Reviews of Recent Recordings
Comprised of Human Feel’s Chris Speed and Jim Black, joined by Skirl label mates Oscar Noriega and Trevor Dunn, Endangered Blood started life as The Benefit Band, formed in 2008 to help fellow Human Feel saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo pay for medical bills accumulated during his bout with near-fatal brain cancer. D’Angelo subsequently recovered and the band lives on, now with an appropriately evocative name.
Travelling in the same circles, the members of Endangered Blood each contribute to a number of diverse ensembles, embracing ethnic, popular and experimental music with the same enthusiasm as they do jazz. Despite such eclecticism, the quartet was established as an acoustic jazz project, designed to reinterpret the lessons of the past in a modern light. Drawing from their varied experiences as leaders, collaborators and sidemen for their self-titled debut, they ply a malleable, adventurous variation on the piano-less quartet tradition, expanding upon the legacy of Ornette Coleman’s seminal post-war innovations; the frantic album closer, “Andrew’s Ditty Variation One” sounds like an acoustic workout by Coleman’s electric Prime Time Ensemble.
Speed serves as the sole composer; his enduring enthusiasm for Old World melodies is revealed on the feverish “Tacos At Oscars,” the languid “Rare” and the Eastern European dirge “Valya,” with the bluesy New Orleans-influenced “Iris” revealing subtle stylistic diversity. Speed also demonstrates a penchant for the lyrical; “K” is one of his most heartfelt and tender ballads. A brooding cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” offers a direct connection to traditional jazz, while the ensemble’s focus on reimagined fundamentals comes to the fore on “Uri Bird,” a post-modern hybrid of bop angularity and buoyant funk attitude.
The mutant swing of “Plunge” is indicative of Endangered Blood’s primary approach, with Black’s powerhouse drumming and Dunn’s meaty bass lines updating the group’s sound, offering far more assertive drive and weight than the average acoustic quartet. Noriega and Speed soar confidently over subterranean bass tones and crushing downbeats, their adroit unison lines careening with unfettered ebullience as Noriega’s acerbic alto spirals through the intervals, making a perfect foil for Speed’s reedy tenor flights.
Though the tunes are relatively brief (none breach the seven minute mark), each musician solos at length, offering a telling appraisal of their talents. This is especially noteworthy in regards to Speed; his abilities as a compelling soloist, established in the 1990s with Human Feel and Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, have been significantly curtailed in line-ups that focus more on structure than improvisation, like AlasNoAxis, Pachora and yeah NO. Endangered Blood redresses this, reaffirming the expressive qualities of all four veterans in the process.
Madame de Shanghai; Après presque rien; Visage 2
Rather, Ferrari responded to the times, keenly filtering trends from American minimalism to improvisation and DJs. Inoue and Matsukura’s rendering of “Cellule 75 – Force du rythme et cadence forcée” (1975) is an excellent example of how Ferrari combined snippets of idiomatic materials with offsetting taped materials to create an atmosphere of free association rather than of design. David Borden-like piano motives and single-stroke drum pattern emerge from the opening field recordings of wind, surf, birds and dogs, soon to be accompanied and overwhelmed by an unsettling drone, from which the occasional environmental sound slips out. Subsequent motives played on a Rocksichord-like keyboard, flourishes of seemingly improvised piano and hand drumming apropos of Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are undergirded by the drone, reach a simmer and then dissipate. For another twenty engrossing minutes, Ferrari repeatedly catches the listener off-guard, but not in an off-putting way; the sudden veering and head-on collisions of materials rise above mere provocation, as the connective tissues provided by short taped material interludes and the rhythmic cells embedded into the piano and percussion parts cohere the work, even if their structural function is not immediately discernable.
“Après presque rien,” is something of an afterword to the six pieces for tape recorder bundled as “Preque rien;” prime examples of anecdotal music, they utilize a wide spectrum of sounds like ocean-side sunrises, young girls at a picnic, and a walk about an old villa. Ferrari approached “Apres” without a predetermine goal in terms of structure, materials or duration, and the resulting music is invigorating. The collaboration between Art Zoyd (now the duo of Patricia Dallio and Nathalie Négro, who play keyboards and manipulate samples) and the 14-pieceJean-Paul Dessy-directed Musique Nouvelles gives the rhythms of the score a razor-sharp edge and the samples provide the requisite surreal colors, while exuding Ferrari’s sense of fun in creating the composition. There are many virtuosic turns in the piece, but the opening volley by pianist Kim Van den Brempt and percussionist Louison Renault and a particularly incisive passage by trumpeter Luc Sirjacques and trombonist Roel Smedts in the first third of this half-hour performance are particularly noteworthy. Ferrari progressively integrates acoustic and sampled sounds as the music unfolds, resulting in passages that border on the riotous.
While “Cellule 75” and “Après presque rien” are sufficient reasons to obtain these CDs, the remaining pieces flesh out a striking profile of Ferrari. Two pieces from the mid-50s “Visages” series – “1” is performed by Inoue and Matsukura, while Dessy conducts a version of “2” featuring seven percussionists, piano, and a brass quartet of two trumpets, trombone and tuba – reveals Ferrari to be processing the influences of Varèse, Schaffer, Cage and the serialists to distinctive ends. Roughly speaking, “Conversation Intime” (1987-8) juxtaposes passages where the musicians play “together” and “apart” – it would take a score to determine the dividing points, given Inoue and Matsukura’s taut reading. A reissue of a performance by Li Ping Ting and the Scottish Flute Trio released on the Seven Things imprint, “Madame de Shanghai” (1996) ends the Mode collection with an insight into how Ferrari could transform a limited instrumental palette with wondrous sampled sounds.
Dolphy the composer has generally been more celebrated in Europe than in the U.S., but there’s never been something as definitive as alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard’s “Potsa Lotsa” project. The two-CD set of The Complete Works of Eric Dolphy is similar to Monk’s Casino, Monk’s complete works performed by Alex von Schlippenbach et al. Eberhard has assembled and arranged virtually all of Dolphy’s known compositions (she’s reached back to the Chico Hamilton Quintet for Dolphy’s earliest recorded work, “Lady E,” but “Jim Crow,” however one might manage that, is missing) for a wind quartet assembled especially for the purpose, with tenor saxophonist Patrick Braun, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser and trombonist Gerhard Gschlöbl. Eberhard has come up with a host of approaches, whether treating the group as a wind-choir or orchestrating and assigning piano comping and bass lines to different winds; there are straight read-throughs of her arrangements to intense collective improvisations to unaccompanied solos. The mix of reeds and brass is a comfortable one—the trumpet and trombone lend a clarity to the voicings that a saxophone quartet would have lost—and it’s an intriguing expansion of Dolphy’s frequent use of conventional reed and trumpet front-lines.
What may be most surprising is the sheer rhythmic vitality and collective energy of this music. Without being imitative, it has much of the energy of a Dolphy performance, often achieving a fierce swing without benefit of a rhythm section (a special achievement considering that the original recordings were driven by Roy Haynes, Eddie Blackwell and Tony Williams). The music is superbly played, consistently well executed and inspired. Dolphy had an almost unmatched vitality (leaping extrapolations appearing at the ends of phrases or in an opening instant, as if there was a nanosecond between warming up and exploding), and Eberhard has caught that feeling, sometimes tacking on the spontaneous leaps of Dolphy’s openings and phrase-endings. Eberhard is clearly influenced by Dolphy as an altoist, but while there are phrases in homage, there’s no imitation here. She has a softer sound, though flexible with hints of the alto tradition (including Konitz and Coleman). The joys of Dolphy’s compositions and the varied treatments of them here are far too numerous to recount, but “Out to Lunch” sparkles with twinned duets, the orchestration of the piece embracing first a collective improvisation by muted trumpet and trombone then the two saxophones.
Joel Futterman has spent decades developing his skills as a free improviser, first working in post-bop idioms in Chicago in the 1960s and later working and in combination with musicians like Jimmy Lyons, Richard Davis and Kidd Jordan. He’s a fine pianist, a luminous free player who can weave densely rhythmic improvisations that can even suggest a third hand, developing multiple motifs simultaneously. Born in 1946, he clearly has his strongest relationship with Dolphy’s earliest recordings: he plays six Dolphy compositions here and all of them (“Potsa Lotsa,” “Les,” “Serene,” “Miss Ann,” “17 West,” and “In the Blues”) come from Dolphy’s brief stay with Prestige. The other works are Mal Waldron’s “Fire Waltz” (recorded by Dolphy on both the Five Spot session with Waldron and on Waldron’s The Quest, both from 1961) and Futterman’s original tribute, in two parts, called “Out to Dinner.” I mention this only because this material has been around for almost fifty years and I suspect that Futterman has spent much of his life with it.
Dolphy had a keen ear for the tradition (the great Morton sideman Garvin Bushell seems to have rated him over Coltrane) and you get a clear sense that that’s a side Futterman understands very well, whether picking up on Dolphy’s recording of Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” or Dolphy-associate Jaki Byard’s interest in stride all the way to James P. Johnson’s Yamacraw. Futterman freights the elegant slow blues of “Serene” (as elegant as “Mood Indigo” or “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) with touches of the deepest tradition—piano blues as deep as Jelly Roll, Leroy Carr, Otis Spann, and Sonny Clark. There’s an element of Boogie-Woogie and a healthy dose of stride on the more up-tempo numbers. Futterman has an ability to put together unlikely elements in his work, too, fusing them into his own style, from the dense chording of Mal Waldron to the cascading flurries of Cecil Taylor: what you get here is a warmly kinetic treatment of Dolphy’s essential themes heard in close proximity to Taylor’s percussive polyrhythmic and the traditions of jazz piano from Waller on (as if one is hearing that Mary Lou Williams/ Cecil Taylor duo turning to the Eric Dolphy Songbook). “In the Blues” and “17 West” get stretched to a wonderful degree, and this is as good a recording (and recoding) of jazz piano playing as you might hope to hear this year, alive to so much of the tradition.
The wonderful thing about these two recordings is how utterly different they feel and how much joins them. The Potsa Lotsa session is coolly structuralist though bristling with Dolphy’s timbral vocabulary and both solo and collective free improvising. The Futterman CD is heated, dense, and mercurial. Eberhard’s is work of discovery and codification; Futterman’s work of memory, reflection and trance. Each is deeply personal—no matter how comprehensive “The Complete” —a profound testimony to the depth of Dolphy’s meanings and the special relationships these musicians have made with that work. Each becomes part of the living tissue of Dolphy’s music.
Fred Hess Big Band
While Denver, Colorado isn’t commonly thought of as a hot bed of experimental American jazz, the Mile-High City has supported a strong creative scene since the early 1980s, due in part to the city’s Creative Music Works Orchestra and the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, both founded by tenor saxophonist Fred Hess. Since then, Hess has led a number of groups, ranging from quartets to orchestras; Into The Open, his 15th album as a leader, is his second big band record, following 2009’s Hold On (Dazzle).
In contrast to their somewhat more traditional debut, Hess’ big band ventures into vanguard territory this time out, with the acclaimed quartet he founded in 2003 starring Ron Miles (trumpet), Ken Filiano (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) once again serving as the band’s core foundation. Featuring a bevy of creative improvisers from Denver and beyond, the sixteen piece ensemble expands on Hess’ inventive compositions and intricate arrangements with palpable enthusiasm. Wilson, in particular, adds an especially mercurial element; his contributions range from buoyant press rolls to spectral cymbal washes, underscoring the proceedings with a palette of intriguing colors.
Currently teaching at Metro State College in Denver, Hess’ ornate contrapuntal charts bear the evidence of a doctorate in composition. Cascading harmonies, extreme intervallic leaps and cantilevered riffs abound on these seven original tunes, with a lush collage of two covers, “See You (Illuma Soma)” rounding out the set. The rousing opener, “Sooz Blues” augments a standard 12 bar blues with elaborate written passages, while “Journey to Sentosa” exudes a more classically austere, Third Stream air. The punchy brass of “Norman’s Gold” and the kaleidoscopic hues of “Alison’s Dream” embody a wide spectrum of moods, drawing parallels to the swinging drive of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis as readily as the variegated arrangements of Bob Brookmeyer and Gary McFarland.
Bolstering Hess’ fulsome charts, his band members’ probing excursions include extended techniques that encapsulate every aspect of the jazz tradition; the episodic “Alison’s Dream” is an apt example, featuring Filiano’s sinuous arco, Hess’ passionate saxophone torrents and Brad Goode’s plunger muted brass growls. Dedicated to the ground-breaking technical innovations of John Coltrane, “Ninth House,” the date’s thrilling finale, is constructed from a series of transposed quotes from Coltrane’s recorded legacy, such as “All Blues.” Founded on the 12 tone row of “Miles Mode,” the long-form composition transcends mere nostalgia, with Peter Sommer’s multiphonic-laced tenor statements extending the advanced saxophone language pioneered by its dedicatee.
Although it invokes established traditions far more often than its contemporaries, Hess’ big band finds concordance with similarly idiosyncratic ensembles like Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra and Either/Orchestra. Pushing headlong into the future with a bracing combination of inside and outside approaches, Into The Open perfectly evokes the sentiment of its title.
Ben Johnston’s first, fifth and latest string quartets sketch his evolution as a composer from the late 1950s to the mid 1990s. Johnston adhered to the strictures of Schoenberg’s “developing variation” of a tone row in “No. 1” (1959), aptly sub-titled “Nine Variations.” With Webernesque brevity, Johnston sprints through standard approaches to variation; applying a wide range of expressive techniques in the process, mostly through the use of discernible, even lively rhythm, he bypasses the stodginess such formulae can induce. Likewise, Johnston sidesteps the potentially cloying use of folk materials on “No. 5” (1979) by employing an array of alternative tunings to reference the Appalachian gospel song, “Lonesome Valley,” which reappears throughout the composition. Johnston devises a more intriguing head-on collision of sensibilities with “No. 10,” which opens with a movement that tests the tensile strength of the sonata form and closes with Johnston stretching, inverting and otherwise transforming “Danny Boy” into material suggesting serialism one moment, and Renaissance music the next. Johnston has the requisite American voice – albeit an utterly esoteric one – to cohere it all. Interpretations by quartets with less proximity to the composer than the Kepler (formed to premiere “No. 10” nearly ten years ago) would undoubtedly yield less persuasive performances; the quartet emphasizes the wit and ebullience of Johnston’s compositions, which gives their erudition human form. For anyone who wants to flesh out their understanding of post-war American composition beyond the staples, Johnston’s music is recommended, generally, and this CD is a particularly good place to start.