Reviews of Recent Recordings
Jazz critics often give the most boisterous accolades to young musicians; but, in conversations this writer has had with players like drummer Alvin Fielder, a question that frequently arises is “where are the young guys at?” By young, Fielder is referring not to musicians in their thirties but those who are scorching the earth at seventeen, eighteen or twenty years old. Fielder himself is nearly eighty and still playing strong, ditto a number of second-wave free music peers. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy would have turned eighty in 2014 (he passed in 2004), but to hear him at age 20, when he began recording with trumpeter Dick Sutton, or two years later with pianist Cecil Taylor, is to hear a tentative, intelligent and inquisitive improviser who played with open ears and without bursting the floodgates. This approach would characterize his life as a composer, bandleader and instrumentalist, though his playing certainly became more assertive and individual as the years wore on. It is arguable that Lacy didn’t really come into his own until the mid-1970s, when he was in his early forties (though he’d led some wonderful, vital bands in the preceding decade).
Cycles, the latest in a series of archival sets on Emanem, presents two discs’ worth of solo material from the suites Shots, Sands and Hedges, recorded between 1976 and 1980. Only the Hedges suite has been released before, as part of the Hat Hut double LP Ballets. The first disc of Cycles consists primarily of Shots, which later appeared on the French label Musica in a program of duets with Japanese percussionist Masa Kwate. “Pops” is a portrait of Lacy and partner Irène Aebi’s fathers, with a tough and garrulous funk that echoes the saxophonist’s collaborator, pianist Mal Waldron. “The Kiss,” a dedication to Maurice Ravel, also appeared on a solo LP of the same name (Lunatic, 1986); in its shrill clamber and gentle trills it evokes the composer’s tone poems, moving with a dancer’s poise and the occasional boogie-woogie aside. Following the torqued extremes of “Tots,” “The Ladder” vaults upward in measured harmonic breaths toward a rotating, glinting phrase ball. “Fruits” is both worried and lush, Aylerian phrases zipping by, punctuated by gorgeously sculpted roots and splaying out into scalar pirouettes.
The second disc consists of Sands and Hedges; along with four other tunes, they were recorded in concert at a Jesuit church in Porrentruy, the latter suite in collaboration with dancer Pierre Droulers. Compared to the rugged fidelity of the Rome recordings on the first disc, the Porrentruy tapes are crisp and resonant, hanging in the rafters with stately echo on the halting, gently swinging “Jump” and evincing stark overtones in the severe, open strokes of “Fall.” Hedges comprised the first LP of Ballets (unfortunately “Fox” was split across two sides), and while it would be interesting to see footage of soprano-movement duets, the music feels responsive, though Lacy’s narrow scissoring of “Hedges” leaves little auditory room for expansion. The duet is more pronounced on “Squirrel,” agitated strokes pressed into puckered whistles and subtones as Droulers stomps and clatters, accentuating the floor against saxophone aerialism. “Fox” distills Lacy’s Taoist suite The Way (indeed, Droulers collaborated with Byrd Hoffman dancer Sheryl Sutton on another Tao in 1980) into a ten-minute exploration of stamping growls and delicate flutters, rendered with an imprint of Droulers’ shimmies and scrapes, which occupy the pauses between Lacy’s straight-horn hiccups. The pair would collaborate again in 1991 on “Remains,” and a few of Droulers’ pieces recall Lacy – in addition to Tao, Tips and Sortie mirror his discography.
At 46, when the second disc was recorded, Lacy’s music was in a period of evolution and would shift toward even more expansive song cycles, often with medium-sized ensembles and sometimes with elaborate staging. He’d already outlived a number of young lions, and was in a similar cohort to departed hard-boppers like Sonny Clark (a friend of Lacy’s), Tina Brooks and Booker Ervin. These Cycles are among the finer pared-down outings in Lacy’s expansive discography and provide a rare opportunity to witness one of the saxophonist’s intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations.
Few drummers have had the opportunity to play in big bands in a current idiom, but Paal Nilssen-Love has had several, from the dense overlays of Frode Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra (a band joined in his teens) to the roar of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet to the scores of Ken Vandermark’s Territory Band. His own Large Unit, formed in 2013, reflects that experience in multiple ways: like the Gjerstad and Brötzmann bands there’s plenty of free blowing as well as bands within the band; as with the Vandermark, there are scores, though they’re evidently filled with choices; like all of them, there is more than one drum kit present; unlike all of the others, though, the Large Unit isn’t a broadly international aggregation filled with stars of international free jazz: it’s make-up is intensely local. Ten of its 11 members are Norwegian, and only the Swedish trombonist Mats Alekint, the turntablist/electronic musician Lasse Marhaug and Nilssen-Love himself enjoy wider recognition. The Large Unit successfully combines the energy of youth and the casual familiarity of the neighborhood, both welded together by the focus of Nilssen-Love’s musical personality.
While Marhaug and Nilssen-Love have an on-going duo, the band also contains two distinct trios: the relatively conventional Knyst consisting of saxophonist Kasper Vaernes, bassist Christian Meaas Svensen and the band’s second drummer Andreas Wildhagen; and the far stranger one of Marhaug, guitarist Ketil Gutvik and tubaist Borre Molstad. Cornetist/flugelhonist Thomas Johansson, alto and baritone saxophonist Klaus Ellerhusen Holm and bassist Jon Rune Strom complete the band.
The band’s first release, First Blow, was a 20-minute EP from their July 2013 debut at the Molde Festival; Erta Ale (named for an Ethiopian volcano) is far more ambitious, a three CD (or four LP plus CD plus flexidisc) set mixing studio and live recordings from Oslo, Bergen and Moers. From the opening “Round About Nothing I,” the music swarms with a fierce Mingus-like energy: horns grind out blues cries with honks and shrieks, resisting the drum kits and basses that churn out dense, rapid, contradictory rhythms. In a pattern that continues, it’s a band that you don’t necessarily hear all at once, the ear finding its own paths into and through the music. While contrasting bands within the band seem to set independent agendas or wail at one another, there are also moments of sudden synchrony, evident in the matching lines of cornetist Johansson and trombonist Alekint or in the subtle symmetries of Alekint and tubaist Molstad with their complementary timbres.
The titles suggest close relationships between pieces, but they turn out to be very different, radically unstable, as if there are different paths through the scores, finding different lines as well as solos. There are two versions of “Round About Nothing I,” one of “II” and one of “III;” three versions of “Birdbox,” each featuring a different soloist; two versions each of “Austin Birds” and “Culius”; “Fortar Hardar” and” Fortar Hardar II.” If there’s a tendency to sprawling, energy-driven jams, the band is capable of very different dimensions. A passage of Marhaug’s electronics near the end of “Round...II” seems to issue from another world, while “Slow Love,” featuring bassist Holm, is work of tremendous restraint, swarming rhythmic repetition that develops a character unheard elsewhere from the band. Nilssen-Love’s sources likely include studies in African music (hinted strongly in the set’s title and the title “Fendika”).
The multi-disc set may echo the band’s fascination with scale, but this is large music, a window on a scene that seethes with creative energy and an unbridled intensity.
Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet
Drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo is one of the unimpeachable living jazz masters with a career that spans back to the early ‘60s in South Africa as one of the original members of the seminal group The Blue Notes, moving through the present day as one of the integral members of the European free improvisation community, and as a go-to player for visiting Americans like Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Cecil Taylor, and Frank Wright. Since the early ‘90s, Moholo-Moholo has been keeping the spirit of his South African roots alive with groups like The Dedication Orchestra and smaller groups under his own name. This recent quartet unites younger musicians with whom the drummer has had ongoing relationships. Saxophonist Jason Yarde has been part of the drummer’s ensembles since the early ‘90s. Much of Moholo-Moholo’s work with bass player John Edwards has been in ensembles led by Evan Parker, most notably the Foxes Fox quartet. His work with pianist Alexander Hawkins is more recent, but the two formed a strong bond, particularly working in a duo setting. So this quartet seemed inevitable.
Things take off from the first dancing strains of “For the Blue Notes,” a tune that brings together the dancing rhythms of township jazz and Ornette Coleman’s use of anthemic melodic kernels. Moholo-Moholo and Edwards lock in together, displaying a formidable penchant for propelling the momentum of the group while keeping the rhythmic undercurrents fluid and open. Yarde’s alto and soprano playing has a full-bodied tone tinged with a fiery cry, darting around the themes of the pieces and flying off on heated solos. Hawkins is an apt choice on piano. His background playing organ with Decoy comes through in the way he inhabits the pulses of the piece while freely pushing the coursing energy of the unit, while his percussive attack provides an effective foil for the drummer and bassist. This is a group savvy enough to touch on free-bop fluency on a tune like “Khwalo” and then dive in to torrid freedom on a piece like “Tears for Steve Biko,” which builds from collective airy counterpoint to careering blistering intensity, providing space for muscular solos from all of the musicians. Their collective acumen is also in full evidence on “4 Blokes” which continually morphs as members of the ensemble move in and out of focus, with particular kudos going to Hawkins’ cascading solo and Yarde’s serpentine alto lines, which flow from understated complementary embellishment to vociferous potency. The group also rewardingly draws on the legacy of the drummer’s South African roots on the lilting theme of “Mark of Respect” or the free lyricism of their cover of Dudu Pukwana’s “Angel-Nomali.” Now into his 70s, Moholo-Moholo is still hard at work keeping the legacy of his collaborators alive. The fact that he is fostering that legacy with multiple generations of players and delivering music full of vitality makes him all the more indispensable.
Richard’s Tune is an expanded reissue of Solo Piano Album, recorded for Sackville in 1975. It was Pullen’s first release under his own name, despite almost a decade having elapsed since his studio recording debut on The Giuseppe Logan Quartet (1964, ESP) as a member of the multi-reedist’s quartet with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Milford Graves. Pullen and Graves subsequently founded SRP (Self-Reliance Project) to document their experimental duo efforts, which yielded the underground classic Nommo in ‘66. Pullen’s proficiency in more traditionally-oriented jazz settings is equally evident in his sideman work of the era. His background as a church organist came to the fore on alto saxophonist Charles Williams’ early ‘70s albums for Mainstream Records, although it was Pullen’s three-year tenure as pianist in Charles Mingus’ group that provided him widespread exposure on an international scale. Pullen was a key player in what is generally considered Mingus’ last great band (with trumpeter Jack Walrath, saxophonist George Adams and drummer Dannie Richmond), but creative differences eventually took their toll and Pullen parted ways with the volatile bassist at the start of ‘75.
At the time, Pullen was unaccustomed to performing alone, but was persuaded to record this solo gig for John Norris and Bill Smith’s imprint – which brilliantly encapsulated all his sundry talents. Pullen possessed an incredibly expansive piano technique; disarmingly beautiful ballads were tendered with velvety poise, while more aggressive fare was fraught with blistering salvos of notes. The latter aspect often invoked casual comparisons from critics to Cecil Taylor’s kinetic attack, which plagued Pullen throughout his career up until his untimely death at age 53, from lymphoma, in 1995. Though similarities exist, Pullen’s rapid chromaticism tended toward a much lighter touch – cascading rather than thundering. More importantly, unlike Taylor, Pullen was never averse to playing in the tradition; blues, funk, and gospel all informed his protean pianism.
Dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams, the opening title track is an exemplary demonstration of Pullen’s improvisational acumen – a lilting swinger that encompasses a full range of dynamics, veering from stately romanticism to feverish expressionism. “Suite (Sweet) Malcom (Part 1: Memories and Gunshots)” explores a variety of vernacular forms over its quarter hour duration, building incrementally from a hauntingly minimalist motif to a manic, two-fisted climax of Ivesian proportions. A rousing, gospel-inflected rendition of “Big Alice” (first documented on Mingus Moves) is a highlight, revealing the pianist’s boundless capacity for joyous lyricism and funky ebullience. “Song Played Backwards” on the other hand is a terse, labyrinthine meditation, full of recoiling lines, while the exotic “Kadji” brims with sunny harmonies and uplifting rhythms that foreshadow the ethnic cross-over experiments of Pullen’s ‘90s era African-Brazilian Connection. The album ends with a brisk, previously unissued alternate take of “Big Alice” that closes the set in glorious fashion.
Delmark Records’ acquisition of the Sackville catalog is a boon to connoisseurs of rarefied jazz; Richard’s Tune is but one of several titles long out of print and previously unavailable on CD. A captivating and multihued collection, this edition restores an important and overlooked chapter in Pullen’s discography.
Irène Schweizer + Jürg Wickihalder
It is odd to think that Steve Lacy never recorded with Irène Schweizer. Their paths must have crossed along the way during Lacy’s extended tenure in Europe, but from what I can find, never appear to have performed together. That may seem an odd lead to a review of this meeting between Schweizer and the Swiss saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder, but Lacy’s visage is all over this recording. Schweizer and Wickihalder found initial common ground in the music of Thelonious Monk, digging in to his compositional forms with the structural curiosity Lacy brought to Monk’s music. In fact Lacy’s recording of Monk’s music, Reflections, was a seminal influence on Wickihalder. In the early ‘90s, the reed player tracked Lacy down in Paris and took a series of lessons which were formative to his approach to both reed playing and improvisation. While the two don’t cover any of Lacy’s compositions, his mark is clearly heard on the set comprised of five originals by Wickihalder, one by Schweizer, three spontaneous improvisations, two by Monk, all capped off by the standard “Just a Gigolo” which Monk often covered.
The set is structured around compact improvisations, most coming in under the 4-minute mark, taking Lacy’s penchant for concision as a guiding principal. Things kick off with Wickihalder’s “Red Light Crossing Friends,” a piece that captures Monk’s fractured stride as well as Lacy’s measured sense of pacing. Schweizer locks in on the line, matching Wickihalder’s fractured transversal of the theme with assured, lissome command. Next up is the pianist’s “Rag” with the two tag-teaming across the herky-jerky, stuttering cadence with particularly standout playing by Schweizer. Another highlight is “6243D” with a soprano line full of angular, stop-start twists and turns bounding across splayed piano clusters. Wickihalder also weighs in with some strong tenor playing like on the collective piece “Green,” full of bent notes and liquid smears countered by Schweizer’s darting flurries and pensive chords, the sultry “Last Jump” with its floating ballad-like melody, or the muscular “White,” which pitches out snippets that the two poke and prod at with an arcing intensity. Their Monk covers are also stand-outs, imbuing “Ugly Beauty” with a rounded lyricism and strutting across “Trinkle Tinkle,” tossing the head back and forth to expand upon. Their take on “Just a Gigolo,” which caps off the set, is a shrewd abstraction of the tune that teases it out with a lilting melodicism.
This is a strong one all around. And while one still wonders what a Schweizer/Lacy meeting might have sounded like, this duo provides the ultimate homage by drawing on Lacy and Monk’s vocabulary to create a personal sound all their own.