Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Susan Alcorn
Soledad
Relative Pitch RPR1032

There’s a special coming together here of composer and interpreter as pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn approaches the compositions of the Argentine bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla. Alcorn and Piazzolla possess an unusual point of commonality: each has taken what might be thought of as a “vernacular” instrument and transformed it into one of great nuance, dimension, and, in Alcorn’s case, an accuracy that’s rarely graced her instrument. Whether it’s Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk,” the soulful roar of the Sacred Steel church tradition or its presence in country & western bands, the pedal steel has invited a wide vibrato and rewarded it with a dream-like ambiguity and mystery. In contrast, Alcorn can hit a single-note line or string of parallel chords with a precision of intonation that’s uncanny, at times here suggesting the depth of sound of a skilled organist playing Bach. That skill allows Alcorn her tonal and expressive invention, revealing in the pedal steel guitar a largely unrealized resource.

Forget the unlikelihood of her instrument for this task and what you’ll find here is work of tremendous beauty, a keening, singing lyricism that suggests pools reflecting light. The work is subtitled “Improvisation and the Music of Astor Piazzolla” and in it Alcorn explores all the depth of form and invention that Piazzolla brought to the tango tradition, improvising almost seamlessly and enriching works like “Soledad” and the sustained creation of “Tristezas de un doble A.” She’s joined by bassist Michael Formanek on her own elegiac “Suite for AHL,” extending the improvising language employed for the Piazzolla pieces into swirling atonal highs. Together the two explore pitch, dynamics and C & W-related materials, suggesting at times a cinematic invocation of desert and space worthy of Morricone.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Atomic
Lucidity
Jazzland Norway 2

Atomic is all music. This quintet has been around since the 1990s and they’re authoritative individuals who listen and respond closely and ingeniously and make singular ensemble revelations. Fine instincts for form permeate their work. There’s an eyes-wide-open intensity about their music that’s immediately attractive. They’re from Scandinavia and they’re serious as Nordic winters – if you’re looking for smiles, seek Dutch or Chicago musicians instead.

Pianist Håvard Wiik and reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist composed these seven pieces. Most feature lots of changes in momentum, texture, and mood, none more so than Wiik’s “Laterna Interfuit,” a musical case of ADD. The moods hint at Sibelius-like bleakness, the improvisations are topped by fearful, many-noted Magnus Broo trumpeting over Ljungkvist’s menacing longer tenor sax tones. Ljungkvist’s “Start/Stop” flows between moods: a gentle, breathy trumpet solo turns agitated, a clarinet solo is in and out of calm and upset, the piano solo rises to a violent climax. Wiik’s title song begins by, for a change, swinging; ends in hot collective freebop; and includes a fine example of his sensitive accompanying, with phrases that closely follow or echo the tenor sax solo. More Nordic darkness emerges in Hans Hulbœkmo’s quiet drums behind Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s stalking bass note of “A MacGuffin’s Tale” and in the themes of “December,” composed by Ljungkvist, the only piece here that’s actually composed to evoke a mood.

There are plenty of ensemble improvisations here and no high-energy ecstasies – these players choose more varied, supportive interplay. Broo is the most vivid player. While he sounds vulnerable in his rubato, breathy passages in the song “Lucidity,” he’s usually both poised and nervous. He’s most potent in longer, many-noted lines with a vigor and lyricism that sometimes recall Miles Davis at his most heated – except that Broo’s technique is quite superior and he’s comfortable at far faster tempos than Davis ever played. Ljungkvist’s improvised shapes suggest he’s a less subtle musical kin to Keefe Jackson. He gives about equal time to his tenor and clarinet, and his clarinet playing is especially striking, from his calm solo in Wiik’s “A New Junction” to the complexity of his detailed “MacGuffin’s” solo. He is the more lyrical of the two songwriters.

The rhythm section is traditional in their supporting role, progressive in their freedom of movement and the extent and closeness of their support. Wiik, especially, likes high contrast. In “Major” he plays so simply and so very low in the keyboard that he sets the tenor solo in high relief; after the madness in “Laterna,” he finally enters with a swinging solo; then in “Start/Stop” his solo is dense, heavy. He’s an eclectic ensemble pianist, his role is like Ellington’s, Basie’s, Monk’s, and his busy playing sounds like none of theirs. Drummer Hulbœkmo is the new man in the band, with energy and wit to fit. The excellent expatriate Flaten, now based in Austin, TX, USA, is a virtuoso in solo and a forceful ensemble man the rest of the time.
–John Litweiler

 

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
You’ve Been Watching Me
ECM 2443 B0022874-02

You’ve Been Watching Me is Tim Berne’s third ECM release with Snakeoil, following 2013’s Shadow Man and the group’s self-titled 2012 debut. Demonstrating incremental growth, this is the first session to feature new guitarist Ryan Ferreira, who joins the original lineup of Berne (on alto), clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionist Ches Smith. Documenting Berne’s return to the studio after nearly a decade of self-released concert recordings, Berne’s ECM albums present a more sonically sophisticated sound than his Screwgun output; the first is one of the most reserved of the saxophonist’s career, while the second offered a more representative example of an experienced touring band.

You’ve Been Watching Me captures the ensemble’s ongoing evolution; the augmented configuration also features an expanded instrumental palette, with Mitchell dabbling in ambient electronics and Smith playing vibraphone as often as percussion. In addition to providing his typically dense compositions with more spacious silences, Berne has begun orchestrating intimate duo and trio interludes into his oblique narratives that lend themselves to collective improvisations, more so than individual solos.

The rollicking opener, “Lost In Redding,” heralds a bold return to form; the quintet’s boisterous reading of the angular theme is a far cry from the poised restraint of its self-titled debut. Recalling the visceral contributions of Berne’s former guitarists (like Bill Frisell and Marc Ducret), Ferreira’s brusque distorted phrases immediately amplify the proceedings, sparring with Noriega’s percolating bass clarinet before engaging in kaleidoscopic exchanges with Mitchell and Smith at the tune’s coda.

Berne has long been admired for his ability to sustain dramatic tension throughout elaborate arrangements that comprise asymmetrical melodies, contrapuntal harmonies and modulating rhythms. The episodic “Small World In A Small Town” is archetypal, transitioning from the neo-classical ambience of Berne and Mitchell’s plangent ruminations to the exotic modality of Noriega’s serpentine evocations, which culminate in a soaring unison anthem – all in under twenty minutes. The cinematic finale of “Embraceable Me” finds Berne in especially lyrical form, eliciting rapturous held tones underscored by Ferreira’s metallic fretwork and Smith’s brooding martial backbeat.

Berne’s penchant for introspection is revealed on the uncharacteristically serene title track, a brief soliloquy for Ferreira’s acoustic guitar. In contrast, the much longer “Semi-Self Detached” conveys a full range of moods, gradually ascending from shadowy impressionism to cathartic expressionism, spurred by the leader’s increasingly acerbic cadences. The labyrinthine closer, “False Impressions,” encapsulates the expansiveness of Berne’s singular vision; Ferreira’s ethereal sustained feedback complements Mitchell’s stately variations perfectly, while the ending frames alto saxophone, bass clarinet, piano and vibraphone embroiled in thorny cubist interplay.

Although far more assertive than his highly refined ECM debut, You’ve Been Watching Me keenly balances Berne’s uncompromising methodology with an ear for nuance and subtlety, resulting in some of his most remarkable work to date.
–Troy Collins

 

Bobby Bradford & John Carter Quintet
NoUTurn: Live in Pasadena 1975
Dark Tree CD DT(RS)05

With the constant flow of reissues these days, it is lamentable how few of John Carter’s recordings are currently in print. His late ‘60s releases on Flying Dutchman, Flight for Four and Self Determination Music made a fleeting appearance. Mosaic issued an indispensable compilation of his recordings for the Revelation label, Emanem has kept his phenomenal duos with Bobby Bradford in print, and his late ‘80s group session with Horace Tapscott on HatArt is available again. But his seminal solo and small group live recordings from 1979 on Moers and his phenomenal series of ensemble recordings on Gramavision and Black Saint are all MIA. So the announcement of the release of a live recording from 1975 with his quintet co-lead by Bobby Bradford was exciting on a number of fronts. This was a period that had not been captured on any previous recordings and the group with the dual basses of Roberto Miranda and Stanley Carter along with drummer William Jeffrey was a regularly working group that was also previously not documented.

The clean, present recording captures this group in full flight. Carter had recently decided to stop playing alto sax, sticking to soprano and clarinet and his performance has a searing focus to it. He and Bradford had been working together for almost a decade at this point, and the two were actively composing pieces for their various collaborations. This set features “Love’s Dream,” “She,” and “Comin’ On” by Bradford and “Come Softly,” and “Circle” by Carter, all pieces that combine distinctive themes along with frameworks for expansive improvisations. (It’s no surprise that Bradford’s music worked so well during a sojourn in London where he worked with John Stevens, Trevor Watts, and Kent Carter.) Carter’s cascading flurries on soprano pair perfectly with Bradford’s burred, full-bodied cornet, playing off of the churning momentum of the paired basses and Jeffrey’s floating sense of time and free pulse.

Things open up with an extended extrapolation of “Love’s Dream,” starting off with a unison reading of the theme before Bradford takes off with his penchant for touching on the turns and phrasing of post-bop, extrapolating the melodic kernel into blistering freedom. This leads to a section of collective improvisation, with all five musicians respond to each other with a keen ear for open interplay setting the stage for Carter’s final free flight on soprano. “She” is more of a slow simmer, with Carter’s clarinet snaking around Bradford’s keening lyricism. “Comin’ On” is another 20-minute take, with Carter’s labyrinthine solo setting up Bradford’s probing excursion followed by a long section for basses and drums with a particularly gripping, musical solo by the drummer. Carter steps out on clarinet on “Come Softly” his lithe gracefulness matched perfectly by hushed bass and spare percussion shadings. Things finish out with a tag-team romp through Carter’s “Circle” with plaited tempests of clarinet and cornet charging across the coursing energy of the basses and Jeffrey’s drum torrents.

Sometimes these kinds of unearthed finds don’t quite live up to their hyped expectations. This one, happily, fully delivers.
–Michael Rosenstein

 

Steve Coleman & The Council of Balance
Synovial Joints
Pi Recordings PI57

Already widely considered one of the most influential figures in creative improvised music, alto saxophonist, composer and M-Base founder Steve Coleman won even greater recognition in 2014, as the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Grant. Currently in the midst of a creative renaissance, Coleman has been inspired as of late by non-musical subjects, studiously incorporating concepts culled from African diasporic culture, ancient religions, metaphysics, Eastern philosophy and patterns found in nature into his esoteric methodology.

The culmination of these disparate interests is Synovial Joints, Coleman’s most ambitious project to date. Conceived for the Council of Balance (a name Coleman has used for previous large ensemble projects), the group features 21 musicians in assorted configurations, including appearances by regular members of his flagship band, Five Elements, such as Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Miles Okazaki (guitar), Anthony Tidd (electric bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums), who are joined by a battery of Latin percussionists and contemporary classical musicians.

Functional Arrhythmias, Coleman’s prior Pi Recordings release, was based on the interactions between various biological systems in the human body. Synovial Joints uses the physiological movements within these biological systems (nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, lymphatic, endocrine, and exocrine) as the basis for advanced rhythmic cycles that flow in both linear and non-linear fashion. Coleman also includes a technique he calls “camouflage orchestration,” in which overlapping instrumental colors gradually move between foreground, middle ground and background, emulating how natural sounds materialize in the Amazon Rainforest.

Despite their complexity, Coleman effectively transposes his cerebral theories into accessible, groove-oriented compositions. The percussion-augmented rhythm section plies compound meters, shifting tempos and modulating time signatures with deft virtuosity, while the horns adroitly navigate polyphonic charts in counterpoint with lissome strings. “Acupuncture Openings” introduces the set with a tapestry of percussive cross-rhythms emboldened by staccato horns and furtive strings, whose fluctuating levels of dissonance represent the flow of electrical energy through the nervous system. The following number, the majestic “Celtic Cells,” ventures further afield, integrating chamber-esque elements derived from North European folk traditions, with Jen Shyu’s ethereal vocalese contributing to the tune’s stately air.

The titular suite brings Coleman’s erudite ideas to fruition; augmenting M-Base funk vamps with camouflage orchestration, the labyrinthine four-part opus evokes timeless antecedents, going back to the seminal efforts of the AACM. Coleman’s use of camouflage orchestration to juxtapose contrasting instrumental timbres recalls the knotty melodies favored by Muhal Richard Abrams, underpinned by bluesy, trombone-driven march cadences reminiscent of Henry Threadgill’s work. Coleman’s innovative writing eschews traditional theme and solos variations in favor of a syncopated collectivism that mirrors naturalistic patterns, encouraging thematically concise statements from individual soloists throughout the date – including the leader, whose intervallic alto cadences reveal an increasingly sophisticated lyricism. “Tempest” is the most literal example; symbolizing volatile weather systems, its numerous mood changes are cyclically accentuated by Coleman’s melodious refrains, ceremonial drum calls and lush string surges, representing calm after a storm.

Considering the size and scope of the project, Synovial Joints is one of the most formidable albums of Coleman’s career, a spirited large ensemble effort teeming with contrapuntal melodies, polyphonic harmonies, and kaleidoscopic polyrhythms – proof of his continued importance in the ongoing development of creative improvised music.
–Troy Collins

New World Records

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