Reviews of Recent Recordings
Darius Jones / Matthew Shipp
I once took a girl I liked to hear Marion Brown and Mal Waldron at a Paris club. “There you have it,” I said. “Le cru et le cuit.” She was an anthropologist. I thought she’d appreciate it. I wish I’d saved it for now. First time I heard Darius Jones, I was irresistibly reminded of Marion Brown’s sinusy alto tone and folk-radical out-of-tune delivery. Jones does, indeed, have a raw quality. It came through strongly in his work with griots like William Hooker and Cooper-Moore, and it seemed to be harnessed to something strong and new on his previous Aum Fidelity release Man’ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing). I take a certain … permission from that title.
That leaves the question of what Claude Lévi-Strauss really meant by “cooked,” which was the unfortunate crux with that anthropologist lady, with whom there was fated to be no savage interlude and no state of nature. Mal was a little, let’s say, overcooked that night, but Matthew Shipp illustrates another dimension of the semantics. He is, unquestionably, the most complete piano player around at the moment, capable of noisy abandon but more usually delivering a “finis”’ that is often quite breathtaking. He ranges here between intensely lyrical playing and superhuman fineness of dynamic control with industrial strength chording and, on the eldritch “Mandraak,” some finely judged inside work.
I have a slight bee in my bonnet about sax and piano duos and have in the past described them as a potentially lazy form. Needless to say, the laziness resides more with the reviewer than with the reviewed. But there is something about duo performance that invites a kind of invidious comparison. It is virtually impossible to hear a saxophone and drums together without referencing Interstellar Space (Impulse!), even though very often that language is not immediately relevant, even as deep background. So while neither of these men seems to need positioning behind some earlier great spirit, together they conjure up all sorts of strange associations.
It’s a lovely recording (made, I have to tell you, a year to the day after Lévi-Strauss’s death), beautifully mixed and mastered by Michael Marciano and produced with the lightest of touches by Steven Joerg. “Bleed” establishes some kind of language, with Shipp setting out a foundation of deliciously ambiguous chords and split-open arpeggios and Jones bleeding out the edges of pedal tones in such a way as to make a mildly declamatory piece seem weirdly ambiguous on second and subsequent hearings, as if someone has gone back in and tweaked the pitching while you were listening to something else. You might at this stage reasonably guess at Marion and Mal, but by the time you’re in the middle of “Multiverse,” the only graspable analogy floating by is Roscoe Mitchell and Borah Bergman. Shipp isn’t such an effortful pianist, though. He delivers weight without violence and with fewer Harlem references.
If titles mean anything, Cosmic Lieder is rather clever. Lied in the singular simply implies song with some degree of literary quality behind it, but Lieder tend to deliver some kind of cyclical narrative, some sense of journey or soul’s progress, and that is exactly what these two remarkable musicians have created here: a sequence of out-of-body journeyings that you might reasonably imagine Sun Ra and John Gilmore making, significant as much in their silences and elisions as in anything actually said, full of dark matter and tonal dust, interrupted by violent outbursts, punctuated by calms that seem prepared to run on forever. It would be pressing a thin point to say that this was structuralist jazz at its finest, but it does offer a naked glimpse of mournful tropics and urban dreams, a vivid snapshot of a whole world on the wane.
Certain instrumental combinations signify strongly and it’s almost impossible to hear clarinet and vibes together without thinking of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, and the most visibly integrated jazz group of its day. James Falzone has “no interest in sounding like Benny Goodman” and when he took up a suggestion from Neil Tesser and the Jazz Institute of Chicago for a centenary tribute (after some reluctance) it was clear, if only from Falzone’s already well-attested self-determination, that it was unlikely to be an act of respectful ventriloquism.
There is a moment at the very beginning of Other Doors, when the clarinetist meditates softly on “These Foolish Things” (though we only have his word for that), when this might be heading for some retro-version, perhaps acidulated with a few Dolphy/Hutcherson gestures just to make the generational loyalties as clear as possible. Oddly, though, and to jump ahead to a final position on this, after the reprised “TFT” fades away, the message that KLANG delivers says more about Goodman’s tonal radicalism and bold variation of meter – those octave leaps! swing, yes, but with one hubcap painted black – than it articulates any obvious version of “post-Dolphy jazz.”
KLANG – and in opposition to fashionable lower-case, they seem to prefer all caps – has been around for a few years now as a going concern, a branch line of Falzone’s Allos Musica philosophy. The other participants are bassist Jason Roebke, drummer Tim Daisy and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, who appears everywhere but has never elsewhere demonstrated quite so clearly what he derives from Hamp. He’s the colorist of the group, the flag-waver who marches behind the horn man. The material is a mixture of Goodman “originals” and fresh composition, though much of it – “Goodman’s Paradox,” “Angles Sing,” and “Shevitz’s Dream’” – is redolent of either Benny or the West Side. The first group number of the set is “Breakfast Feud,” which is a bit of a favorite with Bela Fleck but otherwise not much played nowadays. Then there’s a surprise. On “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” there’s a fuller band in evidence, with Josh Berman squeezing fat notes out of his cornet and Jeb Bishop’s trombone riding the meter like a playful beluga. It’s a genuinely surprising moment, not because it cuts across any clear expectation for this music and certainly not because it comes over like pastiche, but rather because it’s so unmistakably right, a genuine understanding of the Ur-material projected into the present. Subtle thing. Not easy to convey. Immensely impressive.
The pace quickens again with “Angles Sing,” a stop-start idea that turns into a feature for Adasiewicz, who’s already too ubiquitous to be appreciated properly. I don’t know much about the workings of vibraphones but it sounds as if he has his motors working off the spindles for this one, knocking out rainbow overtones with the mallet-ends. “Memories of You” brings in cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and establishes a mournful, old-country mood that would work just fine under a Studs Terkel compilation; just beautiful on its own account.
And that’s just a third of the way into a set that at seconds under the hour is just a whisker too long for perfection. I have the odd sense that the title track, which comes at mid-point, maybe belongs in another project, but it is also the fulcrum of the set. It begins to create an impression that Falzone is putting too much weight on misterioso openings but in this case it opens onto compositional and textural ideas that need much greater development. “The Wang Wang Blues” and a moving original “The Already and the Not Yet” (which is dedicated to Charlie Christian) suffer a little from coming in the wake of that remarkable track, which again calls on some of the guests. There are references to classical sources – maybe Bartók, maybe Kodály, maybe accidental or unconscious – that never hang round around long enough to be identified, but otherwise this is music driven along by Falzone’s remarkable, capacious imagination and grasp of group dynamics.
I’ve a few unworthy quibbles about the recording and mix, which was made in the appropriately retro surroundings of Barrington, Illinois. Too many enigmatic close-ups, not enough expanse. But this is going beyond picky. Barrington is fabled as – and I only know this as a major Gene Wolfe fan and minor Baby Face Nelson obsessive – “a great place to live, work and play.” The municipal hype delivers big on Other Doors. KLANG made a remarkable start with last year’s Tea Music. This consolidates the debut, adds a layer, and does thoughtful honor to Benny and Hamp and Charlie and Gene, which is no small feat.
Not to be confused with the late Austrian saxophonist of the same name, Hans Koller is a London-based composer/arranger and pianist. In recent years he’s recorded with Germany’s NDR big band and created settings for a few significant musicians, including Lee Konitz, Phil Woods and Evan Parker. Cry, Want has an 11-piece band playing six of Koller’s compositions and his arrangements of tunes by Charlie Parker and Jimmy Giuffre. Koller is developing a personal idiom within a tradition that stretches from Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool (Blue Note) sessions through the work of George Russell, Gil Evans, Carla Bley and Koller’s immediate mentor, Mike Gibbs. It’s an excellent band with both distinguished veterans like French hornist Jim Rattigan and trombonist Mark Nightingale and younger musicians of promise, like the trumpeters Percy Pursglove and Robbie Robson. There’s some real chemistry, too, with Rattigan, Koller and bassist Dave Whitford having an association that dates back to a 1999 recording. There are also a couple of notable ringers: Bill Frisell and, on a couple of tracks, Evan Parker. It’s also music of sufficient texture to warrant its liner note by mystery novelist John Harvey.
In his brief written introduction to Parallels, pianist Alexey Lapin confesses an antipathy to solo performance – which accounts for his lack of cautious, familiar strategies, which works to his advantage here. The most effective pieces in this diverse original program are those that expose a slight, thoughtful hesitancy as Lapin constructs his melodic edifices from scratch, allowing us to follow the whims and logic of the process through an engaging, transparent immediacy (somewhat akin to the extended improvisational processes, though not the musical personalities, of Paul Bley and Misha Mengelberg). His sensitivity to touch and tone and an elusive harmonic perspective are put to good use – placing emphasis on the distinct intervals in the nocturne-like fantasy “Consistency in progress,” sounding simultaneously contemplative and urgent in “A kind of thoughts,” tussling with parallel figuration and circuitous bearings on the title track. An inclination to expand his instrumental palette finds him scraping, tapping, and plucking inside the box on several pieces, revealing a discerning ear for sonorities, but offering more atmosphere than substance. His saving grace is the avoidance of empty, extravagant flourishes and rhetorical gestures – by the penultimate “Open sequence or everything is coming to a close” it’s obvious Lapin has discovered a workable approach to the solo format; fanciful details like the tolling bells that conclude “Peace” remind us of his Russian soul.
Other Dimensions in Music Featuring Fay Victor
Few other American groups have played completely improvised jazz for as long as or as well as Other Dimensions in Music (ODIM), the cooperative quartet of trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Daniel Carter, bassist William Parker, and drummer Charles Downs. For 30 years, they’ve played melodic free improvisations with a firm sense of spontaneous architecture as well as any band that works in the idiom. Mainly they perform as a quartet, but occasionally they welcome special guests. For their latest release, Kaiso Stories, they add vocalist Fay Victor. In another departure, the project has a focus or theme—free jazz versions of calypso songs from Trinidad and Tobago. As unlikely a pairing as it sounds, the album is a roaring success for both ODIM and Victor. The ensemble playing is detailed and cohesive and the album features some of Victor’s most powerful and passionate singing on record.
Other Dimensions has managed to play with remarkably few ground rules, other than a commitment to melodic improvising and collective coherence, for three decades. They can improvise at great length, but they don’t have to; they’ve recorded superior long and short-form improvisations. The music can be as energetic as anything recorded in the 1960s, but there’s no obligation to build to that sort of climax every time; there are some delicate tone poems on their albums as well. Together as a band since 1981 and frequent collaborators in each other’s projects for a decade before that, they’ve developed a familiarity with one another that is palpable in their music. They have nothing left to prove to themselves or each other, so there is a comfortable relaxation, a mellow fruitfulness of lifelong friendship that permeates their music today. Their best records have come late in the band’s life, notably Now! (AUM Fidelity, 1997) and Live at the Sunset (Marge, 2006), a double CD with Hamid Drake subbing for Downs.
Kaiso Stories is characteristic of the band’s process-driven, melody-rich collective improvisation. In ODIM, Campbell has used his extended techniques and expanded sound palette in some of his most perfectly realized fusions of hard bop and free jazz lyricism. On “Kitch Goes Home,” he’s at his best in enigmatic and lyrical interplay with Victor. He and the vocalist have terrific chemistry, especially on “An Open Letter,” which also includes a poised trio section with Campbell, Parker, and Downs. Parker plays with extraordinary freedom and imagination, and he always seems to be exactly where he needs to be. Listen to how he provides contrast, support, drive, or what ever is right for the situation on “De Night a De Wake.” Downs is equally at home, and because he is not obligated to play any particular role, he responds to each situation with a totally relaxed gracefulness and the appropriate dynamic level and density. Carter, in the company of peers just as he was in Test, gives reign to the full range of his abilities. He shows what an assured ensemble improviser and soloist he is “Three Friends Advised.”
Their one previous album with a special guest, Time Is of the Essence Is Beyond Time (AUM Fidelity, 1997) with Matthew Shipp, is darker and knottier than performances by the quartet alone. Vocalist Fay Victor is a better temperamental match for the group than Shipp. Her vibrant mix of melodic abstraction and sensual sounds and textures, her more buoyant spirituality and earthy sense of humor mesh well with the quartet.
The starting point for each improvisation is the words, and to a lesser extent the melody, of songs by calypso masters like Lord Executor, The Mighty Sparrow, and Lord Kitchener. For Victor the songs are well suited and meaningful in several ways. In her liner notes, she writes about her Trinidadian heritage and the personal connection these songs establish to her youth. As an artist, Victor does some of her best work on songs grounded in close observation of everyday life, like “Joe’s Car,” and “Seasons” on The Freesong Suite (Green Avenue Music). Calypso songs like “Saltfish Refried” and “Three Friends Advised” suit her sensibilities perfectly.
The transformation of the songs into free improvisation is perhaps most analogous to Parker’s Inside Song of Curtis Mayfield project, in which the songs of Chicago soul singer Curtis Mayfield are jumping off points for free improvisations that knit together the entire black music continuum. On Kaiso Stories, the song is also the starting point, but there is no obligation to play it straight or to even play the entire song, nor is it really desirable under the circumstances. For instance on “Maryanne Revisited,” Victor stretches the melody, ignores it, creates her own variations of it, breaks it apart, then springboards into a soaring improvisation with the band. “De Night a De Wake” is a similarly loose interpretation, in which free jazz instrumentals and calypso lyrics dovetail to reveal the joys and frustrations of day-to-day life and to say something essential about the spiritual strength needed to survive. On the other hand, Victor’s unaccompanied performance of “John Gilman Wants Tobacco” is a straight-ahead, loving interpretation.
The improvisations are imbued with the sounds and feelings, but never the traditional form, of music from throughout the African Diaspora. Victor’s Trinidadian accent adds new inflections and sounds to her singing, to accompany the jazz, African, blues, and abstract sound she already uses. There’s a trumpet-like clarity to her full alto voice but there’s a textured core that gives it nuances of feeling. It can be dark and menacing; it can be uninhibitedly celebratory; it can be playful or dead serious. Campbell is heard on a variety of nonwestern flutes and pipes, and Parker plays gembri and duduk, instruments used out of their traditional context that nevertheless infuse the music with global sounds. It’s the group’s ability to fit all these sounds into shaped and dramatic improvisations that make the album so exciting.
Calypso, often called the people’s newspaper because it expressed truths or told stories excluded from the mainstream media that supported a racist power elite in Trinidad and Tobago, has a spiritual if not a formal affinity with the free jazz of Other Dimensions in Music. It’s this universal truth-to-power aspect of the music that provides the link between traditions. The spiritual kinship allows ODIM and Victor to find other dimensions in the songs through the free jazz idiom. Calypso may be popular music, and free jazz may be more of an art music, but this album suggests that they grow from a common soil. It’s just that their blossoms take very different shapes.