Reviews of Recent Recordings
So devoted is the group to a kind of continuous sound and organic whole that the two-CD Whobub lists the group’s members without identifying instruments, but here they are anyway: Frédéric Blondy, piano; Bertrand Denzler, tenor saxophone; Jean-Luc Guionnet, alto saxophone; Jean-Sébastién Mariage, guitar; and Edward Perraud, percussion. There may be additional instruments used, but somehow I don’t think so. Whobub documents two performances, each an emblem of the kind of gradual unfolding of which the group are masters. “Who,” the first disc, is a single 43-minute piece, expanding and unfolding with a kind of focused calm. It begins in relatively isolated and identifiable sounds, most notably Mariage’s bare, sustained guitar notes struck with a pick. Other sounds enter discreetly, some clearly traceable to an individual instrument, others not; densities shift, time stretches, and there’s a kind of calm that is very close to listening to nature (human nature?), as if silence is being gently embellished. “Bub 1,” its 32 minutes the bulk of the second performance, has stretches of extraordinary delicacy, including a lengthy phase in which Guionnet’s whispering harmonics creating a kind of sonic veil with Perraud’s tinkling Zen-monastery percussion and Blondy’s whistling string glissandi. The brief “Bub 2” continues to develop the same attenuated atmosphere, the group becoming a kind of close-mic’d and multiply-amplified gong. As with Hubbub’s previous recorded performances, the constant subtle gradations and close interactions create a kind of panoramic unity, abrasions and pleasantries alike folding into a larger tapestry.
Mark Dresser + Irina-Kalina Goudeva + JC Jones + Barre Phillips + Bert Turetzky
Israeli bassist JC Jones is responsible for Kadima Collective, a label distinguished by both its documentation of Israeli free improvisation and by its devotion to great bassists – most notably Mark Dresser, Joëlle Léandre, and Barre Phillips – on individual discs and in a series of “Triptychs” that include supplementary booklets and DVDs. The most ambitious of the Kadima associated projects was the 2009 Deep Tones for Peace, a performance of 13 bassists located in Jerusalem and New York linked through the internet to perform together in real time a piece called “SLM” by Dresser and Sarah Weaver.
The present single disc gathers solo duo and quintet pieces from concerts in Israel prior to the groundbreaking “telematic” performance. It includes five of the bassists: Mark Dresser, Irina-Kalina Goudeva, JC Jones, Barre Phillips, and Bert Turetzky. The Deep Tones for Peace project makes a connection between the literally and the figuratively profound, between the lowest notes of music and issues of peace and conflict resolution. There’s clearly a sense of something very special in this gathering, based in part on the sheer unlikelihood of an ensemble of five improvising bass virtuosi in the Holy Land. Listening itself to lower register music requires a special kind of concentration, working at making close distinctions among pitches where music doesn’t usually demand that we go. The music heard here is less about virtuosity than depths of feeling and communication. It opens with the only composed work on the disc, Bulgarian composer Julia Tsenova’s “Menada” composed for Goudeva’s bass and voice. It’s a strongly invocative piece touching on trance and ritual and develops a tone consistent with the improvisations that follow.
It’s always fascinating to hear musicians of the first rank assembling work together out of the same instrumental resource. There’s no sense here of limitation, but rather of possibility, a host of bowing, plucking and striking techniques coming into earshot (some of which produce—inevitably—very high notes). There are no tracks without interest. A duo of Turetzky and Phillips stands out for its bowed lyricism; a pizzicato duo of Dresser and Jones develops tremendous rhythmic density. There’s an extended piece by the full quintet that develops tremendous emotional turbulence with bowed glissandi, while Phillips’s concluding solo is imbued with a rare incantatory power. While it may be inspired by its special circumstance, this work stands on its own merits as improvised music of the highest order.
Nate Wooley Quintet
Canada Day has been Eisenstadt’s primary vehicle for integrating his divergent interests since 2007, often yielding a rich fusion of inside and outside concepts that remain palatable to mainstream sensibilities. A masterful tunesmith with a keen ear for intriguing compositional gambits, Eisenstadt infuses his writing for the group with a strong melodic undercurrent, relying on his bandmates to expand beyond notated material into vanguard territory, balancing conventional song-craft with unfettered abstraction.
The birth of Eisenstadt’s son, Owen, exerted considerable sway over the creative arc that informs Canada Day II, which offers an intriguing mix of emotionally direct tunes written after his son’s birth and more intricate fare that was composed beforehand. In Eisenstadt’s own words: “My wife had just given birth and I was kind of floating along in a tired and sentimental way. I found myself writing simple songs ... in stark contrast to the way I’d formulated [pieces] which were written before Owen was born.”
The album’s easygoing demeanor is implicit from the start; Eisenstadt introduces the stirring opener, “Cobble Hook,” with a carefree unaccompanied drum solo that perfectly complements the tune’s sunny melody. Eivind Opsvik’s pulsating bass lines inspire vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s effervescent cascades, which in turn fuel Matt Bauder’s probing tenor saxophone musings – the net effect is infectiously uplifting. The nursery rhyme inspired melody of “Song For Owen” elicits subdued statements from Bauder, Wooley and Dingman, who ruminate on the nostalgic theme with sumptuous lyricism.
The second half of the set is dominated by the more complex “To” based pieces (“To Eh,” “To Be,” and “To See/Tootie”) which were composed before Owen’s birth, revealing Eisenstadt’s facility for writing complex, yet accessible suites. Each composition modulates through an episodic series of changes in color, dynamics and mood, such as “To See/Tootie,” which features one of Nate Wooley’s most ear-opening trumpet excursions, and “To Seventeen,” which ebbs with a laconic reggae beat, inspiring a bluesy lament from Wooley, whose bristling contributions are among the record’s high points.
“Judo with Tokyo Joe (for John Zorn)” ends the album on a moody, cinematic note, the title referring to an old Humphrey Bogart film Eisenstadt watched with Zorn, who encouraged the young drummer to get back into composing despite his exhaustion as a new parent. In spite of the rather unremarkable title, Canada Day II contains some rather remarkable music, making it a fine follow-up to the quintet’s debut, and proving that negotiating the balance between family and art can sometimes have its advantages.
Making a radical departure from the austere minimalism of the lowercase improv scene he has long been associated with, Wooley’s (Put Your) Hands Together is the most accessible and traditional release of his career to date. This new ensemble spins a subtle variation on Wooley’s former quartet with vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Reuben Radding and late drummer Take Toriyama, which was disbanded after Toriyama’s untimely passing. Mirroring Eisenstadt’s Canada Day in instrumentation and personnel, Wooley’s quintet features Moran as the only holdover from his old quartet, with Opsvik and Eisenstadt joined by bass clarinetist Josh Sinton.
A mostly spare and relaxed affair, (Put Your) Hands Together is inspired in part by Wooley’s formative experiences playing in big bands alongside his father, with each piece dedicated to one of the important women in his life. In a March 2011 interview with fellow trumpeter Douglas Detrick, published by FONT (Festival of New Trumpet Music), Wooley describes the album’s origin: “It’s mostly a thank you to the women that raised me, my mom, my wife, my grandmother and all of her sisters ... It’s also a nod and a thank you to my dad who has always wanted me to just make a record where I am playing notes in time with a rhythm section ... Those parts are for him and for my mom who also would like to hear a record that doesn’t sound like ‘breaking glass’ as she puts it.” Conceding to their wishes, Wooley integrates foundational jazz elements (standard chord changes, recognizable time signatures, etc.) into his oblique themes, yielding a beautiful neo-traditionalist hybrid subtly reminiscent of the adventurous 1960s Blue Note records of Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson.
Adapting a traditional framework as the foundation for his wayfaring explorations, Wooley’s confident opening statement on the infectious title track is emblematic of his unorthodox technique, which incorporates everything from the under-pressured pedal tones of Bill Dixon to the coruscating dissonances and breathy microtonality popularized by European practitioners like Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger. Slowly building through a series of thematic variations, he gradually increases the velocity and frequency of his attack, amplifying the textural density of his lines without drifting into bombastic histrionics or overpowering the underlying structure of the tune. Possessing a soulful timbre far earthier than most of his peers, at his most extreme, as on “Cecilia,” he elicits coruscating flurries of breathy ululations and hoarse cries that exceed the limits of prescribed tonality. Yet his range is extremely broad; his sublime ruminations on “Hazel” and his heartfelt dialogue with Sinton on a folksy duo version of “Shanda Lea” – an Appalachian-tinged theme that appears in triplicate across the album – are heartbreaking in their intimate emotional candor.
Wooley’s bandmates bring a similar sensibility to the leader’s unassuming material, carefully extrapolating his catchy angular melodies with poetic restraint. Their congenial interplay on the contrapuntal “Elsa” (loosely based on “Lazy Bird”) and driving “Cecelia” (borrowing changes from “Confirmation”) boost the energy level of the session, with “Ethyl” employing a particularly imaginative use of contrary motion, as Sinton’s caterwauling bass clarinet is offset by the intermittent punctuations of a revolving minimalist motif.
Though (Put Your) Hands Together finds Wooley occasionally tempering his uncompromising technique to play actual changes in straight time, there is no sense of concession in this music; his efforts in this context are as sincere and compelling as his more abstract efforts. This compromise between extreme expressionism and a more conventional approach highlights his unique sensibility, presenting his singular talents in a new light, one which resounds with endless potential.
On his latest CD, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin casts an appraising eye on the organ combo genre with the help of Gary Versace on Hammond B3 and drummer Gerald Cleaver. In many respects, Eskelin is the perfect man for the job. He plays with a joie de vivre that’s in keeping with the good-time vibe of some of the great organ trio saxophonists like Stanley Turrentine and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. But he also has a mile-wide subversive streak and a habit of finding clever ways to warp or undermine cliché and convention. Certainly the organ combo genre has its share of conventions and clichés and Eskelin knows them well enough to have his way with most of them on this delightful CD. Without resorting to parody or belittling this once-popular style of hard bop, Trio New York takes organ combo chestnuts such as “Lover Come Back to Me” and “Witchcraft” and loosens their joints, stretching them into vehicles for lusty free jazz improvisation. It’s a nicely balanced attack of brains and brawn that deconstructs the genre while paying respect to it. Eskelin approached popular black jazz of the 50s in a similar manner on The Sun Died, a 1996 Soul Note album devoted primarily to Chicago tough tenor Gene Ammons’s tunes. If anything, Trio New York is both subtler and more adventurous, more at home with the music and less self conscious about taking liberties with it.
Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” is a case in point. The trio slips in quietly about as far from the tune as possible, playing out of tempo and deliberately piecing together a patchwork performance into an increasingly fluid collective improvisation that slowly homes in on a relaxed tempo. It’s a risky approach because the emergence of the melody must sound natural and unforced and they have a long way to go to get to it, but their interpretation hangs together well. Abstract as it is, the spirit of organ jazz courses through it. Versace works the bass pedals with great skill, something many dabblers in the Hammond B3, who treat it like a giant electric piano, often neglect. Eskelin’s mellow virility suits the medium ballad tempo nicely, even as his lines glance off in unforeseen directions and he threads his analytical way around hard bop conventions. Cleaver keeps up a conversational interchange with the group, but he’s also always thinking his way around obvious responses or trite approaches.
Monk’s “Off Minor” receives a similarly informed but adventurous treatment. First of all, they all use Monk’s melody as the basis for their individual and collective development of the music – a sure sign that they understand what Monk is about. But they willingly follow their variations further and further away from the tune into entirely fresh areas. Versace is especially impressive on this track, both for what he plays and for what he doesn’t. When he lays off the keyboard and just pumps the bass lines during Eskelin’s solo, one can’t help thinking of the way Monk used to stroll during horn solos. Versace’s own solo features darting lines that hip hop upward and downward in an irregular pulse over an aggressive bass line, achieving the kind of awkward grace that Monk did, without using Monk’s vocabulary.
“Lover Come Back to Me,” which opens with a solo tenor introduction and then settles into an extended trio jam that hews pretty close to steady a medium groove, still finds ways to defy convention in myriad ways. Versace erupts out of the pocket with Sun Ra patches of sound and spacey timbres. Cleaver pulls the beat out from under the band, and then subtly slips it back in, working his accents into gaps in the music, pursuing his own ideas while remaining attuned to the energy level and direction of the soloists. Eskelin maintains an unperturbed demeanor, a laid-back vitality harnessed to penetrating wit. Trio New York is good, intelligent fun, relaxed but engaged and very hip. It may be avant-garde, but it’s still organ combo jazz.
Peter Evans Quintet
Since graduating from Oberlin Conservatory in 2003, trumpeter Peter Evans has quickly risen to the creative forefront of the fertile New York scene. An artist of catholic taste, Evans has simultaneously performed Baroque repertoire at the Barge Music Series, deconstructed idiomatic conventions with Mostly Other People Do the Killing and explored new sonic territory with Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Inspired in part by Parker’s integration of live electronic processing into an acoustic environment, the new quintet premiered on Ghosts (the inaugural release from Evan’s More Is More Records imprint) features Sam Pluta on laptop, who augments an otherwise conventional line-up with jittery electronics. Evans’ longstanding bassist Tom Blancarte is the only holdover from Evans’ original quartet; his familiarity with the trumpeter’s aesthetic lends the session an undercurrent of stability, even at its most frantic. Rounding out the group, pianist Carlos Homs’ sophisticated harmonies and cascading filigrees provide urbane contrast to veteran drummer Jim Black’s streetwise beats and shrewd accents. Together these four instrumentalists confer a rich palette for Pluta’s kaleidoscopic treatments.
Despite the inclusion of Pluta as a live sound processor, Evans’ quintet continues to work a mercurial variation on traditional forms, much like his previous quartet endeavors, where archetypal chord changes and harmonic progressions are deconstructed, transposed and modulated with freewheeling verve. This approach is emblematic of Evans’ oeuvre, which aims for an ecstatic convergence of idioms, such as fusing the motoric ostinatos of minimalism with the spiritual fervor of the New Thing. Plying an imaginative variation on these tropes, Evans leads his ensemble into numerous episodes of ascending euphoria; his lyrical variations on “...One to Ninety Two” are multiplied by Pluta into dense chromatic layers that confound sentimental allusions to Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” while the rhythm section pirouettes through vacillating time signatures, creating a dramatic sense of tension that avoids predictable resolution.
Evans’ conservatory training is evident not only in his cerebral approach towards compositional theory, but in soaring virtuosic flights that cut through labyrinthine counterpoint and cantilevered polyrhythms with a brilliant purity of tone. A master of extended techniques with an all-inclusive embrace of the trumpet lineage, he is equally content exploring the axioms of tradition as he is deconstructing them. His nostalgic refrains on the title track (based on Victor Young’s “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You”) and an ethereal version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” are as poignant as the intervallic arpeggios he unleashes on “Articulation” and the coarse vocalizations he conjures on “323” are striking.
Considering Evans’ continued interest in reconfiguring abstracted standard forms, the principle difference between this date and his previous group efforts is Pluta’s real-time electronic manipulations. Running individual performances through various effects (reverb, delay, distortion, etc.) before refracting their sampled refrains back as shadowy accompanists, Pluta’s glitchy flourishes and staggered loops intermittently obscure details of the proceedings, fulfilling Evans’ stated intent to simultaneously merge the past, present and future. The end result is somewhere between brilliant and maddening, with most of Pluta’s contributions residing somewhere in-between. Seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the ensemble, the phantasmagoric mosaic Pluta knits from Evans’ legato tones on “Chorales” culminates in hypnotic bliss, but whether Evans is actually playing to this psychedelic effect is more difficult to ascertain than the synchronicity proffered by Evans and Homs later in the same piece. Eventually settling into a mesmerizing trumpet and piano duet, the pair plies repeated motifs that modulate between keys and tempos; though subtly enhanced by Pluta’s mixing, his role is secondary to Evans’ and Homs’ stirring rapport – a significant revelation that carries on throughout this challenging, but rewarding session.