Reviews of Recent Recordings
Farmers By Nature
The collaborative trio Farmers By Nature has harvested an abundance of critical acclaim since their inception in 2007. Formed by ubiquitous drummer Gerald Cleaver with longstanding compatriots bassist William Parker and pianist Craig Taborn, they operate as a democratically improvising collective more than a traditional piano trio. Inverting the conventional roles of their respective instruments, they cultivate an earthy, organic approach that lends credence to their name, which draws inspiration from the ancient traditions of farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Out Of This World’s Distortions is the follow-up to their self-titled AUM Fidelity debut, which was recorded live at the Stone in 2008. This studio session pristinely conveys a continuous exchange of ideas that expand through a wide range of dynamics, veering from understated pointillism to raucous expressionism. Their conversational interplay espouses the hushed tones of pellucid key strokes, bowed string harmonics and shimmering cymbal washes as readily as the dense note clusters, thrumming bass drones and roiling trap set palpitations of their more aggressive excursions – often segueing seamlessly between approaches in the same tune.
The trio’s dedication to free improvisation supersedes attention to formal concerns like melody, harmony and rhythm, yet their intuitive rapport often congeals into spontaneous structures implying such tenets. While the quiet lament “For Fred Anderson” opens the date with an air of placid introspection, the album’s epic centerpiece “Tait’s Traced Traits” follows, quickly ascending from a scattershot series of three-way diatribes into a roiling torrent of interlocking percussive activity. The labyrinthine profusion of Taborn’s bristling arpeggios, Parker’s abstruse pizzicati and Cleaver’s roughhewn contrapuntal downbeats yields a shambling juggernaut of abstract rhythmic invention, eventually dissipating into deconstructed blues variations capped by Cleaver’s ritualistic cadenza.
The remainder of the record veers between sonic extremes, gracefully fluctuating from the impressionistic serenity of the evocatively titled “Out of This World’s Distortions Grow Aspens and Other Beautiful Things” to the hypnotic rapture of “Sir Snacktray Speaks.” The tumultuous “Cutting’s Gait” embraces a multi-hued approach, trading swirling chromatic eddies for an angular vamp of hammered piano refrains and throttling bass ostinati underscored by a pugnacious funk backbeat, while the album closer “Mud, Mapped,” glacially modulates from muted ruminations to rollicking fervor before subsiding in a tranquil coda.
Cleaver states in the liner notes that the album’s title, Out Of This World’s Distortions, alludes to his fascination with the Earth’s stoic resilience in the face of mankind’s selfish disregard for his environment. Embracing the metaphor, Farmers By Nature offers a novel variation on an enduring format that transcends customary expectations through considered interplay and empathetic unanimity.
Few contemporary musicians have explored as many different – and frequently overlapping – genres as Fred Frith: traditional folk, indie rock, free improv, chamber composition, po-mo retro, graphic scores, and several, like this one at hand, that may not have a name yet. An extended piece of over an hour’s length, “Clearing Customs” could be thought of as a long-form blend of compositional strategies and improvisation, but it was spliced together from separate concert and studio performances in Saarbrücken and Baden-Baden, which adds another degree of detached consideration to the compositional process. The music is defined by the specific personnel and unusual instrumentation – trumpeter Tilman Müller, drummer Marque Gilmore, Anantha Krishnan on mridangam and tablas (both Indian percussion instruments), Patrice Scanlon and Daniela Cattivelli on electronics, Wu Fei on guzheng (a Chinese zither) and vocals, and Frith on guitar and “home-made instruments.” And this is where the title of the piece comes in.
To “clear Customs” is to pass through scrutiny in order to cross a border. Certainly, a multi-ethnic, stylistically diverse group like this, involving traditional as well as modern instruments, requires some crossing of musical borders in order to find a common musical ground. Of course, various fusions of World Music exist, but the danger is of easy, superficial assimilation and dilution of the original music’s power and identity – those strengths found in its established customs. There is also the question of what is customary behavior in focused circumstances combining different members of an “international” society, within an improvising ensemble, or among participants in an unorthodox, yet structured, mutually dependent activity. Frith addresses some of these issues in his program notes, and acknowledges that total agreement is not possible in an unaccustomed situation like this. So, musically speaking, what do we have?
Rather than attempt to adapt the individual talents into a single compositional format, Frith devised a score that induces the music to progress in a horizontal manner – a sequence of consecutive events, layers of interaction, and blending or contrasting details, with concise areas of guided actions and plenty of room for individual contributions. Surprisingly, the electronics are the most prominent feature throughout the piece, with distinctive colors and textures, unexpected sampled effects, rumbling drones and spiky interruptions, often slicing through the environment. Not surprisingly, Müller’s trumpet supplies the jazziest moods. As the musicians co-inhabit segments of time they create a cross-talk of rhythms and styles; brief echoes of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean court musics and lyrical folk songs emerge and recede, with the ensemble thickening and thinning out to sustain momentum. There are moments of tension, of tranquility, of aridity. But the strongest impression that the music makes, and the clue that Frith has succeeded at his goal, is that this sounds not like the result of a single vision, but rather of a true ensemble – a cohesive community of effort.
Iro Haarla Quintet
Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier has a great opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s difficult not to hear Iro Haarla saying the same with “A Port On A Distant Shore,” which commences her stunningly deep Vespers. Initially, trumpeter Mathias Eick softly states the theme, with Haarla’s harp understating its harmonic movement with dry tones that for a split second can be mistaken for a guitar. It’s a melody that ends ambivalently, which gives the entrance of Trygve Seim’s breathy tenor saxophone a sigh’s worth of sail. With the mooring bass of Ulf Krokers and the seemingly far-off swells of Jon Christensen’s cymbals in their wake, Eick and Seim approach the theme’s heart-rending core; yet, as if caught by crosscurrents, their lines drift apart, leaving Seim to solo, his tone vacillating between throaty proclamation and nasal, Asian-tinged plaint. Throughout Seim’s solo, Haarla and Kroker’s every note and Christensen’s every stroke is immaculately placed to sustain an unobtrusive level of dramatic tension. Eick’s reentry triggers the final emotional wave; think “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” arranged for jazz quintet – a delicate depiction of impending devastation.
“A Port ...” is a sublime tone-setting track in large part because it features Haarla’s harp, which significantly alters the palette of her quintet. In the past, the harp has been represented as decidedly secondary to her piano. However, the harp plays an important role in Haarla’s music, one that’s comparable to Alice Coltrane’s: It has an archetypal bearing the piano can’t touch, and it invigorates gambits that frequently register as generic with the piano, a case in point being the ascending harp cascades softly lighting “A Window Facing South,” the third track. Furthermore, the simple sequencing choice of front-loading two tracks with harp promotes the primordial tinge initially brought to Finnish jazz by Edward Vesala, Haarla’s late husband, more vividly than on her 2006 ECM debut, Northbound. It colors her piano playing throughout the album, as well. The Alice Coltrane comparison is also applicable to the simmering block chords and trills Haarla employs on the vamp-driven “Doxa,” which also features a fervent exchange between Eick and Seim. Though the harp is sparingly used in the second half of the program, its gentle washing of Seim’s yearning-filled soprano on “Satoyama” reinforces the album’s sea journey theme at a strategic point in the proceedings, just prior to the resolution of the album’s terse undercurrents with the last three tracks, culminating with “Adieux,” another affecting heart-on-sleeve composition.
Haarla’s cohorts deserve immense credit for the emotional impact of her music. Eick and Seim are an exquisitely balanced front line, attuned to the fine shading of each other’s attack and tone; Krokers and Christensen are equally well-matched in their regard for space and dynamics. They all share a necessary capacity for understatement; some of Haarla’s more penetrating themes would flounder in melodrama were they played more broadly. Vespers is masterful in part because they walk such a fine line in terms of expression; but, then, it is Haarla’s heart-bound course they are following.
How many jazz lovers, outside of Chicago, know Eddie Johnson’s music? He played tenor sax in Cootie Williams’ 1946 band when Duke Ellington tried to hire him. Instead Johnson joined the better-paying Louis Jordan and for two years rarely got to solo. After that he was in Chicago bands, recorded with Eddie South and others, and in 1951 he was a big-tenor sax balladeer on Chess Records (http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/johnson.html shows an old ad for Johnson’s “Overnight Hit!” single of “Walk Softly”). A day job cut down his career for most of three decades, then, though he subbed for Paul Gonsalves on some Ellington gigs. He retired in 1979 and for the next 25 years enjoyed the most musical success of his life.
This CD is a delight. It’s a reissue of Eddie Johnson’s only LP, from 1981, and he has all of Ben Webster’s virtues, abundantly. Of course, stylistically and by age Johnson was a contemporary of post-Websters like Gonsalves, Al Sears, Flip Phillips – usually, Johnson was better. In fact, he was often almost as dramatic and as subtle as Webster himself. His solo in the Duke Jordan ballad “Misty Thursday” is a heartbreaker, centered on the dark theme, with increasing strain in his tone, crying notes in the bridge, and a sobbing vibrato to end. That big sound of Johnson’s, so emotive and changeable, becomes buoyant, triumphant in fast tempos, for instance an especially melodically creative “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” These solos unfold, are revealed – both slyness and swagger in “Self-Portrait (of the Bean),” flowing melodies that crest in “Indian Summer,” behind-the-beat blues to big on-the-beat swing in “Splanky.” “Blue Star” is another favorite for the way he cherishes Benny Carter’s fine melody.
His Quintet is the Jazz Masters Quintet that played weekly in the 1980s in downtown Chicago and in the ‘90s on the south side. Paul Serrano is a Taoist of swing-to-bop trumpet – all lyricism, no bravura, no riffing; see how he evades cliché in “Splanky” – in a way a missing link between Roy Eldridge and ‘50s Miles Davis. John Young is a most sophisticated piano accompanist, with quick ears, and as a soloist he is quite a trip: a different style every four bars, showers of flowery runs, climactic block chords with trills. Young’s is very much a Chicago style, and familiarity brings contentment. Eddie de Haas plays slightly behind-the-beat yet propulsive bass while you don’t notice that George Hughes is actually a busy drummer because his accenting is so pertinent.
Johnson, who died two years ago, performs on albums with big bands, singers, and other players, but only led one other session, the 1999 Love You Madly, featuring this same quintet (Delmark). That one also features fine tenor solos and an unusual repertoire.
Anne Le Berge
Anne Le Berge’s interview with Ig Henneman for the latter’s 7-disc retrospective, Collected (Wig), was an excellent read; their collegial rapport not only elicited a substantive conversation of the violist-composer’s work, but also conveyed a sense of how women bond in an arena where they are vastly outnumbered by men. Intriguingly, Le Berge uses an interview – albeit a fictional and increasingly strange exchange with Mary Anderson, the Alabama woman who invented the windshield wiper for automobiles – as the basis for “Drive,” the 25-minute work that commences the unfailingly bristling Speak. After her prelude-like, multiphonic flute solo, Le Berge introduces computer-generated sounds approximating a steam-powered typewriter, which wrap around the voices like an iridescent fog. The initially whimsical tone of the interview becomes progressively surreal as “Anderson,” who has a credible accent, elaborates upon an imaginary preacher’s idea that all God’s machines – including the female body – function best when regularly cleaned. Interludes of processed flute frame a subsequent, bizarre counterpoint between severely spliced texts about workings of the diesel engine and pubescent females and, finally, a text-book excerpt detailing the evolution of the uterus during a women’s lifetime. The latter triggers a final onslaught of brayed flute phrases and low-end electronic rumbles that winds down to long flute tones that mirror the piece’s beginning.
Women-centric texts figure in other pieces, as well. “Brokenheart” refers to Broken Heart Syndrome, a stress-induced condition suffered mainly by post-menopausal women. Le Berge reads an unaltered encyclopedic description of the condition as sine waves are squeezed in and out of audibility amidst layers of Cor Fuhler’s piano interior manipulations, an unsettling mashing of the clinical and the abstract – the piece ends with a particularly strong passage, melding of flute, scraped piano strings and computer-generated sounds. A Marie Curie letter is the nucleus of “ur_DU;” the clanging of metal balls and processed female voices creating another stark contrast between human warmth and mechanical coldness. A quasi-autobiographical story about the role of loudspeakers in a contemporary musician’s life is read on the closing “800 Speakers;” fittingly, it places Le Berge’s mastery of speaker delivery of music front and center. “away,” is the odd duck in that the original poem Le Berge reads is not as central to the piece as the 19-tone tempered scale or the brassy synthesized tones she employs. Still, every track on Speak speaks exceedingly well of Le Berge’s conceptual boldness and resourcefulness; each is its own world.