Reviews of Recent Recordings
If saxophonist Tim Berne’s compositions were visual art, they’d be something like the constructions of Robert Rauschenberg – big energetic planes, witty and lyrical, figurative and abstract, subtle and excessive, maybe with something unexpected like a stuffed goat in a tire or a portrait of a president inserted every once in a while. Insomnia is almost old enough to count as archival material, recorded in June 1997 and never previously released. The band is an octet, an expanded version of Berne’s Bloodcount, with a substantial string section made up of violinist Dominique Pifarély, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Michael Formanek and Mark Ducret playing an unlikely acoustic 12-string, its percussive chording sounding almost like a harpsichord. Also present are trumpeter Baikida Carroll and regulars drummer Jim Black and clarinettist Chris Speed. There are two pieces here – “The Proposal” some 36 minutes long and “Open, Coma” nearly 30 – and each is a very broad canvas. A great traditionalist, Berne brings strong touches of Ellington and Julius Hemphill to this often free ensemble, the opening “Proposal” actually suggesting Ellington with a small string ensemble. Part of it is Berne’s own storehouse of sounds. His warm alto can caress a melody; his baritone can bluster with the special machismo of old jazz.
It’s taken a long time for this music to surface, but it’s well worth hearing – large music that needs open space to move around.
Anthony Braxton + John McDonough
The trio half of the Town Hall concert is superlatively good and important. By this 1972 concert Braxton was certainly all Braxton, having exorcised his early John Coltrane devotion. The two long tracks have some of Braxton’s finest alto sax improvising ever, abetted by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Philip Wilson. In “Composition 6 N” altoist and bassist create closely on a nine-note theme until, after they finally play it in unison, the trio suddenly explodes, violently, ecstatically, yet for all his vivid twists, Braxton’s sax line is soaring melody – quite an achievement. Even though they segue into the calmer “Composition 6 (O),” Braxton can’t quite repress high spirits, growling behind a bass solo, occasionally making fast outbursts (both these pieces feature good themes, too). The other trio track is one of his first and very best adventures with a standard, “All the Things You Are.” It’s deliriously joyous; he makes the theme bust out with decorations like spring blossoms, adding fascinating variations and improvisations. Wilson’s wonderfully subtle sense of dynamics, shading, and interplay sounds like the element that weds these three into a trio (and don’t miss Roscoe Mitchell’s Old/Quartet, which has Wilson’s other great ensemble performance and was also just reissued).
The two quintet tracks are far different, actually one unbroken work, “Composition 6 P” without the trio’s unity. It’s mainly improvised, mostly freely improvised at that, with composed passages included. The form, the dynamics, the feelings for texture and space suggest some kinship with Braxton’s Art Ensemble pals. But this group is not quite five complementary partners. John Stubblefield (tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet) sounds like he’s in the background. Holland again brings firmness and energy on bass. Barry Altschul is the drummer here, full of drama and seeming anger, in contrast to Wilson’s complexity, subtlety, and quick wit. Braxton (high saxes, flute, clarinets) and Stubblefield often change horns, someone pipes piccolo, and some of Braxton’s first recorded contrabass clarinet rumbles are here briefly. I find contralto Jeanne Lee hard to understand when, after 3:15 in track 4, she sings some abstract lyrics. She goes on to scat her then-unique yet narrow and oddly languid vocal sounds while Braxton develops another hot, intricate alto-sax story – marvelous Braxton. In fact, his improvising provides the main intrigue in the quintet performance.
The 2006 Duos are a happy surprise. No, John McDonough, the good ol’ Down Beat critic, has not started improvising freely. This John McDonough is Braxton’s friend, an unusual trumpet player who is mostly melody with few bravura heights but a recurring fondness for mutes. There’s a pure brightness about his playing, he has real musical personality – sometimes like a bopper but without inflections, inventing Broadway balladish phrases, sometimes with Roscoe Mitchellish spaces and underlines. He does not defer to Braxton, instead they challenge each other. They play a Sousa march straight apart from one trio strain with some liberated alto. McDonough’s piece “Massive Breath Attack” begins in long tones, then they take turns improvising, trumpet cool and so lyrical over long soprano sax tones, and soprano edgier, busier, further out over long trumpet tones. McDonough composed two other themes with Braxton-like melodies. A highlight is “Schizoid,” which depends on mismatched or plain nasty theme strains, each strain morphing into something else – they’re both mean, Braxton on alto is especially vivid. In “Finnish Line” trumpet, then sopranino sax create while the other repeats four notes.
The two long tracks are conversations. Braxton switches alto, soprano, sopranino, and baritone saxes in “Composition 168 + (103)” and makes a fine alto solo from calm-busy contrasts beginning 6:05. More smiles: As Braxton plays baritone McDonough mocks with dirty low growls; Braxton responds by switching to spacey sopranino, so the trumpeter bites with isolated, spaced tones; he ends the work with wa-wa growls. In “Improvisation” they move together and apart, Braxton sometimes introspective on alto and sopranino, McDonough sometimes chattering and smooching his mouthpiece. No battle of the horns here – like the other duos, these are just the kinds of good, intimate feelings that only free improvisation is able to communicate.
Willem Breuker Kollektief
Great news – FMP LPs never reissued on CD are suddenly becoming available in 2011. There’s FMP Im Rückblick – In Retrospect, a box of 12 CDs by Globe Unity Orchestra, Steve Lacy and others, plus a gigantic 218-page book. More readily available are the FMPs that you can download individually from destination-out.bandcamp.com. One of them is Willem Breuker Kollektief’s November, 1975 Berlin concert, a most important historical album recommended for its high musical entertainment.
Remember what it was like back in the late 1970s. Recordings by Europeans, including extremely original Britons and wild Germans, were only beginning to be heard in the US. The most distinctively European of all, the furthest removed from American jazz values, seemed to be Brueker’s Kollektief. The influence of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler dominated instead of American influences like Ellington and Henderson. Soloists were dramatic, role players, unlike American free-jazz folks’ self-expression. Maybe Breuker’s rhythm section sounded, as various commentators have said, like Dutch wooden shoes, but bassist Arjen Gorter and drummer Rob Verdurmen had ferocious drive and high energy and Leo Cuypers, the pianist on this concert, is rightly manic. The Kollektief offered minimal blues feeling and maximum references to European classical and pop cultural flotsam. Above all, Breuker’s Kollektief was theatrical. In this album, their third (all three were waxed in less than a year); five of the six pieces were original works for the stage.
Since the previous two albums are lost to LP never land for most of us, here is where the familiar Breuker routines began. Here are the Threepenny Opera-band sound and Weill modulations; the frantically pounding, herky-jerky rhythms, the sudden, incongruous mood shifts; the tuneless melodies; the outstretched, unaccompanied, free solos; the satire and the slapstick clowning. Members of the Kollektief acted as well as played in Breuker’s La Plagiata, the source of four of the six tracks. “Oratorium” starts with Jan Wolff’s solo French horn and Ronald Snijder’s flute solo, mostly Chopin’s funeral march; they are followed by Bob Driessen’s huffing-puffing alto sax; and one of the best sax solos Brueker ever played, on alto, with exaggerated contrasts of syrupy sound vs. honk-honks and multiphonic aarghs.
“Jan De Wit” has a typical Maarten van Norden tenor solo, carefully formed with 1960s Blue Note phrasing. “Jalousie-Song” has a cheerful little flute melody, then bam! – angry band tones and Willem van Manen’s vicious trombone solo full of insults and accusations. One of Boy Raaymakers’ best trumpet solos ever is his busy, abstract one in “Jail Music.” “Remeeting” from Breuker’s Anthology has an early Bernard Hunnekink trombone solo and, unusually for this band, some ensemble free improvisation. The last track is the American pop song “Our Day Will Come” as a frenzied mambo with a band vocal and Breuker tenor solo.
Of these ten sidemen, five – Raaymakers, Hunnekink, van Norden, Gorter, and Verdurmen – were still with Breuker at the band’s end two years ago. Kevin Whitehead has said that these guys’ essential work came early, and then they repeated themselves. Nevertheless I loved their stuff; there was almost always some truly good music in their American visits and the occasional CDs that came here. Back in the ‘70s what could compare? Only some of the American Carla Bley’s compositions; but, usually, she was too sane. Live in Berlin is the Breuker Kollektief young and full of energy. Cherish it.
Carlo De Rosa’s Cross-Fade
An in-demand sideman in the New York area, Carlo De Rosa has accompanied a diverse cross-section of contemporary artists, ranging from Amir El Saffar and Rudresh Mahanthappa to Ray Barretto and Luis Perdomo. De Rosa keeps equally noteworthy company on Brain Dance, the impressive debut of his Cross-Fade quartet, which includes pianist Vijay Iyer and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, with a relative newcomer, drummer Justin Brown, rounding out the line-up.
Drawing upon his varied experiences, De Rosa’s darkly hued compositions strike a delicate balance between freedom and form, reflecting an affinity for fluctuating dynamics and asymmetrical grooves. At their most funky and propulsive, De Rosa’s syncopated rhythms owe a hearty debt to the M-Base school – a system with which Iyer and Shim are intimately familiar. Dominated by interlocking patterns and mercurial tempo shifts, the group navigates De Rosa’s labyrinthine melodies with assiduous precision. Each member contributes concise solos essaying the principle harmonic and structural foundations of the tunes, rather than simply blowing over the changes.
Surprisingly under-appreciated despite his brief stint on Blue Note, Shim integrates brisk pneumatic cadences from his burnished tenor into the quartet’s surging momentum, amplifying the unique sonic character of each composition without resorting to pyrotechnic clichés. His robust tone and quicksilver phrasing is complemented by Iyer’s erudite interpolations on both piano and Fender Rhodes. Brown’s cagey tempo displacements and frenetic embellishments underscore their spirited dialogues, framed by De Rosa’s muscular precision. A fearless leader, De Rosa doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, executing brief virtuosic statements on over half of the tunes. Threading his sinewy ruminations into Iyer and Brown’s scintillating undercurrent, he forgoes the convention of unaccompanied bass solos with the sole exception of the intro to “For Otto.”
Though he and his colleagues excel at transposing aspects of urban music genres (funk, hip-hop, R&B) into sophisticated modern jazz, De Rosa also reveals the depth of his creativity with pieces detailing a more introspective and exploratory aesthetic. Spotlighting the ensemble’s delicate restraint, the heartfelt ballad “Maja”, exudes an air of romantic lyricism and tenderness devoid of post-modern irony. “Headbanger’s Bawl” is the emotional inverse, with Shim’s turbulent testimonials and Iyer’s bristling expressionism offering some of the set’s most impassioned detours. The expansive “Terrane/A Phrase” traverses similarly vanguard territory. After a round of radiant thematic variations from each member of the band, Shim’s oblique tenor and the leader’s sinuous arco merge as one, their synergistic motif enhanced by Iyer and Brown’s pointillist accents. Transforming from effervescent mid-tempo swing to brooding dirge, the record’s epic centerpiece transitions between the primal and the cerebral with cinematic élan, subtly encapsulating the primary themes explored throughout Brain Dance.
For three decades bassist Kermit Driscoll labored as a stalwart sideman to such notable improvisers as Bill Frisell, Gerry Hemingway and John Zorn, with not a single album released under his own name. Reveille remedies this situation. Featuring Frisell and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, the core of Driscoll’s quartet is founded on relationships established decades ago, when Driscoll and Frisell played with Colaiuta while studying in Boston at the Berkelee College of Music in the mid-70s. Joining these seasoned veterans is young pianist Kris Davis, who earned Driscoll’s attention at a rehearsal of John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble. This multi-generational line-up exudes the deep empathy and intense focus of a touring unit, despite having only one day together in the recording studio.
Though not commonly known for his compositional skills, Driscoll wrote all of the session’s originals, drawing from folk, blues and bop traditions as readily as funk, rock and more avant-garde fare. Driscoll also includes two notable covers that add perspective to his eclectic interests and frame the date’s overall aesthetic – a zany take on the traditional “Chicken Reel” and an ambitious reworking of Joe Zawinul’s “Great Expectations.” The former tune gleefully zigzags through an array of delirious genre detours, while the later explodes in a roiling brew of raucous electronic mayhem.
The album’s predominant Americana vibe is tailored to Frisell’s strengths, a measure of the guitarist’s longstanding influence. What distinguishes this session from Frisell’s more programmatic efforts is a refreshingly raw experimental streak. Frisell has strayed away from the avant-garde gestures of his late ‘80s efforts for Elektra/Nonesuch on his recent studio records, preferring instead to explore the surreal pastoral vistas he has almost single-handedly popularized. This date finds him in rare form, unleashing peals of abrasive feedback and looped fragments of oblique tunefulness that haven’t been part of his usual palette for almost two decades. But while the scorching sustain and corkscrew fretwork of a tune like “Thank You” recalls the fleeting audacity of youth, the dulcet lyricism of the title track showcases the seasoned maturity of a singular artist.
Colaiuta is best known for his virtuosity in Frank Zappa and Jeff Beck’s bands. A forceful and unique presence, his effusive approach is an essential part of the group’s sound, much like Joey Baron’s role in Frisell’s classic ‘90s trio with Driscoll. The scintillating colors and palpable textures of his percussive volleys on “For Hearts” are indicative of his irrepressible creativity. Davis’ solo contributions appear on only half the album, but are utterly distinctive when they finally materialize. Her enigmatic approach to blues conventions is manifest in viscous rivulets of melody, which lend a phantasmagorical aura to the modulating tempos of “Hekete” and “For Hearts.” Her kaleidoscopic contributions to “Martin Sklar” are similarly beguiling, adding an otherworldly patina to the quartet’s core rootsy character.
Despite the landmark occasion, Driscoll often assumes the role he has long excelled at – that of supporting player. He takes a few brief solos, plying haunting arco on “Ire” and percolating undulations on the heavily amplified opener “Boomstatz,” yet he never dominates the proceedings, preferring to focus on group dynamics rather than proving his own instrumental prowess. Alternating between electric and acoustic instruments, Driscoll reveals the dependable versatility that has made him an in-demand sideman for a range of imposing artists. A welcome leadership debut, Reveille confirms the old axiom; better late, than never.