Reviews of Recent Recordings
Billy Bang’s Survival Ensemble
It had always seemed to be, even before The Aftermath and Reflections came out in 2001 and 2004 respectively – and on a Canadian label! – that what happened to Bang in Vietnam, not to belittle the intensity or trauma of that experience, was less significant to him as an artist than what happened since he shipped out and returned to the US. He didn’t need Sun Ra, a one-time employer and a frequently overlooked influence on the violinist’s music and career, to tell him that if warfare is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror, arguably recalibrated in Vietnam to 50% grinding anxiety and 50% morbid self-indulgence, then life as a African-American in Fortress USA was likely to be compounded of equal parts alienation and rearguard community spirit. Bang’s life and work after 1968, recounted by Bill Shoemaker on the TUM release and more fully by Ed Hazell on the NoBusiness archive release, has an Ellisonian logic. Walker’s considerable intellect – which I found to be unexpectedly analytical when we met, not because I didn’t expect logic from a black man, but because I didn’t expect exegesis from someone who played like Bang – and his finely tuned, or attuned, awareness of social class and socio-economic positioning gave him a perspective on jazz music that makes the title of the posthumous TUM release with Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul seem all the more apposite.
After demob, Bang gravitated to the Basement on East 6th St on the Lower East Side, a fraternal meeting place that seems to have been quite different from better known performance spaces like Studio RivBea. The Arkestra was in quarters not far away. With a kid to support, Bang found himself shoveling coal in another basement, Richard Wright joining Ralph Ellison in the back-story. Politically, the place was a ferment, but with the muddled attitude to legitimate social action that one always finds in a nation at war. Bang had been kept out of a bank heist by a member of the gang, Clive Hunter, who became Bilal Abdul Rahman under the prison influence of the former H. Rap Brown, and then became the musical heart and moral centre of the Survival Ensemble, a saxophone player whose raw presence and ineluctable logic has something of the madrassah about it. He’s the revelation here. Where Bang skitters around on top, the one-time tunnel rat always eager for air and light, keen to exercise his poetic voice, it’s Rahman and the adamantine William Parker who give the music its gravitation.
Despite his reputation as the most internationally celebrated composer of the Soviet era, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) has not been as widely recognized by creative improvisers as Bela Bartók (1881-1945) or Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Though much of Shostakovich’s output employed similar strategies as his peers and forbearers, his harrowing relationship with Stalin’s regime became particularly strained when his music was deemed too formalistic. Bracing chamber works and controversial song cycles were stored away and rarely performed, yet his symphonies were perceived as heroic by authorities and satirical by intellectuals.
Canadian-born contrabassist Michael Bates has drawn inspiration from this subversive spirit on Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich. Kindled by the DIY ethics of his own punk rock past, Bates’ fascination with the furtive defiance of 20th Century Russian composers has been evident since the self-titled 2003 debut of his Outside Sources ensemble on Pommeranc Records, which included the telling ode “Dmitri.” Their sophomore follow-up, A Fine Balance (Between the Lines), featured a vibrant arrangement of Prokofiev’s “Cello Sonata in C Minor,” while the group’s third album, Clockwise (Greenleaf) ended with an arresting tribute entitled “The Russian School.” What differentiates this project is personnel and focus; Bates assembled a hand-picked quintet to tackle a full-length program directly inspired by Shostakovich’s stately writing.
The album opens with a rousing interpretation of “Dance of Death;” based on the fourth movement from “Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67,” it is the sole piece drawn directly from a Shostakovich score. Bates’ approach here and through the remainder of the date invokes another key influence – the seminal fusion experiments of Miles Davis. Inspired by the trumpeter’s plugged-in innovations, pianist Russ Lossing transcends nostalgia, transferring his idiosyncratic technique to the Fender Rhodes, conjuring amplified volatility and surrealistic ambience from scintillating cascades of distortion. Trumpeter Russ Johnson and multi-reedist Chris Speed gracefully navigate Bates’ labyrinthine compositions, issuing tasteful statements that veer from mellifluous to strident. Their fluency in Eastern European idioms is well documented; in addition to Speed’s membership in Balkan-influence ensembles like Pachora and Slavic Soul Party!, Johnson has performed keen arrangements of Russian classical works with The Other Quartet, including a ravishing rendition of the second movement of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102” on 2001’s Sound Stains (Knitting Factory). Veteran drummer Tom Rainey rounds out the quintet, adding dramatic heft and supple nuance to the leader’s pliant foundation, their malleable interplay provides an elastic underpinning for the quintet’s exploratory musings.
Though the Dark Prince’s influence is apparent throughout the set, the brooding theatricality of Shostakovich is all-pervasive. The angular momentum of “Strong Arm” and ominous atmosphere of “Silent Witness” seethe with a roiling fury reminiscent of Davis’ late ‘60s work, echoing a potent combination Shostakovich regularly transposed into symphonic angst. The mercurial mood shifts of tunes like “Fugitive Pieces” and “The Given Day” juxtapose melancholy lyricism against sardonic martial cadences, emulating the Russian composer’s sarcasm. Channeling the indefatigable fortitude of Shostakovich and his contemporaries, the languid ballad “Some Wounds” provides introspective respite in the face of sonic oppression, emboldened by a probing acoustic piano rumination from Lossing that stands as the record’s emotional high point.
Bates’ unique portrait of Shostakovich is both respectful and unconventional – a contradictory combination that mirrors the iconic composer’s own working methods. Embracing the nostalgic and modernistic in equal measure, Bates has created a fascinating tribute that, much like the dedicatee’s oeuvre, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quintet
Vinny Golia Quartet
This 1988 California concert occurred during the several years it took to record Carter’s huge epic Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music; their freedom, their interplay and their fellow feeling being the result of over two decades of working and changing together in duets and in co-led combos. Two of the five pieces are new, the rest are oldies by the two leaders. The rhythm section is also inspired – the three swing together and they also invent contrasting tensions. I like the clanging-harp sound and solo freak-out of Preston’s synthesizer in “Encounter” as well as his flowing, post-Cecil Taylor piano solo in “Room 408.” Davis sometimes enhances the music’s movement and other times merely draws attention to him. His “Encounter” solo starts strong but soon declines into slurs and exaggerated vibrato. Cyrille, by contrast, is forthright and consistently motivates the ensemble throughout the CD.
Bradford is so lyrical and Carter is so forceful and daring in their respective solos. “Sunday Afternoon Jazz Society Blues” is a fine Carter theme and his clarinet solo is full of extremes – wild leaps and wilder high cries, his own time imposed on the near-perfect, swinging medium tempo – yet for all this expansive material, his solo is a natural whole. His concluding, theme-derived phrase (rather like “Sonnymoon for Two”) makes theme material for Bradford’s own incisive solo, and the way they concoct variations together is another delight. Much the same is true of the other three pieces in varying medium tempos: Bradford burrows into his themes, yielding smiling melodies, while Carter’s explorations encounter hair-raising complexities. Along with solos there are intriguing ensemble collective improvisations, especially in the blues and in “Room 408.”
Vinny Golia’s 2007 quartet date features Bradford and it has another vivid contrast: Bradford’s straightforward, sometimes humorous, trumpet against Golia’s flamboyant, bombastic saxophones. Okay, Wynton Marsalis is flamboyant and bombastic too, so why do I admire Golia much more? Maybe because Marsalis always seems to be acting a role, a fiction, an idealized jazzman out of an Albert Murray story, whereas Golia is the real thing, an artist totally dedicated to communicating his own vision. On tenor, alto, and soprano saxes he’s florid, he plays many notes for every note that Bradford plays. Typically his solos begin with good ideas but before he develops them very far, he lapses into a reflex double-time mode, with long, many-noted runs and phrases full of hard bop-like twists and swoops. An alto solo in “Parambulist” is an exception, the double-time elements fit better.
Most of the eight tracks on this CD have less solo space, yet Bradford’s mostly shorter trumpet solos are still fine. His solo in “Otolith” is so winningly melodic that an Annie Ross should write lyrics to it. Especially in the fine “On the Steel” chase Bradford’s biting tones and growls nicely subvert Golia’s soprano, and in fact this CD has a number of clever chases scattered throughout, with clever Bradford-Golia contrasts. The rhythm section is fine, with the deep tom rolls and dark cymbals of drummer Alex Cline, the ensemble sensitivity of bassist Ken Filiano, and the energy of both as well as their “Welcome Home” swing. Finally, sometimes, as in “On the Steel,” Golia’s themes seem to inspire the improvisers, while on some other tracks I wish he had left more room for soloists.
California composer Chris Brown (a member of HUB, the long-standing group devoted to electronic improvisation) presents three works here in which his own piano, computer, live processing and analog electronics are combined in various configurations with percussion, William Winant acting as percussionist on two of the pieces and conductor of his percussion ensemble on another. The three pieces, composed between 1985 and 2010, range from 15 to 19 minutes in length, and each mates an immediately beautiful surface of metallic percussion with rhythmic structures of remarkable complexity. Listening to the music isn’t easy – to listen closely to it is an intense experience in the malleability of pitch and time, whether the latter is heard as particles or on an imagined scale – but it’s likely easier than conceptualizing or writing about the work offered here. In the CD booklet Brown briefly describes the work – in terms that are perhaps as simple as they might be – as follows:
There follows an essay by Eyvind Kang that provides structural details of the compositions (the math is daunting, I suspect the performers approach transcendence by total concentration on counting) along with the philosophical and spiritual principles underlying them. Insofar as they’re a reflection of Brown’s thought and a complement to his work (an analogy between the form of the work and its meaning, perhaps), it’s hard to approach a description of the work without taking Kang into account, as he presents roughly 1,000 words of background and speculation on each piece, eventually concluding:
...Is time, as nature, irreversibly affected by the experience of consciousness, as shown by a glacier which recedes, which melts, which breaks into an iceberg, which in turn dissolves into the ocean, just as the listener has dissolved into time. (a pdf is available at www.newworldrecords.org)
I enjoyed these works the first three times I listened to them – for the sheer sheen of the glittering metallic surface as well as the elusive but insistent structures. There are strong affinities with the works of both Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and Gangsa, named for the Philippine flat-gongs on which the ensemble plays, is especially beautiful. As to any kind of further assessment, I’m starting to fear further listening.