Reviews of Recent Recordings
Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
Roscoe Mitchell + Tony Marsh + John Edwards
As a solo performer and bandleader outside of the AEC, Mitchell’s music has often presented itself singularly and somewhat severely – it’s not necessarily monolithic, but carved out in an objective, laid-bare fashion. Whether hard or delicately-latticed, Mitchell’s phrasing is materialist, but in a fashion that is transcendent and direct. That’s especially true in his solo work, but in group music the focus is expanded – one could always tell Mitchell’s pieces immediately apart from other works in the AEC canon, as they are frequently rooted in repetition and didactic clarity.
One particularly interesting ensemble that recorded under Mitchell’s leadership was a 1975 quartet featuring Abrams, trombonist George Lewis and guitarist Spencer Barefield, an otherwise undocumented unit drawing from the first and second waves of the AACM that set the stage for Mitchell’s later work with Detroiters Barefield, drummer Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid. Recorded live at Toronto’s A Space over two nights in October 1975, four tracks from these sessions made it onto an eponymous LP for Sackville Records, run by saxophonist, promoter and journalist Bill Smith. Doubly expanded, Live at A Space 1975 is the music’s first appearance on CD and heralds venerable Chicago label Delmark’s acquisition of the Sackville catalog. Apart from five of Mitchell’s pieces there is Lewis’ “Music for Trombone and Bb Soprano” and a brief, solemnly straight take of Coltrane’s “Naima,” led into by a lengthy and spare group improvisation.
This recording was the first appearance on record of George Lewis. He’d later record solo for Sackville, and his membership in Braxton’s and Barry Altschul’s groups would cement his status as one of the AACM’s most commanding improvisers and thinkers, and he’s given significant space here. “Music for Trombone and Bb Soprano” has the trombonist front and center for much of its fourteen-minute duration, Lewis’ commanding facility and garrulousness approaching both first-chair symphonic trombone and the expressive detail of someone like Roswell Rudd or Albert Mangelsdorff. Quoting fragments of “Naima” and phrases that are almost pianistic in their play, Lewis is extraordinary. As a professor, composer and theorist for whom the academy seems at first blush to have replaced the immediacy of performance, his playing here should serve as a not-so-gentle reminder of Lewis’ creative vibrancy. Mitchell may be slightly back in the mix at times, but his straight horn curls and darts around Lewis’ phrases with curious and shapely specificity, at other times purring and striking up against the trombonist’s blats. Their rapport is developed from equal parts aggressive interplay and comely partnership. “Olobo,” which closes the original LP, is in fact completely given over to Lewis’ unaccompanied playing and concentrates Mitchell-like on repeated cells that explode into paint-peeling shouts, multiphonics and measured density.
“Cards” is a piece that Mitchell has done for both small group and orchestra; each player is given six cards with musical notation that can be arranged by the player in any order and any tempo. Something of a “directed improvisation,” this early iteration of the piece is ruggedly pointillist, slushy brass and terse, acrid alto brays ricocheting off Abrams’ clusters and filigree. Barefield’s contributions include brief, folksy interludes and arcing, reverbed electricity (cf. Michael Gregory Jackson). It’s hard to say who’s responsible for the occasional whirs of a power drill, but they provide Cageian levity to these sharp ten minutes. The set closes with a short ensemble version of “Nonaah,” beginning with Mitchell’s haranguing and condensed group jumpiness that spiral out into an in-the-red group improvisation. Curiously, while Mitchell is the primary composer and leader of the quartet, it’s most certainly “group music” and as such, his playing is sometimes in observant counterpoint to the elder Abrams and two young upstarts whose work was just beginning. It seems to be indicative of the very giving nature of much AACM music.
Though Mitchell worked with the bass and percussion team of Shahid and Tabbal for many years and has also played in similar contexts with Hamid Drake, the woodwinds-bass-drums configuration isn’t his most regular setting. Thus a 2012 meeting at London’s Café Oto with UK stalwarts John Edwards (bass) and Tony Marsh (drums) was both a surprise and a revelation. While the four pieces captured on the limited double LP set Improvisations represent the only meeting of a promising trio, the rigor on display puts this music on a footing with Mitchell’s heaviest solo and ensemble dates, albeit sans Mitchell compositions. The first piece (each takes up a side and hovers around seventeen minutes) finds Mitchell on alto, sinewy and burred lines in a flattish presence as Edwards thwacks and grapples with fingers and gut strings, Marsh’s brushwork in angular, cyclic attack. As Mitchell elongates his lines, it’s somewhat difficult to see where the rhythm section fits in – his circular-breathed alto acts as though it’s unaccompanied, though Edwards and Marsh yaw and surge with every entrance opportunity possible. The feel is somewhat akin to the relentless group playing on The Flow of Things (Black Saint, 1986, with Favors, drummer Steve McCall and pianist Jodie Christian), taffy-like stretched sonic plenums a hot, ultra-materialist challenge to rhythmic interplay. Rather than flag or lose aim, the bassist and drummer invent parallel actions that hold equal, reflective interest that may or may not support and fit into Mitchell’s sound world.
The way that each of the three voices glances off or melds together is not only tautly powerful but also imbued with the tension of deep listening, glancing blows and occasional rebuffs – part of the innate attraction of improvised music. The second improvisation is comparatively winsome, a childlike balladic theme on soprano threaded through amplified thwacks and strums and the resonant chamber of Marsh’s glorious sashays. Mitchell becomes evermore torqued, vaulting broad intervals and pressing elbowed superimpositions into a field of rushes and accents. The third improvisation begins with Mitchell on piccolo in particularly striking dialogue with Marsh’s gongs and cymbals, under-girded by muted pizzicato rumble. His feel is reminiscent of a wooden flute, hummed and split notes mingling with metal, wood and skin. Mitchell switching to alto, the trio is in complete, unified forward motion as the reedman’s improvisation stitches unbroken sinews. A fitting tribute to the late Tony Marsh as well as an extraordinary meeting between English and American originals, these bare bones Improvisations are among the essential recent works in Roscoe Mitchell’s catalog.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Red Hot is Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s most enjoyable studio recording to date. Even bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliot has proclaimed this is the best album they’ve ever made. The reason is simple: the session’s material draws on the conventions of 1920s and 1930s jazz for its basic foundations, including playful devices like alternating solos, stop-time sections and embellishment-rich tutti passages. The cumulative effect of one of the current scene’s most engaging live bands tapping into one of jazz’s most exuberantly entertaining eras for inspiration is riveting.
Additionally, the quartet – which features Elliot and rhythm section partner Kevin Shea supporting the willfully capricious frontline of trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon – is joined for the first time on record by invited guests. Legendary bass trombonist David Taylor, progressive banjo picker Brandon Seabrook and vanguard pianist Ron Stabinsky have all individually worked with the wily foursome in the past, but here they augment the ensemble together, expanding its ranks to a septet.
Principal writer Elliott typically uses the tenets of past music traditions as source material for his eclectic compositions (all named after towns in his home state of Pennsylvania), with each album geared towards a specific genre or time period; last year’s Slippery Rock! (Hot Cup) deconstructed the stylistic clichés of ‘70s and ‘80s smooth jazz, for example. On Red Hot he narrows his focus to pre-war methods, juxtaposing classic blues progressions, shout choruses and unaccompanied cadenzas with such post-war innovations as free improvisation, amplified power chords and electronic efx, yielding a truly unique post-modern mélange.
In less experienced hands such a collagist approach could easily devolve into directionless cacophony or snarky irony, but Elliott’s rich arrangements provide a robust foundation for even his sidemen’s most outré excursions. Furthermore, Elliott’s tuneful melodies offer some of the most memorable themes this side of a Dixieland revival, making this collection the most accessible in the ensemble’s growing discography. Granted, there are plenty of sonically contentious episodes, including Seabrook’s droning sine wave prelude to the title track, Stabinsky’s corny interpolations of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” on the opening of “King of Prussia,” and the prickly Evans and Irabagon duet that introduces “Gum Stump,” all of which rank among the group’s zaniest inventions. But these madcap interludes never overstay their welcome; generally, the record really swings.
Evans and Irabagon keenly demonstrate their mastery of extended techniques in this lively setting; the trumpeter’s virtuosic coda on “Turkey Foot Corner” channels past and future antecedents in its brassy flourishes, while the saxophonist’s protean soprano musings on the Gershwin-inspired closer “Bird-in-Hand” similarly elevates the proceedings. Shea’s trap set shenanigans are largely kept in check by the leader’s unwavering pulse, offering their guests ample time in the spotlight. “Turkey Foot Corner” features an expressive soliloquy by Taylor and his bewildering array of customized mutes. “Seabrook, Power, Plank,” a wry nod to Seabrook’s power trio (Seabrook Power Plant), includes alternating cadenzas that allow the dedicatee and Irabagon (on C melody saxophone) to freely expound on the tune’s jubilant stop-time theme. And finally, “Orange is the Name of the Town” offers Stabinsky an opportunity to do more than quote silly love songs. The piece slowly transitions from lush orchestrations to Eastern modality as he effortlessly vacillates between pentatonic lyricism and classical Viennese waltz figures.
Aided by likeminded associates, Mostly Other People Do the Killing brings back the exuberance of pre-war jazz on Red Hot with a cheeky modernist wit that is both historically astute and audaciously cutting-edge.
Evan Parker + Matthew Shipp
Two of the most singular improvisers and active collaborators around meet up six years after the release of their Abbey Road Duos. For Rogue Art’s fiftieth release, the pair recorded one disc’s worth of material in the studio, and another live at the Vortex. Soft, spacious chords and wooly tenor open “Rex 1,” which deliberately, patiently stokes the heat, but only to the point where there is a boil of carefully wrought counterlines. As is the case with all the music on this release, it’s extremely focused stuff that, while never for a moment sacrificing the utter distinctiveness of the musicians, is unpredictable and organic. Many of the pieces develop, at least for a brief interval, into a fragmentary, angular space that seems a common language for these two superb listeners. And indeed, Parker’s tenor playing (the solo horn here) is so distinctive and adaptable that its skirling shapes seem completely at home in Shipp’s mutating architecture (each gets a brief, tasty solo track too). At times they get up to some probing and jabbing, as on “Rex 2,” whereas elsewhere its all avian lines careening, their impossible flightpaths somehow avoiding collision. And when they do finally wallop us with some percussive bashing and sheer exuberance, it’s tasty and brief for maximum effect. But what stands out about this recording more are moments that sound unlike anything else you’ve heard from these prolific improvisers: the overt vertical harmony on “Rex 4,” with its sly Monk allusions, and huge registral shifts from Parker; the unexpected lyrical bloom and abstract comping on “Wrecks 2”; or the lengthy “Rex 5,” with some of Parker’s most spare, scalar tenor playing I’ve ever heard, almost like an anonymous Lacy tribute. Thunder chords and jagged tenor blasts are there if you’re keeping track, but what’s vastly more satisfying is the distilled thoughtfulness, crystalline pauses, and restraint of these pieces. The 42-minute live track from the Vortex finds them exploring a similar aesthetic initially, with Shipp a bit more likely to venture into the upper-registers for some delicate glasswork. As befits the setting, the pair work up into a lather of density and angular heat very satisfyingly. But here, too, while the performance follows the often bell curve-like progression of live improv, there are some wild surprises. For example, there’s a superb and unexpected abstract-swing section roughly near the mid-point. It’s this kind of sudden sympathy that makes the date. There’s such intense concentration on phraseology throughout, and the arch lines they construct together – now in concert, now staggered and following each other – seem almost as if they could be lifted from freebop, or chamber music, or ... who cares with music this urgent and good?
Craig Taborn Trio
In his sleeve notes, Pavone cites several vintage recordings like Paul Bley’s Floater and Andrew Hill’s Smokestack to locate the music on Arc Trio; while his trio projects the same core attributes found on these classics – a firm grasp of irregular forms, an ease in moving the pocket about, and a seemingly infallible sense of when to add the small detail that disproportionately spikes the voltage – 50 year-old recordings are the last thing one thinks about when confronted with their music, its impact being so immediate and generally stunning. Jon Rosenberg’s engineering contributes substantially to this, as his work on this occasion does not result in a trio that hovers about the speakers, but one that gang tackles the listener.
While the sound on Chants is roomier than most ECM studio recordings, there is still a fine balance between Taborn, Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan, whether the issue at hand is a flinty ostinato that sparks dazzling single-note runs or sustain pedal-enhanced color washes. As a composer, Taborn tends not to hang well-proportioned themes in trendy frames, favoring instead to build pieces from rawer stuff – pulses, shapes et al. Morgan’s use of space-soaking long notes is a smart counter-intuitive response that often registers as well-timed leaps from rock to rock to traverse the often fast-moving river of piano and drums. Cleaver’s unobtrusive, low-volume approach to intensity is also critical to the trio’s sound.
Whether on a club date, where they are seeing the music for the first time, or a multi-day studio project, Taborn and Cleaver are simultaneously tight as a drum head and mercurial, perpetually slipping somewhere else. It’s not that Pavone or Morgan are in any way secondary to Arc Trio or Chants; but Taborn and Cleaver quite obviously don’t need others to make compelling music.
Gary Peacock + Marilyn Crispell
You won’t get a word of sense out of me about Marilyn Crispell. I’ve been a fan since the Braxton Quartet tour of 1985, with a devotion that nudges at the boundaries of “platonic.” For years, I glowered about me at Crispell concerts, hoping that some cad would heckle, bound on stage or even allow an expression of impatience to cross his face, just so that I could thrash him to within an inch of his life and leave a bloodied rose on the keyboard. Serious fandom, then. Borderline stalker.
Even in later, wiser years, it’s rather delightful to be able to take up cudgels. Two recent commentators on Crispell’s work stated, respectively, that on her run of recordings for ECM she had “finally shaken off” and “set aside” her “Cecil Taylor influence” in favor of something altogether more lyrical. The implication was, again respectively, that this was A Very Good Thing and Not Necessarily a Bad Thing. There is probably no lazier shorthand in jazz criticism than the putative Cecil Taylor influence. It is the canine salivation of the reviewer confronted with lots of notes, not necessarily in “correct” harmonic order, or with any hint that the piano is actually a vast drum kit. And it’s nonsense. Hardly anyone out there is an out-and-out Cecil Taylor disciple and the comparison became so irrelevant and egregious that someone like Borah Bergman used to ask interviewers not to mention Taylor at all, not even to say “Borah doesn’t sound anything like Cecil Taylor.”
The same with Crispell. Her music comes – and she has provided ample warrant for this – out of John Coltrane. To go further, and without getting into a discussion of how harmfully over-determining the “Coltrane influence” once was, and also how remote from the logic of Trane’s own development, it’s worth saying that Crispell and her various partnerships and groups have been one of the very few places to go and hear Coltrane’s musical philosophy extended into the future, rather than just turned into repertory by sound-alike saxophonists. On one of her British tours, Crispell played a sequence of rhythmic sketches Coltrane had been working on in his final years and passed on to her by (I believe) Andrew Cyrille, which is as close to a Taylor connection as this line of thought goes.
Some of that same rhythmic sophistication has worked its way through her music ever since and it emerges in the arresting opening of “Patterns” here, an extraordinary track that pulls the listener immediately into the remarkable relational logic of this duo. The “missing” element is, of course, the late Paul Motian, who made Nothing ever was, anyway and Amaryllis with Peacock and Crispell in 1996 and 2000. “Rounds” on the latter album is the closest to what I’m hearing on Azure, a sign of Crispell’s steadily evolving grasp of energy-in-form, which is a better, if clumsy, way of describing this music. “Lyricism” has something patronizing about it. It implies: At last! Tunes! Finally! A bit of feminine emotion! No more of that percussive stuff, missy!
Crispell has always been a lyrical player. She evokes moods brilliantly, and has the gift of spontaneous composition that makes the two improvised tracks here sound as if they might well have been written down at some stage. But Crispell’s real strength has always been her ability to set harmony and melody within a rigorous rhythmic framework that builds and builds into an impressive architecture. This was the case as far back as Live In Berlin, Rhythms Hung In Undrawn Sky, And Your Ivory Voice Sings, and Spirit Music, and it has remained the key to her work.
If this seems to overlook the contribution of Gary Peacock, who gets first billing on the disc, it most certainly doesn’t. He is majestic in the way that Jimmy Garrison could be majestic, but unlike Jimmy, completely audible. For a sense of how subtle Peacock’s swing is, try the improvised “Blue,” one of the jazzier things here but another instance of how sophisticated is this duo’s time sense. Oddly, perhaps, but tellingly, the two solo tracks are the only dull spots. The music sings when they play together, but the real measure of musical empathy is when two performers, completely confident in technique and expression, completely confident in the other’s musicality, each go their ways. This happens continually on Azure. There is no elbows-out “intimacy,” and instead a sense of two craftsmen each with his/her own speciality and tools but able at a moment’s call to join forces and complete a task.
The long “Waltz After David M” is very beautiful, and by far the most developed piece here. But it’s the duo’s ability to pack an immense amount of structure into relatively short durations that is more impressive. “The Lea” is a quite unexpected pastoral, more George Butterworth than Aaron Copland.I don’t know where the album title comes from. Maybe a reference to the Duke Ellington track? It’s probably a coincidence that Azure magazine (Ideas for the Jewish Nation) ceased publication around the time the recording was made. Or it may just express some general sense of uplift, clear skies rather than philosophical transcendence, for this is perhaps Crispell’s – and Peacock’s, too – most direct statement to date. Motian may be missed, but the music they make here is entire and confident. Some will perhaps compare the relationship to that between Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, but that gets the emphases all wrong. Listen again to how Coltrane and Garrison locked and separated, how the one fed the other or fed off him and then swooped away to a place of his own, and you’re much closer to getting the feel and spirit of this terrific record.