Reviews of Recent Recordings
Farmers by Nature
In my 1999 conversation with Cecil Taylor – longest standing redwood in the forest of avant-garde piano improvisers – the artist posed a fundamental question: “What is a musician?” He then immediately answered: “That has to do with how one trains oneself to respond to sound, and how one utilizes one’s body to make that sound.”
That sound, molded and deployed against a space that is always inhabited by other sounds, is the body’s production – a time-bound sculpture that Taylor clearly indicates here – is a trained response to itself, that is, a conditioned reflex. Love and Ghosts – the third album by the trio Farmers by Nature – drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist William Parker and pianist Craig Taborn – is a two-CD package documenting a pair of French concerts. The trio is a collective equilateral triangle, not the conventional isosceles of melodic virtuoso backed by rhythm section. Each of these men is generating that sound and inserting it into a space that contains the sounds of the other two. These lengthy improvisations don’t waste a lot of time searching for a point of entry and roll out their offer without much in the way of “hooks” or “showboating.” The charisma of this splendidly recorded document lies in the elegant reflexivity of all those generations and insertions.
William Parker (62) played with Taylor and has done all that can be done with his instrument, and he has also built a body of coherent aphorisms around the life-giving, spirit-reinforcing functions of creative music. Craig Taborn (44) is an ascending pianist who has collaborated broadly and made several well-received albums as a leader. Taborn met Gerald Cleaver (51) while studying at the University of Michigan where the percussionist was a part of the jazz faculty. Taborn and Cleaver have developed an acute mutual awareness over many sessions together and that interaction is maybe the key to the efficiency of the recording’s long, open format and the immediacy with which their architecture is assembled in space.
Cleaver is the founding-mind of the trio and his unique approach to his sound changes the way this album can be heard. While it is close enough to free jazz ideals to almost stand as representative of the idiom, Cleaver’s choices as a drummer rarely align with the kind of combustive propulsion that typifies free jazz burn sessions. Rather he can fracture time in multiple directions simultaneously and employ so many non-trad sounds external to his kit that there are times while listening to the recording where I wasn’t exactly sure how many percussionists were on stage. On “Bisanz”, for example, Cleaver spends the first third of the 21-minute track whipping up frothy alien polyrhythms that Parker clambers up and down like a rope ladder.
Parker is never afraid to be foundational and his virtuosity doesn’t need to be bracketed in spotlighted solos. His ability to move and remain steady is a thing to behold. The title track features Parker dropping buckets of brilliantly buzzing arco bass that other critics have already praised, so, me too.
Maturity is a comprehensive knowledge that reconciles and renders operable all manner of frictions between body, psyche, and world. It (not age, maturity) is the conditioning that makes what is reflexive also decisive and gives the music its height.
Taborn is the chronological junior member of the group, but his input is an advanced autopoietic vibrational-language, a language that is also neuro-psychologically aware. Improvisation is jamming, but it can also be composition as when Taborn peels off melodic clips in repetition (using them almost like samples) stacking them upon themselves and their subtle variants in the halls of echoic memory.
This is a listener’s record. That is, the map and the territory are one – no easy way to restructure listening into groove-mode, focus-on-the-soloist mode, or abstract-the-theme-mode. I couldn’t really listen to this in my car. This generous tapestry reveals its intricate truths only upon close inspection. You must get your nose close to the soil to understand what these farmers have produced.
Paul Giallorenzo’s GitGo
Born and raised in New York, pianist Paul Giallorenzo has become a mainstay of the Chicago jazz scene, well-known for his role as co-founder and director of the popular art gallery/music venue Elastic. A versatile artist, Giallorenzo typically works in a variety of contexts, ranging from traditional acoustic piano trios to experimental electronic improvising duos.
Giallorenzo’s working quintet, GitGo (short for Get In To Go Out), has roots in his 2009 album Get In To Go Out (482 Music), but that session had a different lineup than the ensemble’s debut, Emergent (Leo, 2012), which featured the veteran frontline of saxophonist Mars Williams and trombonist Jeb Bishop, supported by Giallorenzo on piano, bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Marc Riordan. Force Majeure is the band’s sophomore release, and finds newcomer Quin Kirchner manning the skins in place of Riordan.
Exploring the tenuous divide between inside and outside aesthetics (as befits the group’s name), the angular melodies, contrapuntal harmonies and jagged rhythms of Giallorenzo’s erudite compositions draw inspiration from Cecil Taylor’s seminal innovations of the late 1950s, as well as Sun Ra’s contemporaneous efforts, recorded in the Windy City. Largely eschewing conventional song forms, Giallorenzo’s arrangements invert archetypal solo orders and rhythm section accompaniment, opening the works up to intriguing tonal juxtapositions.
Bringing vim and vigor to the proceedings, Bishop’s garrulous vocalisms find expressive concordance with Williams’ acerbic attack, as they ply interweaving lines throughout these labyrinthine pieces, most notably on “Reverberations.” The trombonist’s precise articulation on “Blowings On” provides rich contrast to the unaccompanied tenor saxophone soliloquy that introduces “Fits and Starts,” a coruscating interlude that demonstrates the full range of Williams’ reed-splitting potential. Hatwich, the sole holdover from the group’s earliest incarnation, interlocks flawlessly with Kirchner, imbuing an assortment of odd-metered time signatures and lock-step rhythms with swinging fervor.
The leader’s nimble phrasing and dynamic touch invoke an array of antecedents, from Monk’s abstruse lyricism to Taylor’s kinetic force. The ghostly “A Tone” presents Giallorenzo at his most introspective, with pellucid filigrees that meander through a pointillist soundscape, while the cascading salvos and dense tone clusters of the title track showcase his more assertive side. The majority of the date plays to Giallorenzo and company’s strengths as muscular post-bop stylists, although “Roscoe Far I,” the punningly titled closer, rides a lilting reggae vamp that blossoms into reverb-laced dub, demonstrating the unit’s flexibility – closing Force Majeure with an appropriately unpredictable ending.
Darius Jones/Matthew Shipp
Jones and Shipp’s first duo release Cosmic Lieder was fresh, vibrant, and sympathetic, one of my favorite jazz releases of 2011. What struck me about that release was the concise focus on tightly articulated ideas, and the ability to let meaningful contrasts develop, resonate, and evolve. All those qualities are amplified on this sophomore outing, comprised of live pieces from the Stone and the Jazz Standard recorded between 2011 and 2013. With deep experience and a shared improvisational milieu, the pair’s contrasting styles but deep commitment to exploration make this release as buoyantly expressive as it is pensive.
At the core once again is the interplay between the deep blue inflections of Jones’ intense, gripping alto and Shipp’s distinctive, often somber architecture. It’s worth noting, too, how consistently exploratory these two are in thinking about the conceptual and spiritual underpinnings of their music. So why am I not surprised that this session is replete with titles referring to that master conceptualist, Jack Kirby, and his mind-blowing Fourth World titles? In fairness, there were some pretty overt references in the prior release (“Mandrakk” and “Nix Uotan”) but here the whole release is named for super-baddie Darkseid. In truth, there is an occasionally ominous feel to many of these pieces, an intensity that at times takes you right to the edge as a listener. Listen to those slightly edgy alto trills in “Celestial Fountain,” as Shipp single-mindedly repeats a phrase. There are poison clouds and frantic escapes, anxiety and balm alike on “2, 327, 694, 748.” And no matter how fast the lines or overlapping ideas, Jones always finds some new way to alter his tone. On “Granny Goodness,” Smith’s crashing chords bespeak something of that character’s creepy menace, filled with vast leaps in register, and an occasional unsettling sparseness (in time, it erupts into a fanfare for Jones’ tight little honks and squeals and Shipp’s colorful baroque phrasings). They return to an atmosphere of stalking arpeggiations and repeating phrases from Shipp, on “Gardens of Yivaroth,” with pipe tones both caustic and avian from Jones, who achieves a kind of lyrical majesty from what can only be described as a kind of celestial braying. It’s major-league stuff throughout. They seem to reach for a dense stellar swirl on “Lord of Woe” and a deep-toned double helix procession on “Divine Engine.” They are pensive on the wheeling “Life Equation.” There is dark mist and bronze raggedness on “Sepulchre of Mandrakk,” reaching a testifying state with ululations from both players. And after the craggy melodicism of the closing “Novu’s Final Gift,” one comes away more impressed than ever with the range and the invention of this pair.
Daunik Lazro + Benjamin Duboc + Didier Lasserre
Sometimes music makes me more aware of where I live, of the noise of city street crews (endless rounds of installing gas mains, paving, replacing water pipes, paving), the perpetual sound of renovation, of construction crews fabricating in-fill housing or repairing an aging housing stock. When I started listening to Sens Radiants I was particularly aware of ambulance sirens on the main road a block away, of the hammer of a carpenter replacing a neighbor’s porch.
As I listen to Sens Radiants in such an environment, there is a dual movement of mood and listening. The baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro is a sonic explorer, a master of multiphonic nuances drawn from extended tones, working with the sonically creative bassist Benjamin Duboc and drummer Didier Lasserre. Sound is an absolute value for them and their focus on the sound sustained and the sound repeated draws one ever further into the textural details of those unwanted ambient sounds. The carpenter’s hammer, the ambulance’s siren seem more of an intrusion than usual at first, perhaps because those very sounds of industry might resemble the sounds with which the trio works. How does one ever fully disconnect the siren that has insinuated itself into the saxophone’s dense bleat?
The ambulances pass, the saxophone and bass and drums remain. Sens Radiants is a singular and single improvisation, 55 minutes long. Most things will pass, if not in the first iteration then in the next. The music rises each time to invest the interference with a meaning that it did not possess before. It may be that there is a specific urban poetry in Lazro’s big horn, as if the baritone saxophone conjoined to the current techniques of circular breathing and multiphonics gives a special poetry to a collection of sounds with industrial resonances even more pointed than when announced on the tenor.
Lazro frequently commemorates one of the golden moments of 20th century music – that instant when the saxophone (signal horn of the industrial age) revealed its capacity to scream with meaning and intensity, art and insistence, somehow larger than the merely human, as if it were a collaboration of the human and the mechanical, an extension of both. The concentration on the long tone is everywhere here, a concentration on the molecular evolution of a sound, whether it’s a struck drum or the penetrating whistle or drone of a bowed cymbal or bass. One of the crucial movements of these sounds and this music is from an apparently industrial exterior to an organic (and equally electrical) interiority, of heart thump, gastric bubbling or brain buzz.
There are moments in Sens Radiants when the music possesses what might be called an unearthly beauty, Lazro’s sound a transformed and transcendent cry, but its ability to continue to elaborate meaning consists in the degree to which it is absolutely an earthly beauty, as close to the earth from which the woods and metals of these instruments were drawn.
With 2009’s Travail, Transformation and Flow, Steve Lehman made an impressive mark as composer and leader, guiding his octet through a program that drew equally on his studies of spectral harmony with Tristan Murail, improvisational structures with Anthony Braxton, and the post-bop tradition with Jackie McLean (with a transcription of a song by the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan thrown in for good measure). Just as important to the success of that release was the ensemble he assembled, most of whom he’d been working with for well over a decade. This newest release builds on that groundwork, synthesizing potent improvisation, harmonically and rhythmically rich compositions, and a keen ear for ensemble voicings. One can dig in to treatises on the theory of spectral harmony or just soak in the mutable microtonal shifts of Lehman’s pieces.
While reeds and brass can bend tonality, Lehman actually worked with vibes player Chris Dingman to design and commission a custom instrument. He makes the point that “I knew it would force me into some new areas compositionally. And since this music involves so much microtonal harmony, you gain a great deal of fluidity when the main chordal instrument can actually execute those sonorities.” Another influence Lehman wove in was that of Bud Powell, drawing on the pianist’s takes on “Glass Enclosures,” “Autumn in New York” and “Parisian Thoroughfare” to recast the notion of composition, improvisation, and form. All of this provides intriguing background, but ultimately, what makes this release so compelling is the way the ensemble fully inhabits the pieces, constructing compact, vital performances.
Things kick off with “Segregated and Sequential,” full of angular flow as contrapuntal lines from vibes, Lehman’s snaking alto and Mark Shim’s tenor blend with Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet and Tim Albright’s trombone, bounding along over the circuitous bottom line of Jose Davila’s tuba and Drew Gress’ bass and the stop-start pulse of Tyshawn Sorey’s drums. “Glass Enclosures” is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic layering of lines opening up to percolating solo sections for each of the players, which are then woven together into overlapping plaits. Then there’s a piece like “Codes: Brice Wassy,” dedicated to the Cameroonian drummer, which, over the course of 8 minutes, builds and then fractures the ensemble as they move through arresting solos and mercurial voicings.
“Autumn Interlude” brings to mind the excitement musicians like David Murray, Henry Threadgill, and Muhal Richard Abrams brought to mid-sized ensembles in the eighties while “Beyond All Limits” adds wafts of electronics which further unpins the harmonic foundations of the music. “Chimera/Luchini” is a particular tour-de-force, building collective densities and momentum which ride along with assured direction over the constantly shifting unresolved harmonies and quixotic shifts of pulse. The release ends with “Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription” which utilizes a home recording of Powell playing and talking mixed in with ghostly electronics and a fluttering alto line by Lehman for a compact sound poem. Lehman and crew are making some of the most interesting ensemble music coming out of the jazz tradition these days, while continuing to find new ways to stretch it; and this release shows that they have no signs of slowing down.