Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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MMM Quartet
Live At The Metz’ Arsenal
Leo 631

Long-form improvisation – let’s say, an healthy excursion of at least 45 minutes, or as Maureen O’Hara put it in John Ford’s film The Quiet Man, “A nice stretch of the legs” – requires stamina, certainly, and curiosity, to keep the path unpredictable, and a continuous supply of small details, of the kind that energize and instigate even the most concise and compact forms, to remain alert and involved. And, of course, the willingness to not create, but discover. For all their accumulated experience in improvised and New Music settings, and occasional interactive collaborations over the years – key points covered by Stuart Broomer in his liner notes – the members of the MMM Quartet are aware that each time they come together (and this is the first in this configuration) they must reinvent themselves, emphasize the kinetic qualities of extended group exposition and development, and allow the active engagement of discovering how their ensemble becomes the music. Their spontaneous details, combined, however unruly or contagious, define the multidimensional form.

So their music is in constant motion (not movement, which implies a goal, an objective, a fixed point in space), horizontally, vertically, and at oblique angles – jostling, blending, blurring, grinding, whispering, mimicking, bristling, singing. It is by turns noisy, cluttered, delicate, hot, disruptive, and playful. Colors and textures – alternately complementary and confrontational – provide the ensemble glue; the rich wood tones and rattling strings of Joëlle Léandre’s bass, the distortion and rhythmic punctuation of Fred Frith’s guitar; Alvin Curran’s simple piano and sampled electronics (from howling wolves to Swing Era riffs); the base metal and reed cries of Urs Leimgruber’s saxophones. (MMM stands for, among other possibilities, Mills Music Mafia; Mills College in California being a common ground for three of the participants.) One 45-minute improvisation, and a six-minute encore that is gesturally compressed, rousingly agitated, and equally variegated. Stimulating.
–Art Lange

 

Simon Nabatov
Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols
Leo 632

If you love the composing and piano interpretations of the great Herbie Nichols, you eagerly check out each new collection of his music for more insight into his music. Nichols, with his odd changes and long choruses, was a late-blooming heir to theatrical types like Ellington, Waller, and James P. Johnson in projecting feelings, scenes, and personalities. Songs like “Terpsichore,” “The Spinning Song,” and “2300 Skidoo” are themselves dramas – Nichols did not compose bookends to bop blowing sessions. Oddly enough, two guitarists who recorded his Blue Note songs, Eric T. Johnson and Duck Baker, sound most sympathetic, while other tribute CDs reveal far more about (mostly lyric) artists like Roswell Rudd, Steve Lacy, The Herbie Nichols Project, the ICP Orchestra, and their friends than they reveal about dramatic artist Nichols. So it’s especially appealing that pianist Simon Nabatov’s sweeping inventions capture some of the essence of Nichols, fleetingly in the way some passages evolve, and mostly in the grand drama of these solos.

In fact, in a two-minute track Nabatov plays “Twelve Bars,” which Nichols never got to record, mostly just as Nichols himself must have interpreted it: as a stride piece with Nichols-like altered harmonies and decorations. The other seven tracks are much longer and they include Nichols-like passages, a strain or even a chorus long, in the midst of expansive reinterpretations.

Mainly, this CD’s most obvious ancestor is Earl Hines’ late-in-life solos. There’s a similar grandeur of spontaneity, of technique, of changing feelings, and of free, open-end form. Nichols’ themes are marvelous source material. Nabatov envelops these songs in elaborate fantasias; themes emerge subtly, Cecil Taylor-like, in increments out of piano musings. Also, Nabatov often seizes on theme motives, elaborates on them like a man obsessed, then after half a minute abandons them entirely. He begins the longest track, “The Spinning Song,” with spacey tones that gradually become a tonal line; theme phrases enter the discourse via little trailing treble figures, then bass underlines to descending arpeggios. At five minutes he finally plays the entire theme. As fantastic variations continue, bass rumbles enter (at 9:30); the rumbles evolve, the ending is the theme staggered over them. A kaleidoscopic solo with plenty of asides and thematic twists, yet it’s not rambling, but rather a work that grows and makes a complete whole.

Most of the time, Nabatov has separate lines going in the left and right hands, simultaneously. In “Terpsichore” he uses Nichols’ three-note tag as repeated counterpoint to treble clusters, then it evolves as counterpoint to high, fast, wild lines. I love the bumpity-bump of “Sunday Stroll,” with its bass vamp that contrasts, alters, and unifies the solo, and I like his aside in which he worries a little lick, Mal Waldron-like. Nabatov must like Anton Webern and Roscoe Mitchell – hear his quiet, spaced sounds, in chords that end “Terpsichore” and in his rubato tones that slowly gather to suggest a line in “Lady Sings the Blues.” He’s more sensitive to dynamics, to subtle gradations of volume, than most any other jazz pianist – for instance, the theme of “2300 Skidoo” peeps through fanciful lines and p to bombastic ff passages. Nabatov’s imagination is wild; on the face of it he’s discursive. After an impressionistic (Ravelish?) start to “The Third World” he somehow gets on the Ferde Grofe trail. “Blue Chopsticks” starts as a “Chopsticks” jest and bursts into a rambling, virtuoso improvisation that embeds the Nichols theme.

And there’s much more – this CD is full of delights. What buoyant, fanciful music. What a fine sense of the integrity of each solo, in the midst of his expansions and extensions. I’ve heard a few other Simon Nabatov albums, and this is quite his best. It’s also the most creative yet empathetic Nichols tribute yet – it’s a terrific CD.
–John Litweiler

 

Jeff Parker Trio
Bright Light In Winter
Delmark DE 2015

Bright Light In Winter is the third album from Chicago-based guitarist Jeff Parker’s longstanding trio with bassist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor in nine years, following The Relatives (Thrill Jockey, 2005) – which featured guest analog keyboardist Sam Barsheshet – and their premier recording, Like-Coping (Delmark, 2003). Parker’s limited discography as a leader can be attributed in part to his role as an in-demand sideman for a wide spectrum of artists, ranging from post-rock experimentalists like Isotope 217 and Tortoise to such AACM stalwarts as Ernest Dawkins and the late Fred Anderson. Parker’s unique ability to bridge the aesthetic gap between the mainstream and avant-garde – without altering his idiosyncratic approach towards harmony and texture – similarly informs his own, fairly conventional, small-combo jazz efforts.

Featuring a mix of tuneful compositions, this streamlined date continues the trio’s subtle exploration of the jazz tradition, extending the stylistic cohesiveness of their sophomore session, while simultaneously recalling the spare intimacy of their vibrant debut. Espousing a communal mindset, Parker’s generosity towards his sidemen is readily apparent – Lopes’ tender flute ruminations on the pastoral meditation “The Morning of the 5th” and Taylor’s polyrhythmic variations on the roiling “Freakadelic” are key examples – yet ample time is devoted throughout the record to spotlighting the leader’s probing excursions. On cuts like “Swept Out to Sea” and “Freakadelic,” the rhythm section’s rollicking rhythms undergird his percolating cadences, which balance harmonic sophistication with tasteful cyber-psychedelia. The later aspect is fully realized during the surreal coda of “Mainz,” where the guitarist’s ring modulated oscillations evoke extraterrestrial tonalities.

Other than a few discursive episodes, the group primarily concentrates on delivering catchy, swinging tunes that highlight the member’s congenial rapport. Their stylistic palette encompasses an array of approaches, from the sunny Afro-pop accents of “Bright Light Black Site” and the atmospheric sway of “Change” to the dusky balladry of “Good Days (for Lee Anne).” Spotlighting the melodic invention of three of Chicago’s finest, Bright Light In Winter is Parker’s most accessible release as a leader to date.
–Troy Collins

 

Jon Raskin + Carla Harryman
Open Box
Tzadik TZ 7639

Eight corners, twelve edges, three pairs of parallel sides, and twenty-four right angles define a box. The contents of an open box are neither contained nor hidden. At Eastern Michigan University, Carla Harryman teaches an approach to creative writing that resists reification. Jon Raskin is a founding member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet and a veteran contributor to a movement whose mission might be summed up as an effort to resist the reification of music.

If Language were a box, its vocabulary and rules of structure might correspond to the dimensions of its rectilinear surfaces. The contents of that box should rightly be considered the totality of verbal expression. I’ve always hated that cliché – thinking outside the box. Seems like the kind of thing most often heard uttered by card-carrying squares. Harryman’s 2007 book of verse Open Box, however, serves as the basis for a jazz-spoken word hybrid of the same name released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label that does in fact escape the confines of that familiar cube. Harryman’s obsidian-pointed poetry has not been resituated as lyrics (with the exception of “Song for Asa”). Nor are the five diverse selections featured on this disc breathy improvised vamps over tunes kept loose enough to accommodate the addition of text. Harryman’s tersely urgent verse is read by the author and Raskin in a musical context that seems tightly bound to her angular poetics and expansive thematic sweep. We are told that it took three years to complete this recording and we can well imagine an endless series of takes, each pursuing a painstaking precision of fit, intensity, and timing between word and sound.

“Fish Speech” – the first offering – is Biblical in its subject matter, time scale, and assumption of prophetic voice. In it we are given a subtext to Genesis that reimagines the void in briskly articulated details of absence: In the beginning, there were no instructions and nothing was abstract. There was nothing to identify. And no revision or modification of the description of the thing identified. Neither were there eyes nor touch. There were no millipedes. Earthworms did not nurture the soil. There was no nurturing, no soil, no worms of any kind. There was no inferno.

Raskin’s ensemble seems particularly well-suited to the demands of this work. The smallish band is neither too weighty to be limber, nor are these instrumentalists who can easily recede into the background to establish a bed for the text. Raskin’s own saxophony is only one strand of a texture fleshed out by Liz Allbee on trumpet and electronics; Ava Mendoza and  John Shiurba on electric guitars; the incredible Gino Robair on drums, electronics, percussion, and piano; with Roham Sheikhani and Aurora Josephson also contributing as readers/voices.

Throughout, Raskin’s celebrated horn work is heard in good measure without ever lording over this well-matched team. On “L A Reactive Meme” – a sound poem featuring Raskin’s Tuvan-style vocal droning against drippy, ploppy electronics – Liz Allbee plays a trumpet fitted with a clarinet mouthpiece that adds a baritone growl welling up beneath the voices, permitting a kind of semantic transparency to cohere even in the absence of a poetic line. On “Song for Asa”, his playing takes on a bit of an Ayler-esque howl as he introduces Josephson’s delicately haunting voice. The guitar work of Shiurba and Mendoza is exceptionally sharp and brawny, but never gratuitous. Together these players carve out a sound that does not immediately draw attention to stylistic background and never succumbs to any identifiable habitus of expression. Which is to say, the entire project lies very pleasurably outside of any identifiable “school” or “camp” of modern jazz.

Of course the star of the work is Harryman and the vivid imagery and uncanny symmetries conjured by her verbal sculptures. Poetry, I believe, is a response, not an action or a product. Harryman’s work is deliberately left open to multiple futures lived by a polyphony of voices and viewpoints. She challenges the notion of improvisatory freedom with a penchant for juxtaposition within structure that creates endless openings into the wordless space beyond the box and credits every listener as coauthor of her kaleidoscopic vision. What swallowed the notes?/They curl down the back of the neck/Get stuck in a physical/Or injudicious/Not completed suspended columnar/Anthropophagus/Wasting/Spurting with signals/Who said the spine wanted them/Signals/A sponge wants liquid/And I ate them

I ate them, too. And loved them. Each and every one.
–Thomas Stanley

 

Aki Takase
New Blues
Enja/Yellowbird yeb-7723

Pianist Aki Takase’s quintet with bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, trombonist Nils Wogram, guitarist-singer Eugene Chadbourne, and drummer Paul Lovens continues misbehavin’ on their second CD featuring Fats Waller tunes. They capture something essential about the music, without playing it “correctly.” Chadbourne mugs his way through “The Joint Is Jumpin’” without any period racial stereotype but plenty of sass. The band then jumps in with a collective improvisation in which everyone’s lines collide and bounce off each other at anachronistically odd angles, but with entirely authentic vitality. Yet they tackle the tune with historical understanding as well. There’s an instrumental break that’s a nod to swing convention, and Takase quotes “I Got Rhythm” in her solo. Mahall and Wogram open “Jitterbug Waltz” with an out of tempo duet, and sound surprised when they stumble into 3/4 time. Chadbourne refurbishes “Mr. Jelly Lord” with his own lyrics, graced with spicy doubled entendres that would have pleased Morton himself. The piano-drums duet that opens “Wildcat Blues” displays a jittery relationship to swing – sometimes Takase’s line has an elegant flow to it, sometimes her line shatters into little spiky pieces that fall anywhere but on the beat. Later, the performance gets into a brittle, metallic, squawking banjo-drums-bass clarinet trio that also avoids a steady beat, and ends with Wogram’s boozy slur in duet with Takase’s striding that has its own tipsy bead on the tempo.

And really, their genial irreverence is the only honest way to play Waller’s tunes. Yes, Waller’s virtuosity, elegance, and swing are delightful and these aspects of his music will always be among its most attractive. But what makes Waller endure is his tweaking of respectable behavior, the double entendres that suggest things you don’t discuss in polite society, the wink and a nod toward drunkenness, the gay rogue in him. We all want to be a little bit naughty, don’t we? This mild salaciousness might have been slightly scandalous in the 1920s and 30s, but history, in one of the ironies history specializes in, has steered Waller’s music into the very comfy middle class it once flaunted. It’s music for Lincoln Center now, not a Harlem speakeasy. Takase and company understand the only way to play Waller’s music in something like its original spirit is to tweak it and taunt it, to make gentle fun of the respectability that time has bestowed upon it.

The calculated mayhem of their Waller interpretations, played for variety of form and in high spirits carries over into a handful of Takase originals, as well. The piano-bass clarinet-trombone trio, “Recyclable Energy” leaps in short sudden bursts between instruments and over wide intervallic gaps in swinging klangfarbenmelodie. “Take the U Train” with a bustling, dissonant free improvisation features a thundering Takase solo. It’s the attitude, not the form that supplies the bridge across the decades.
–Ed Hazell

Victo - 25 Years!

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