of the WSQ. For this live concert recording from the 2009 Discover Us! festival in Berlin, they focus on the fiery modernism that launched the original band. The results are bracing and impassioned, thanks in part to the heat generated by the newcomers. New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan (the man who first proposed the idea for the band in the mid-‘70s and gave them their first gig) plays alto on the album, rather than his usual tenor saxophone. He cuts through the collective improvisation on Bluiett’s WSQ staple, “Hattie Wall,” with a stern, urgent solo that drenches the crowded canvas with hot colors and hard, molten sound. Carter also makes important contributions to the fierce assertiveness of the performance. On the title track, a Murray original with beautifully voiced two and three part harmonies that support the soloist, Carter’s soprano begins with intensely focused melodic ideas that grow into long, convoluted lines sustained by circular breathing and which climax with cathartic cries and bee-sting sharp notes. Murray’s best moments come on “The God of Pain,” which showcases the mature gravitas of his ballad playing. Bluiett is at the top of his game throughout. His baritone lines run like black obsidian through each tune, setting off the flaming colors of the rest of quartet, and his bluesy clarinet on “The Guessing Game” is an avant-Ellingtonian highlight of the disc. Over more than 30 years, the WSQ have covered Ellington, R&B hits, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and worked with various percussionists. Sometimes the albums felt like they were made by a band in search of reason to keep going. In going back to their roots on Yes We Can, they sound like a band with a renewed purpose.   
–Ed Hazell

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