Reviews of Recent Recordings
The narrative of official recognition for improvising musicians in Europe is overblown, at least when it comes to the music’s foundational figures. If Peter Brötzmann’s winning of the German Jazz Prize is indicative, reaching 70 seems to be the threshold; otherwise, they work on the margins of the cultural establishment in their home countries. It took the occasion of her 70th birthday for Irène Schweizer to give a solo concert in one of the temples of Swiss culture – the Great Hall of the Tonhalle in Zürich, her base since the early ‘60s. Usually, she performs in alt spaces like Rote Fabrik or clubs like Moods. Sometimes, such concerts are promoted as triumphs, as if laurels will be bestowed; therein lies a risk, as it is not a given that the hardcore audience will herd to the arts palaces. For some, artists like Schweizer are heard in a context of outsider culture; the gilded venue anathema. This time, everybody came out – a 1,200-person capacity crowd, which implicitly raises the stakes: The music has to validate the validation that is the sold-out concert.
To this end, Schweizer designed a solo program that is part proper retrospective and part prospective yardstick. To Whom It May Concern has a bracketed structure that infers history is circumscribed and therefore defined by the present. For the first third of the album, Schweizer gene-splices jazz and contemporary music articulations; somber ruminative passages lose their post-modern finish with a splash of syncopation or a few well-placed blue notes. Her pace in developing her materials is deliberate, her sureness the mark of an artist for whom improvisation is not guess work. But she does not move expeditiously to a more jazzcentric posture; instead, Schweizer arrives at the piano’s interior, exploiting its capacity for abstraction to a quietly powerful transitional passage.
What follows can be likened to a highlight reel – not one of greatest hits, but of nodal points in Schweizer’s artistic evolution. A couple of these coordinates need to be triangulated for them to fully resonate. At first, her take on Jimmy Giuffre’s chugging “The Train and the River” – which is grafted onto the aptly titled original, “Jungle Beat III” – seems to be primarily nostalgic. It is soon followed, however, by a semi-sweet take on Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino.” Giuffre – and by extension, Paul Bley – introduced a bucolic rusticity to jazz that fostered, to appropriate a vintage Giuffre comment, “a curious vacillation between ‘the simple’ and the ‘the complex.’” The Bleys conveyed this dynamic in their respective work; Paul Bley’s extrapolations of Giuffre’s contemporary associations of folk music and freedom contributing to a piano style that was simultaneously forward-leaning and accessible.
Something of the same can be said about the nexus of jazz and what has become known as world music and its impact on the jazz piano tradition. As unlikely as it seems, Zürich in the early and mid ‘60s provided an excellent vantage to hear South African musicians, as it was the initial European base of the Blue Notes and it was where Duke Ellington first heard Dollar Brand. Schweizer’s rendering of the South African pianist’s “Xaba” is jubilant, becoming heated when she stretches out on a triplet-based vamp, a device also favored by Don Cherry in his boundary-expanding music. Schweizer’s “Homage to Don Cherry” lopes, a mix of gospel and blues-flavored figures and single-note and unison runs with an Indian tinge.
Schweizer also buttresses her jazz bona fides with two other performances, a sprinting, razor-sharp reading of Monk’s “Four in One” and her “Bleu Foncé,” a mid-tempo blues variant that requires her to be gritty one moment, graceful the next. Not only does she demonstrate great stylistic and expressive range in these half-dozen performances, she manages to neatly fold all of this material into an anniversary concert without diminishing the fact that her music continues to evolve. That ongoing development is reiterated with the closer, “Final Exit,” where she compresses many of the essences of the program into a rag-time-to-no-time tour de force, a last reinforcement of the idea that To Whom It May Concern is as incisive in its survey of Irène Schweizer’s art as it is comprehensive.
Co Streiff – Russ Johnson Quartet
Brooklyn-based trumpeter Russ Johnson, a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene, boasts countless sideman credits, yet his discography features only one title as a leader, Save Big, his 2004 Omnitone debut. Although Johnson co-leads The Other Quartet with saxophonist Ohad Talmor and a duo with pianist Mick Rossi, his recorded output remains under-representative of his abilities as a bandleader, which makes In Circles, the premier of his quartet with Swiss saxophonist Co Streiff, all the more welcome. Splitting writing duties with Streiff, the pair is supported by fellow Swiss bassist Christian Weber and drummer Julian Sartorius, who add vim and vigor to this vibrant program of original tunes.
Primarily recorded live in Biasca, Switzerland in June 2011 (the final cut is a studio recording), this session evinces a dedication to progressive swing that expands on the formal constraints of traditional melody, harmony and rhythm with a keen appreciation for the dynamic possibilities of free improvisation. Throughout the set, the group alternates between ethereal explorations and muscular ruminations, striking a keen balance between the two.
The horn players’ unison motifs spiral above the rhythm section’s shifting undercurrent with soulful élan on the opener, “Short Outbreak,” their contrapuntal discourse being emblematic of the date’s visceral appeal. Johnson and Streiff make a colorful pair, their circuitous lines interweaving delicately one moment, only to plummet with bustling ferocity the next. Johnson’s earthy tone and Streiff’s reedy timbre infuse the proceedings with compelling zeal, enjoying strong support from Weber and Sartorius, who prove their mettle as persuasive soloists.
Sartorius’ polyrhythmic introduction to “Tomorrow Dance” is rife with cascading textural asides, which Weber echoes during his unaccompanied pizzicato solo later in the same tune. The duo’s congenial rapport invigorates Johnson and Streiff’s empathetic interplay, resulting in a unified ensemble sound that is both adventurous and conventional. The coiled attack of “Parks Lark” is indicative of their keen inside-outside balancing act, evoking allusions to Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet. The band’s enthusiasm for the material is infectious; an appreciative audience can be heard throughout the set, responding to exciting transitions and spirited solos.
Surmounting the presumed conceptual gap between American and European jazz styles, In Circles balances forward-thinking interests with historically aware foundations, yielding a vibrant document of contemporary jazz.
The Thirteenth Assembly
Currently based in the greater New York area, a slowly but steadily growing number of former students and associates of esteemed conceptualist Anthony Braxton have been making subtle inroads in creative improvised music since the turn of the millennium. Four of this tightly-knit scene’s most prominent individuals comprise The Thirteenth Assembly, a collaborative ensemble whose members’ individual efforts not only surpass the accomplishments of their peers, but have attained their own distinctive artistic voices stylistically removed from their mentor’s singular oeuvre.
Beyond their roles in Braxton’s various projects, the roots of the quartet can be traced to two longstanding duos: cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Tomas Fujiwara have been playing together since their high school days; guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone have been writing and performing duets for the past decade. In addition to numerous other configurations, Bynum, Fujiwara and Halvorson often tour as a trio, and all four are members of Bynum’s sextet. Standing apart from their other endeavors, The Thirteenth Assembly exists as a unique collective entity in their discographies, one that transcends the tenuous divisions between the musicians’ usual working relationships as readily as it shatters genre clichés.
Bolstered by an intimate familiarity with each other’s methods, each member contributes material written specifically for this particular line-up. Station Direct is their sophomore release, following in the footsteps of their 2009 debut, (un)sentimental (Important Records). Each idiosyncratic composition features tastefully concise statements that accentuate facets of their unique skills, while maintaining thematic consistency with the overall session.
Halvorson’s tuneful opener, “Nosedive,” encapsulates the Assembly’s aesthetic in just under four minutes. Pavone’s soulful arco introduces a melodious contrapuntal theme that Halvorson and Bynum gradually deconstruct into a thicket of bristling discourse. Spidery arpeggios and chattering brass spar and feint with Fujiwara’s skittering percussion before a frenzied collective interlude dissipates into diaphanous tones, as Pavone’s dolorous glissandi ends the piece in elliptical fashion. The ritualistic introduction to Pavone’s quixotic “Coming Up” spotlights Fujiwara’s orchestral mastery of texture, time and tone; his cascading swells and supple interjections suddenly congeal into a straight-ahead waltz tempo without pause or affect. Fujiwara’s brooding “Randall Clasper” returns the favor, illuminating Pavone and Halvorson’s stunning dynamic range, with Pavone’s fragile lyricism offering pointed contrast to Halvorson’s caustic power chords and pitch shifting string bends.
The cornetist’s sole compositional contribution, the epic “Long Road,” takes a somewhat different approach, unveiling an impressionistic tone poem of considerable breadth. Building from splintered aleatoric fragments and Pavone’s bittersweet pastoral refrains, Halvorson patiently weaves a liminal, countrified chord progression into Bynum and Pavone’s valedictory fanfares, providing a capricious rhythmic foundation for Fujiwara’s roiling trap set palpitations at the coda.
The remainder of the date features a series of complex but catchy tunes that fuse intricate contrapuntal themes, progressive harmonic structures and non-linear improvisation into cohesive “songs” influenced by more conventionally accessible sensibilities. The oblique funk of “Prosthetic Chorizo,” chromatic intervals of “Station” and wistful linearity of “Direct” expertly demonstrate the group’s ability to transpose contemporary pop forms into viable platforms for extrapolation.
The surprisingly seamless mélange of styles that informs Station Direct confirms Bynum, Fujiwara, Halvorson and Pavone as kindred spirits and talented composers. Their improvisational prowess unifies seemingly disparate proceedings, reinforcing Braxton’s credo that restructuralism is driven by historically aware masters whose fervent individuality facilitates cross-stylistic innovation.
The Almond is constructed through the following means: “each pitch heard in the piece was made up of anywhere from three to ten different recordings of the trumpet recorded in different mutes, tunings, with different microphones, and in different rooms.” These pitches have then been successively combined and layered to create a profound organ-like drone that nonetheless retains the sound of the trumpet, almost infinitely varied by the techniques and environments of its original sources. Listening to The Almond is to experience a sense of penetrating through layers of sound only to find that both the surfaces and depths of the sonic substance keep changing, as if one were probing the layers of an infinite audio onion.
The piece  Syllables is explained as “the first composition using a notational system based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. Phonetic sounds, which are the building blocks of syllables, are mapped onto a set of parameters limiting how the lips, tongue, teeth, and throat are manipulated to influence the sound of the trumpet.” The concept may appear initially ironic: it is as if Wooley is trying to teach the trumpet to speak. At his greatest apparent distance from jazz, he renews the “talking trumpet” project of King Oliver, Bubber Miley and Arthur Whetsol, and he does so at the fundamental level of the phonetic alphabet. The gap between the mouth forming words and standard trumpet embouchure may seem irreconcilable, but the results are remarkable, unfolding a host of alternative methods for sound production. Wooley has clearly concentrated on developing the components, resulting in some extended passages that variously include extended circular breathing, multiphonics and even counterpoint, as well as an occasional blast of startling volume. Long stretches of near silence testify to his fidelity to experimental methodology. The cumulative piece is an advanced exploration of the trumpet’s sonic possibilities, based on a method that might initially seem unrelated to them.
Each of these works reveals Wooley’s attention to the development of the trumpet’s sonic minutiae, as well as Wooley’s fascination with duration and an ability to keep developing materials in long-form works. They reward close attention.