Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed


Leroy Jenkins’ Driftwood
The Art Of Improvisation
Mutable Music 17523-2

JenkinsMNNew methods of structuring improvisations are devised daily; but rhythm remains one of the most reliable. It is open-ended, as it does not address pitch or timbre; at the same time, rhythm is a catalyst that assures at least an initial continuity. Violinist Leroy Jenkins uses this approach with brilliant results on the debut of Driftwood, a quartet with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, pianist Denman Maroney, and percussionist Rich O’Donnell. The parameters of each of the four movements are set with infinitive verb, a tempo description and a metronome setting – i.e.: “To Sing – Andante Cantabile (quarter note symbol) = 80.” Taking the prompts of each movement to heart – especially the intriguing “To Believe – Pure Motion – (quarter note symbol) = 0” – Jenkins and his collaborators almost instantly coalesce as ensemble, while giving each musician enough space on an ongoing basis to truly add to the unfolding music. The ensemble’s complementary textures – the sustain of Jenkins’ bowing, the quick decay of the pipa, the shimmering metallic highlights of Maroney’s preparations, and the small details of O’Donnell’s percussion – also play a large role creating and sustaining the music’s momentum. Yet, Driftwood’s most admirable quality is their restraint. Each of its members are virtuosos (for those not familiar with O’Donnell, he is the former principal percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), but they never disrupt the collectively articulated equilibrium.


The Mary Lou Williams Collective
Zodiac Suite: Revisited
Mary Records M104

MaryLouMary Lou William’s Zodiac Suite was composed in 1945, a decade prior to modernist jazz piano trio milestones like Herbie Nichols’ Blue Notes, and is comparably innovative in terms of form and tone. The suite also remains the best example of Williams’ knack for condensing materials into very short and very bold pieces. While this approach had the unfortunate down side of withholding extended solo space from Williams on the original recording, it gives present-day interpreters more latitude than most works of its stature. Geri Allen is an excellent proxy for reprising the suite; her reverence for tradition and, specifically, Williams’ spiritual agenda fulfills the flame-keeping requirements, while Allen’s probative approach to the materials paves the way for an updating of the piece that is solely hers. Since Allen’s voice is substantially moored in styles that came of age 20 years after the suite was composed, this performance contains many pungently anachronistic passages. Allen’s cohorts – bassist Buster Williams, who performed with Mary Lou Williams in her later years, and drummers Billy Hart and (on two tracks) Andrew Cyrille – also infuse the piece with an ensemble elasticity not available to Williams in the 1940s. By the 1970s, there was enough of an articulation that Williams was sufficiently avant to be paired with Cecil Taylor, resulting in the staging one of the most curious collaborations in jazz history. The compatibility of Williams’ suite and Allen’s extrapolations of ‘60s stylists like Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock support the idea that Williams’ suite is something of a preamble to the advanced jazz of later decades. What sounded dated, if not antique, next to Taylor is made new by Allen.

Even though this version of Zodiac Suite a has considerably longer running time than the original, the performance does not consume the entiriety of the CD. It is noteworthy that, in addition to William’s “Intermission” and an Allen-penned homage to Williams, that the trio plays Nichols’ “The Bebop Waltz.” In doing so, the historical arc of her interpretation of Williams ends with an elegant curve.


John McNeil
East Coast Cool
Omnitone 15211

McNeilSome hard core listeners will pass this CD by merely on the basis of the album’s cliched title and the corny black and white cover shot of trumpeter John McNeil taking a drag off a cigarette, while a shaded Alan Chase apes Gerry Mulligan in the background. They would be well advised to make the counter-intuitive leap and check the album out. Even though the genesis for the project was McNeil’s immersion in Mulligan’s repertoire to write arrangements for a tribute band, the trumpeter’s nine compositions have little in common with the Mulligan-Baker quartet beyond the instrumentation. Instead, on tunes like “Deadline,” McNeil’s pivots between angular phrases before resolving the line with a lighter feel evokes John Carter and Bobby Bradford’s ‘60s quartet. And, there are other tunes that could snuggly fit into an early Vinny Golia album. The three “cover” tunes do have older West Coast connections, the most obvious being “Bernie’s Tune,” and the slyest being “Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto,” written during the twelve-tone avatar’s LA years. The latter is thoroughly engaging, as the quartet adheres to Schoenberg’s materials throughout the solos, instead of dashing off the head and blowing whatever. Much the same can be said of their deconstructing improvisations on Kenny Berger’s “GAB,” which, heard in isolation, could be construed as being far afield from current mainstream jazz. All of this speaks to the creativity and versatility of McNeil, Chase, bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson. Without their consistently forward-looking performances, this would have been much closer to the hokey retro affair suggested by the cover.

Louis Moholo-Moholo
Bra Louis – Bra Tebs/Spirits Rejoice!
Ogun OGCD 017/018

MoholoThe reissue of Spirits Rejoice! by itself would be cause for celebration. This 1978 recording was made the day after Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice debuted at London’s 100 Club, the first of only two gigs in the band’s short history, and they were still stoked. The music’s enduring power is a measure of both Moholo-Moholo’s sense of mission and the camaraderie among the musicians, gained through collaborating in sundry ensembles, most notably Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. The big band experience is particularly discernable in the front line of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, and trombonists Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti during the largely improvised polyphonic passages that dot the date. When indicated, Moholo-Moholo and bassists Johnny Dyani and Harry Miller simply blaze, and pianist Keith Tippett digs deep into the South African idiom when he is not unleashing torrents of clusters and massive chiming chords. Incendiary tracks like Moholo-Moholo’s “Khanya Apho Ukhona” and Dyani’s “Ithi Gqi” are prime examples of how the South Africans’ folkloric themes were transformed by free jazz energy. Still, what made – makes – the album a classic is that it is exquisitely well rounded. Planted between the aforementioned pieces, their reading of Mongesi Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me” taps both the rallying-cry urgency and the anthem-like majesty embedded in the tune (no doubt, Feza’s tragic death less than two years prior to the date informs the performance). The regal “Wedding Hymn” shifts into double-time two-chord blowing, with Parker and Tippett handing in powerfully propulsive solos, while “Amaxeshs Osizi” ends the album on a reverential note, highlighted by Wheeler’s clarion trumpet.

However, Ogun outdid itself by pairing Spirits Rejoice! with Bra Louis – Bra Tebs, the last studio date by Moholo-Moholo’s Viva La Black. There were few changes in personnel between this 1997 session and the band’s historic ’93 tour of liberated South Africa. Veterans of that campaign – bassist Roberto Bellatella, trumpeter Claude Deppa, pianist Pule Pheto and saxophonists Toby Delius and Jason Yarde – continue to play with palpable commitment and passion. But, the addition of vocalist Francine Luce is purely catalytic, and she single-handedly takes the music somewhere new, even on well-treaded tunes like Dudu Pukwana’s romantic “B My Dear.” On Bellatella’s boppish “Maybe of Cause,” the Martinique-born singer displays solid jazz chops and an ability to stretch the idiom in a way that’s reminiscent of Jeanne Lee and Jay Clayton. However, it is the warm hues she adds to Moholo-Moholo’s arrangements of traditional South African songs that leaves the most lasting impression. Like Spirits Rejoice!, the fundamental strength of Bra Louis – Bra Tebs is a wide range of materials that brings out the best in players like Delius, who gives Malfatti’s “Yes Please” a Dutch tinge, Deppa, who sets off Gillespie-like fireworks on the Cherry-flavored “Moegoe,” and Yarde, who delivers a simmering alto solo on “Hayi Umntu Endinguye.”

Together, these two recordings comprise an important document essential to understanding the art of Louis Moholo-Moholo.


Joe Morris
Beautiful Existence
Clean Feed CF050CD

MorrisOn some counts, Joe Morris’ current work is roughly analogous to Thelonious Monk’s Columbia years. It is safe and fair to say that the guitarist has explicated his innovations as an instrumentalist, and now only hones his uncompromisingly original approach on his current recordings. Unlike Monk in the ‘60s, Morris isn’t spent as a composer, but his writing is usually so predicated on his playing that there is an aura of familiarity to his new pieces. Still, just as the upteenth recording of “Blue Monk” yielded glints of freshness as well as expected pleasures, so too does Beautiful Existence.

A central reason Monk’s Columbias sound so uniform was his quartet, who knew exactly what the situation demanded and served it up consistently. Alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, who played on Racquet Club (label, date) and the road-tested tandem of bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray do much the same here, albeit their task is vastly different from that of Charlie Rouse et al. Morris’ accommodation of African music and the edgier jazz-related music of the ‘70s and early ‘80s (Ornette’s Prime Time, the Downtown scene) creates an immense connotative baseline and precludes generic grooves. Subsequently, the music requires the occasional spasm and spike in intensity, and Morris’ cohorts concur with performances whose most prominent quality is a natural feel.

Morris remains a provocative composer, guitarist and bandleader who still occasionally steps out of character, the case in point here being “Some Good,” the closest thing to a soulful ballad you’re likely to hear from him. For the most part, Morris does here what he’s done extremely well now for over twenty years (approximately the time span between Monk’s Blue Notes and his Columbias), turning thematic materials and sensibilities about swing inside out with a guitar style that defies easy description and pat comparisons.



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