Reviews of Recent Recordings
Muhal Richard Abrams
Pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams is probably most widely known for his remarkable string of large ensemble recordings for Black Saint/Soul Note throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Although it’s not noted as often as it should be, during that same period he also engaged in a series of equally fine duet recordings with Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell and others. They are fascinating dialogs. Without being self-effacing, Abrams is nevertheless selfless in these settings. He plays in a manner that heightens the strengths of his musical partner while still giving the music his own distinctive stamp. He somehow shifts the focus off of himself and onto his partner in these settings, and if you think the horn player is performing especially well, rest assured it’s because of Abrams. This elusive skill is very much in evidence on the superb SoundDance, which devotes a CD each to recent concert recordings of Abrams duets with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and trombonist and laptop artist George Lewis.
Recorded in October 2009 just eight months before Anderson died, “Focus, ThruTime…Time ®” displays all the wisdom of age and little of its infirmity. Surprisingly, Anderson and Abrams rarely worked together over the years, but they brought so much experience and know-how to improvising that they didn’t need a lifetime of working together to be able to immediately make great music, and this hour-long improvisation is a command performance of the facts, a deep and true musical essay on the way it is. There’s nothing extraneous, no casting about; the music is just there.
They start out with proposal/counter proposal exchanges. Each of them place notes in smaller and larger intervals that define shapes but don’t force the music in any specific direction. The back and forth continues until they are playing at the same time, the music now defined by their shared parallel energies; the momentum of their individual lines; the way their phrases overlap to varying extents; or stop and start, sometimes together, sometimes not. Like so much of the performance, these opening moments come down to a masterful, wily, uncanny sense of time that allows them to synchronize their playing in countless different ways.
They move into a section emphasizing space and sound, leaning more heavily on dynamics and tonal inflections. (The performance is continuous, but divided into tracks at logical places; this is labeled “Part 2.”) Again they let the music grow without one of them seeming to control the direction more than the other. Anderson’s tones and trills extend into long lashing, snaking lines and Abrams gathers steam along side him, building swinging momentum without recourse to conventional jazz devices. Abrams is beyond genre, and this recasting of the concept of swing is a key to his elusive power. It feels like jazz, but it doesn’t sound like any jazz that came before it.
The last two sections are among Anderson’s best recordings, a summary statement of his art, and if indeed this is his last recording, a fitting final monument to a great artist. Beginning with tender, weary tenor saxophone melodies, the music gets more and more tumultuous, climaxing in a long series of variations and extensions on a broad tenor theme that wind down to a spent and achingly beautiful conclusion. That’s the broad outline, but it’s Abrams’s empathy and Anderson’s openness that fills in the details along the way, fleshing it out into a full testimony of life’s joys and disappointments. At times, Abrams envelops the tenor lines with obsidian chords, dark sculptural forms with a menacing presence that heighten the tension in the music. But he can lighten the mood with a sunny embellishment that seems to remind Anderson of happier possibilities and the music momentarily grows consonant and carefree. His support of Anderson’s grand climactic thematic improvisation is a model of sympathetic imagination, a gracious concession of the spotlight for Anderson’s moment of special grace.
Recorded almost a year later, the duet with Lewis, his trombone, and computer, moves Abrams into the digital age, finding a way to provide human contexts for an improvising electronic device. Lewis has been programming computers to interact musically with people – humanizing the technology, not mechanizing the humans – for a couple decades. And Abrams, the king of negative capability, makes an especially good partner to engage with Lewis’s unique improvising laptop. It’s a stretch for Abrams, a new world, and he rises to the occasion with a performance of unfailing imagination and vitality.
It’s Abrams’s ability to frame a duet partner’s contribution, his way of providing an underlying pattern that supports the other improvisation, that once again lifts the music and draws you into it. There’s a composerly development of the spontaneously created materials, whether they are generated by a human controlling a mechanical instrument or a human controlling a digital one. The continuous performance begins with low piano rumblings underlying nocturnal computer sounds – choruses of white noise, insect-like chirrs and whirrs, distant airplane take-offs. As Abrams accelerates, bouncing staccato motifs around in the low register, the laptop sounds grow more rhythmically charged, ballooning into a canopy of whooshing sounds sailing above Abrams’s dancing lines. Part two features a trombone-piano duet with Abrams’s abstract stride and Lewis’s joyful irony turning it into a sci-fi “Weather Bird.”
The sheer novelty of the electronic sounds and Abrams’s unerring ability to frame them consistently yields moments of delightful, alienated beauty. Abrams cascading lines rush along pursued by rapidly overlapping barking sounds, as if he was being chased by angry seals. A fast, repeated piano motifs punctuated with chords roll on as they are met with whomping, cavernous electronic thrums. Brilliant treble chords sparkle and Abrams’s undulating sweeps up the keyboard are cut through by quavering musical-saw sounds. Time and again, Abrams reaches out delicate finger-fronds of notes, sensitive and tremulous that throb in unison with every electronic movement and tone, as if fingering the music.
More than forty years ago, Abrams helped found a revolution in jazz with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Today, with performances like these, he continues to sustain it.
JD Allen Trio
On their fourth album (their third for Sunnyside), the JD Allen Trio continues exploring the subtleties of the post-bop tradition with fervid dedication. Melodic, propulsive and concise, the dozen, consistently catchy tunes comprising Victory! each clock in under four minutes, with some half that duration. This commitment to brevity yields a bounty of succinct, spirited improvisations bolstered by virtuosic interplay.
Despite their predilection for driving swing, Allen’s trio easily circumvents rhythm section clichés, plying a cooperative approach towards focused group improvisation and implied forward momentum. Longstanding bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston interact with the Detroit-born tenor saxophonist as equal partners; their cagey three-way discourse on the rubato meditation “The Learned Tongue” brims with an intuitive rapport, complementing and cajoling Allen in an equitable exchange of Ornette-ish motifs. August’s melodious bass lines provide a solid foundation, but his expressive potential is never limited to mere time-keeping, as the oblique pizzicato ruminations of “The Hungry Eye” and sonorous arco glissandi of “Philippe Petit” demonstrate in rich detail. Royston is an equally spry and inventive collaborator with an enthusiastic attack that recalls the whiplash fervor of Elvin Jones tempered by the pointed accuracy of Roy Haynes and the melodious ingenuity of Max Roach.
Allen is a compelling soloist with a dark, full-bodied tone whose plangent cadences conjoin the soulful delivery of John Coltrane’s Atlantic sides with the harmonically unfettered lyricism of Ornette Coleman’s contemporaneous efforts. He unveils a sophisticated blues sensibility from the onset of the opener, easing into the tune gradually with long, confident notes that hang suspended in mid-air. “The Pilot’s Compass” follows, building to a much faster pace that reveals Allen’s impeccable precision at quicksilver tempos. He unleashes a meticulous torrent of cascading notes on “Motif,” a pulse-pounding duet with Royston that is closer to the locomotive urgency of Coltrane’s opening volleys with Jimmy Cobb on “Countdown” from Giant Steps (Atlantic) than the volatile tenor/drum salvos of Interstellar Space (Impulse!). Though heavily influenced by the seminal innovations of Post-War icons like Coltrane, Rollins and Shorter, Allen sidesteps traditional bop linearity in favor of cinematically evocative modality on “The Thirsty Ear” and “Sura Hinda,” while also revealing a more contemporary inspiration in “Mr. Steepy,” his homage to Branford Marsalis; Allen takes a page from Marsalis’ playbook and builds an exciting solo with coiled phrases, trumping Branford at his own game.
An experienced sideman to the late Betty Carter and a current associate of such mainstream swingers as Cindy Blackman and Jeremy Pelt, Allen’s aesthetic is similar to the young lions of the ‘80s – somewhat conservative in comparison to his own generation’s more audacious practitioners. Nonetheless, in the context of the current scene, Allen’s commitment to subtlety is refreshing, bringing a pithy immediacy to the spiraling cadences that dominate his brief “jukebox jazz” numbers. Though the JD Allen Trio’s nuanced efforts are far from revolutionary, they excel at one of the art form’s most venerated foundations – swing, both in and out of time – something not even the most advanced practitioners of the art form can always claim.
Derek Bailey may have denied such a thing existed (he did make an exception for Peter Brötzmann and Milford Graves) but this is a free jazz record. Saxophonist Thomas Borgmann has always distanced himself from “free music” or “free improvisation.” He has had little or no contact with the now devolving FMP circle. His energies are, if you like, centripetal rather than centrifugal. He is a consummate organiser rather than a natural libertarian or ad-hoccer. He’s the man behind the Stakkato festival in Berlin. He likes to be in a group rather than to be thrown together with whoever is passing through. He came out of the Berlin Art Ensemble and was a member of Sirone’s quartet for a time, before forming his own Orchstra Kith’n’Kin, Ruf der Heimat, Blue Zoo and the first incarnation of Boom Box, which began as a trio with Tony Buck and Joe Williamson. The latest version teams him with bassist Akira Ando and drummer Willi Kellers.
Previous trios included BMN with Wilber Morris and Reggie Nicholson and BMC with Morris and Denis Charles. They established a language in which the man from Münster sets his face against the saxophonic monstrosities of a Brötzmann – Brötz is undeniably an influence, though perhaps more at a personal level, and it’s fascinating and instructive to listen to Brötzmann after an hour or two of Borgmann; the similarities are more pronounced than not – in favour of deceptively simple lines in which intervals are nudged at, worried, teased apart but mostly spun out in long, segmentary lines. That begins to happen right at the beginning of “Little Birds Can Fly,” which has Borgmann on soprano and at his calmest and spareness. The next three tracks suggest something like a disconnected suite: Ando’s “How Far Can You Fly?” is taken on tenor, Kellers’ “Hey Little Bird” turns into an open-hearted swinger, and then something odd happens with the bassist’s “And To Where?,” on which Borgmann seems to reference “Bye Bye Blackbird” (logically enough) and “Hello Dolly.”
There are splashes of sopranino and harmonica, cleverly exploiting those instruments’ uncertainties and idiosyncrasies of pitch. The closing "Only For Dörte" is a mournful love-ballad, unreadable as to its exact emotional temper, pleasingly ambiguous. Compared to, say, William Parker, who worked with Borgmann, Brötzmann and Rashied Bakr in yet another earlier group, Ando doesn’t strain for transcendence or flight. His bass playing is best described as humane, affirmative, direct. When it levitates, it’s the physics of drag and lift that does the work, not some invocation of the numinous. Kellers is all movement and bus(i/y)ness, but intensely musical in every gesture. The only thing this group lacks is a grown-up name.
Celano Baggiani Group
Alienology is a pertinent case study of the old adage, “never judge a book by its cover.” Though the disturbing cartoon imagery emblazoned on the album jacket depicts surreal acts of nightmarish buffoonery, the actual music contained within – while occasionally menacing – is not without its charms, often revealing a tender lyricism that confounds preconceptions suggested by the transgressive cover art.
Celebrating a decade-long run, the Cellano Baggiani Group was formed in 2001 by guitarist Guillermo Celano and drummer Marcos Baggiani, Argentinean expatriates born in Buenos Aires who acquired their Masters degrees at Conservatorium van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Emblematic of New Dutch Swing, the group boasts a mercurial mélange of styles that is as diverse as the ethnic backgrounds of its personnel. American expatriate multi-instrumentalist Michael Moore (on alto saxophone and clarinet) and Spanish tenor saxophonist/flutist Gorka Benitez form an expressive front-line, with Dutch contrabassist Sven Schuster rounding out the quintet. Alienology is the ensemble’s fourth record, following 2008’s Nothing Changes (Trytone), and the second release to feature Benitez as a regular member of the line-up established on the sophomore quartet effort Simple Songs (MDR Records), from 2007.
Celano and Baggiani’s respective knack for integrating multiple genres into a cohesive writing style facilitates a wide spectrum of sonic possibilities, often transitioning seamlessly between divergent moods within the same number. Bolstering the unit’s kaleidoscopic palette, Celano employs a variety of techniques and EFX, from percolating cascades of precisely articulated notes to the coruscating dissonances of overdriven chord clusters. Baggiani shares Celano’s aesthetic inclinations with percussive ruminations that veer from lissome brush work and spare cymbal washes to throttling trap set eruptions. Schuster provides steadfast support through numerous contrapuntal variations with incisive timing and a robust tone – a detail highlighted during his numerous arco excursions, which resonate with surprisingly delicate mellifluousness. Moore and Benitez make an ideal pair; their idiosyncratic vocalizations and tonal manipulations buoy the session’s acerbic avant-garde episodes with expressionistic ardor while their understated balladry suits the band’s more introspective musings.
The epic centerpiece “Bank robbery” is indicative of Celano and Baggiani’s narrative compositional approach. Eschewing expected cinematic allusions, the lengthy meditation trades film noir ambience for long-form melodic development, arcing through a series of escalating themes that grows more opulent with each recapitulation. Conversely, “El cortito” finds them at their most capricious. Although the metallic salvos and histrionic cries that bookend the tune underscore the title’s intimations of political protest, a detour into aleatoric pointillism conceptually strays from the insinuated plight of migrant Mexican farm workers in favor of pure abstraction. Most of the quintet’s efforts vacillate between such extremes: the compelling opener “Potato boy” shifts suddenly from frenetic deconstruction to anthemic unity; the pastoral “Alien song” dramatically modulates from breezy euphony to brooding lyricism; “Abuela” gradually ascends from serene impressionism to cathartic expressionism, ending the date with focused intensity.
With their first decade now behind them, Celano and Baggiani have demonstrated persistent creativity worthy of greater acclaim. Alienology is an exceptional offering of sophisticated modern jazz and a noteworthy album by any measure.
Moon in Winter features percussionist Andrea Centazzo leading a mixed quintet co-organized by Baltimore-based pianist Nobu Stowe, who invited the Los Angeles-based artist to perform in his East Coast hometown in February of 2010. A renowned musicologist with eight books to his credit, Centazzo’s multi-decade career has included everything from solo percussion recitals and orchestra-scale efforts to electro-acoustic multi-media projects. His predilection for blurring genre lines between classical, jazz and world music is well-documented – an aesthetic that comes into play on this opulent date.
The ad-hoc ensemble featured herein includes a number of musicians Centazzo had not previously performed with before, lending the session a palpable sense of spontaneity. Working in a variety of configurations, from full quintet to quartet, trio and duo formats, trumpeter Dave Ballou, multi-reedist Achille Succi and contrabassist Daniel Barbiero lend their estimable talents to the record’s dulcet chamber music-like atmosphere, which occasional peaks with bristling excursions into more avant-garde territory. The thorny swinger “Moon in Winter III” exemplifies this approach, sashaying through an obtuse labyrinth of stop-start tempo changes and coiled intervals.
The numbered “Winter Duet” series features each sideman in a meditative dialogue with Centazzo, setting the underlying tone for the majority of the album. “First Winter Duet” spotlights Ballou’s ability to stretch the boundaries of timbre with a probing series of exploratory half-valve effects and extended brass techniques. “Second Winter Duet” bridges the gap between Eastern and Western tonalities as Succi’s breathy shakuhachi musings find serene concordance in Centazzo’s colorful Asiatic percussion. “Third Winter Duet” initially frames Stowe’s neo-classical pianism against the leader’s ritualistic opening drum salvos, eventually segueing into a lyrical discourse between incandescent vibraphone ruminations and the pianist’s incisive cadences.
At almost fifteen minutes in duration, “Moon in Winter V” serves as the album’s conceptual centerpiece and an episodic journey through Centazzo’s varied interests. His ceremonial solo introduction heralds the arrival of a regal melody evoking an exotic processional of vaguely Eurasian origin. Succi’s acerbic alto navigates the theme’s harmonic contours before Stowe and Barbiero intensify the tune with muscular brio. Barbiero’s resonant arco takes the lead for a moment, only to be supplanted by an extended group improvisation brimming with spiky pointillist overtones. Stowe ultimately restores a sense of robust romanticism with the aid of Barbiero’s sinewy bowing and Centazzo’s tasteful accents. The tune finally drifts into the impressionistic “Absolutely elsewhere,” which closes the set on an alternately contemplative and assertive note, full of nuanced detail and kaleidoscopic invention – an encapsulation of Centazzo’s expansive aesthetic in miniature.