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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Stephen Haynes
Pomegranate
New Atlantis NA-CD-015

As this music wrestles with history and forward motion, it’s natural to expect that honoring one’s past heroes would serve as grounding for a community. However, tributes rarely evoke the contributions that a given artist may have made to the evolution of the art form, and often rely on recreations of the past or blind conjuring. For such a magnanimous figure as trumpeter-composer (and educator, visual artist and writer) Bill Dixon, who died in 2010 at age 84, sorting out what he did while on this planet is difficult enough, let alone trying to figure out what paths his work might inspire. While he left a vast book of compositions, they often hinged on his direction and were rarely performed without the presence of his horn – incredibly open at first look and requiring the certain strengths of individual players, their shape and color was often just as exacting as what one might find in traditionally-notated music. It’s therefore appropriate that while brass multi-instrumentalist Stephen Haynes’ Pomegranate nods to Dixon’s oeuvre in its title (the 1966 collaboration between Dixon and dancer-choreographer Judith Dunn, performed at the Newport Jazz Festival), the music is not preoccupied with conjuring Dixon’s person or otherwise narrowing scope of the work.

Raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, Haynes studied with Dixon at Bennington College beginning in 1977 and performed in his three-trumpet sextet alongside Arthur Brooks, appearing on both volumes of In Italy (Soul Note, 1980) and eventually working with Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, and percussionist Adam Rudolph before returning to Dixon’s ensembles at the turn of the Millennium. The last several years have seen a remarkable focus on community in Haynes’ work, as he co-leads the Improvisations series at Hartford’s Real Art Ways with guitarist-bassist Joe Morris, for which a third performer is invited to perform, often Company-like, as a wild-card to at least one of the regulars. Pomegranate expands on the trio that recorded Haynes’ proper leader-debut in 2011, Parrhesia (Engine, with Morris and percussionist Warren Smith), adding tubist Ben Stapp and bassist William Parker to a program of six original, related works. In addition to Haynes’ tenure, both Parker and Smith worked in Dixon’s ensembles, and it’s fair to assume that Morris and Stapp would have eventually found their way into the composer’s world had he lived longer.

While Haynes’ arsenal includes trumpet, flugelhorn and cornet, he sticks to the latter here and presents a language of biting, condensed brass flywheels in crackling counterpoint to robust and gradually unfurling group energy. All five players have a multi-instrumental conception, whether or not they play one instrument. Parker adds the Gnawan guimbri and a bass shakuhachi to his palette and Stapp uses a harmonica, reeds and a variety of mutes, while Smith’s percussion setup includes marimba, gongs, triangles, tympani and shakers as well as a trap set. The ensemble debuted at Lower East Side venue the Stone in 2013 as part of a Joe Morris residency before recording at New Haven’s Firehouse12 studios; Haynes planned to issue the material himself before Ohio’s New Atlantis (mostly a home for avant-garde rock and similarly-leaning improvisation) stepped up to the plate.

The opening piece, “Sillage,” is a trio for tuba, bass and percussion, perhaps unconsciously following a path laid out by some of Dixon’s pieces in which the leader’s voice doesn’t herald the proceedings – after all, this is group music and its focus is egoless. Parker’s deep arco is poetically resonant, dripping with fibrous, deft howls and a burnished, grainy mass, supplanted by brassy ululations and sharp gong strikes. The following “Mangui Fii Reek (I Am Still Here)” has a curious shuffle to its movement, Parker’s guimbri setting a minimal, redoubled rhythm against the arrhythmic chop of shakers and Stapp’s tuba, which is both globular and clarion in its exhortations. Cornet and guitar cut a narrower path, brushing up against short, looped rhythm units or the airy nattering that demarks space, and the entire piece operates within a constant flow of cyclical and linear actions.

The disc’s centerpiece is the seventeen-minute “Becoming,” which stakes itself out in pursed fluffs and brittle runs from Haynes’ cornet, surrounded by a bed of muted plucks, riti scrapes (the horizontal movement across strings that Morris has perfected) and reedy warble gently cross-hatched by Afro-Caribbean marimba patter. Each player complements in stippled movement, grouping notes and impulses at slightly different rates with a lap of contained addition. A snatch of “Summertime” from Haynes, somewhat reminiscent of Lester Bowie, is briefly visible only to fall into papery chuffs, Morris bringing a wide, flinty vamp into the piece, gradually mirroring and upending its core. Once Smith moves to the kit, approaching it with extraordinarily quick, fibrous delicacy, the quintet embraces a plastic, field-like groove, though never “settled” as hot cells continually yank at its surface. Following the textural calm of “Crepuscular,” which blends little instruments into a dense, polyrhythmic martial figure, the quintet closes with the incisive uptempo push of “Odysseus (Lashed to the Mast),” bass and drums whipping at any sonic bulwarks while spanned with chortling low and high brass and the spread of Morris’ blistering, gauzy darts.

Rhythmically and texturally Pomegranate sets itself apart from the world of Bill Dixon, at least from the exposure that most listeners have had – the quintet seems able to lock into formal and informal languages that chart a path from North and West Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean – but the way in which these sonic elements are superimposed and framed to sculpt an auditory experience is Dixonian in its thrust. As a teacher and mentor to many artists, whether through Bennington, Madison, or the informal schools of Lower Manhattan, the shining path visible through Dixon’s many related practices was deeply self-reliant. It’s easy to forget that he was a peer to (or slightly older than) musicians like Miles, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy, and was cut from the cloth that also gave rise to figures like Ellington, Parker and Monk. None of these people had their art laid out for them already – the way had to be forged anew, drawing on information from peers, elders, and experience. Haynes’ Pomegranate is a one-of-a-kind gift that reflects obliquely on the influences that made it possible, yet its newness and individuality aren’t so brash as to ignore inexhaustible history.
–Clifford Allen

 

Mark Helias’ Open Loose
The Signal Maker
Intakt CD 245

Bassist Mark Helias founded his cooperative trio Open Loose in 1996 with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and drummer Tom Rainey, although Tony Malaby replaced Eskelin as primary saxophonist just after the first album, Come Back Ahead (Koch, 1998). The Signal Maker is the band’s seventh record and one of the most varied in its discography; none of the thirteen tracks – ten are Helias’ – last more than seven minutes, with most clocking in around four. This relative brevity enables Helias to explore numerous genres and styles over the course of the set, while Malaby’s occasional doubling on soprano adds extra tone color to the ensemble’s palette.

Avoiding simple head melodies, Helias favors themes where bass and saxophone play in contrary motion or interlocking harmony, as on “Fast Feast,” with its surprising transition from fleet bop to bluesy half-time, or the odd-metered muscular funk of “End Point.” Whether pre-written or spontaneously composed, the trio’s intuitive rapport on each piece is palpable. The three collective improvisations are also the longest cuts, which capture the threesome’s triadic interplay in nuanced detail. Helias’ grounded, conversant bass lines, Rainey’s surprisingly inventive interpolations, and the distinctive timbre of Malaby’s idiosyncratic phrasing all conspire towards a cooperative goal, using dynamic silences and volumetric outbursts to convey a range of expressive extemporizations on skeletal themes.

“Ca Vous Gene” stands as one of the group’s most elaborate works, transitioning seamlessly from taut counterpoint to freewheeling rubato, concluding with a terse coda underscored by Helias’ frenetic bowed bass. The up-tempo swing of “Motoric” similarly serves as one of the unit’s most extreme undertakings, a blistering post-bop line brashly deconstructed by Malaby’s gruff tenor variations. Conversely, his romantic ruminations on “Largesse” are some of the most elegant he has committed to tape – and a testament to Open Loose’s unrestrained eclecticism.
–Troy Collins

 

Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth
Epicenter
Clean Feed CF315CD

Bassist Chris Lightcap has been a well-established presence in the Downtown New York jazz scene since the early ‘90s. In addition to regularly working as a sideman for such luminaries as Regina Carter, Joe Morris and Matt Wilson, Lightcap leads his own ensemble, Bigmouth, featuring tenor saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

Bigmouth evolved from a piano-less quartet with Cleaver, Malaby and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, which was the line-up for Lay-Up (2000) and Bigmouth (2003) – Lightcap’s first efforts as a bandleader for Fresh Sound New Talent. In 2005 Lightcap invited Taborn to join the four-piece, renaming the augmented configuration Bigmouth. Epicenter is the group’s sophomore effort for Clean Feed Records, following Deluxe, its sterling 2010 debut.

Lightcap’s enduring interest in popular music imbues his writing with an accessibility similar to that of Jim Black’s AlasNoAxis, Eivind Opsvik’s Overseas and Chris Speed’s Yeah NO, where conventional song structures hold precedence over freewheeling improvisations – relying on catchy melodies, tight harmonies and steady rhythms to provide a solid foundation for soloists’ thematic interpolations.

Taborn’s overdriven electric piano dominates the rousing opener, “Nine South,” (the first part of a suite commissioned by Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works program) providing a thrilling introduction to the set, although Taborn actually plays more acoustic piano on this session than Wurlitzer, which he used exclusively on Deluxe. Unplugged, he adroitly expands upon the leader’s pliant bass ruminations at the outset of the Ornettish title track, providing spare harmonies for the tenors’ elliptical variations.

Longer pieces like “Arthur Avenue” and “Stone By Stone” allow each band member ample time to wax lyrical on euphonious motifs, while the atmospheric “White Horse” and the anthemic “Down East” eschew lengthy extrapolations in favor of dramatically concise exercises in mood and tension. In each case Lightcap’s charts are strictly followed, instilling a sense of stylistic unity.

Providing additional consistency, the album’s first seven cuts are all culled from the aforementioned suite, “Lost and Found: New York,” an extended work based on famous city landmarks. The eighth and final number is a rapturous cover of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” – a surprisingly apt closer that fits seamlessly into the record’s thematic celebration of the Big Apple. Ultimately, it’s this sort of focused approach towards the collective realization of a centralized idea that makes Epicenter so appealing.
–Troy Collins

 

Myra Melford
Snowy Egret
Enja/Yellowbird YEB-7752

Ever the searcher, pianist and composer Myra Melford has explored a wide variety of music since her debut as a bandleader over two decades ago, with more than twenty albums as a leader or co-leader to her credit – and twice as many as a side-person. Her abiding fascination with non-Western culture has been well-documented in ensembles like The Tent and Be Bread, which elaborated on Melford’s extensive studies in North Indian music.

Originally from Chicago, Melford relocated from New York to California in 2004, to serve as associate professor of contemporary improvised music at the University of California, Berkeley. Despite the move, Melford’s current group mostly features associates from her years spent on the East Coast, including cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. This lineup was first assembled in 2012 to perform a suite of music based on Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s Memoria del fuego (Memory of Fire), a three-volume history of the Americas that spans pre-Columbian creation myths to the colonial era. A year later, the opus was expanded into Language of Dreams, a multi-disciplinary event incorporating dancers, narration and video. Snowy Egret’s self-titled debut contains the majority of the original suite, which deftly integrates aspects of North and South American folk traditions into a seamless hybrid.

The driving opener, “Language,” showcases Ellman’s nimble fretwork and Miles’ Iberian-tinged ruminations careening through the changes, stirred by Sorey and Takeishi’s precisely modulating interplay. Sorey’s unflagging intensity (and Takeishi’s fleet responsiveness) energize the session, imbuing Melford’s vertiginous themes with a dramatic urgency, especially on bold abstractions like “The Kitchen,” which spotlights the leader throttling the keys with unbridled fervor. The melancholy “Night of Sorrow” on the other hand, demonstrates Melford’s debt to the blues in a series of soulful variations that relay indigo hues with sophisticated élan. At their most extreme, Melford’s angular melodies evoke a sense of ceremonial fanfare, similar to the seminal efforts of Henry Threadgill, with whom she has performed in the past. “Little Pockets/Everybody Pays Taxes” even sounds like a subtle homage to the AACM veteran, both in its wry title and the episodic nature of its labyrinthine narrative.

Introspective fare like “Times of Sleep and Fate” and the Latin-tinged ballad “The Virgin of Guadalupe” demonstrate the full breadth of Melford’s dynamic range, exuding a meditative air that can be attributed to her spiritual questing, which includes studies in ki-Aikido, Siddha Yoga and sacred pilgrimages with the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Transcendent aspirations aside, Melford’s formative roots lie in the blues tradition of her native Chicago, which provides even her most metaphysical leanings a sense of earthy gravity. Her unaccompanied introduction to the closing number, “The Strawberry,” is an authoritative barrelhouse-style romp that cleverly transforms into a slinky tango-inflected vamp, deftly unifying North and South American music traditions, which in turn encapsulates the record’s underlying concept.
–Troy Collins

 

Roscoe Mitchell Trio
Angel City
RogueArt CD ROG-0061

Roscoe Mitchell’s music has always blurred lines across a wide spectrum of activities. On the one end are his various small-ensemble improvised projects and on the other are his compositional works, most notably with long-time collaborator Thomas Buckner. But most of his endeavors operate between these poles, using compositional frameworks as structural parameters for group improvisations. These came to fruition in the ‘70s, documented on seminal recordings like L-R-G, The Maze, S II Examples and, most notably, Nonaah and have continued as an integral part of his work. The success of these projects have always ridden on Mitchell’s choice of collaborators, finding musicians comfortable working within the often severe constructs of his vision without feeling constrained by the forms. The trio he brought together for Angel City delivers on these challenges with aplomb.

While multi-reed player James Fei is probably best known for his work with Anthony Braxton, his music is equally as notable for his ongoing explorations of live electronics and composition. Percussionist William Winant brings a deep-seated experience performing contemporary composers’ work for solo percussion and ensemble. He has long balanced that with enduring collaborations with improvisers like Braxton, Fred Frith, and Larry Ochs, to name a few. Mitchell, Fei, and Winant are all part of the faculty at Mills College where this document was recorded. Mitchell wrote “Angel City” for the 2011 Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, utilizing an orchestral range of timbres, with both Mitchell and Fei utilizing a full range of saxophones from sopranino to bass, Bb bass and contra-bass clarinets, baroque flutes and bass recorder, along with Fei’s analog electronics. Winant’s setup fills out the sonic palette, with timpani and bass drum, marimba, bells, gong, snare drum, and a full complement of percussion.

The opening section of the 56-minute piece places pools of metallic percussion, marimba, and squelched electronics against pauses of silence, slowly introducing reed overtones in to the mix. The open densities allow the natural resonances of the instruments to come to the fore as the velocity gradually begins to accelerate. Mitchell, Fei, and Winant are constantly responding to the collective balance of the concentrations of sound, the relative volume, and the overall textures, introducing pauses and breaks which act as structural launching points for the trajectory of new sections. They also use the harmonic range of their arsenal as an organizational element to the overarching form, plying the dark thunder of bass drum, bass saxophone, and contra-bass clarinet or the skirling overtones of sopranino and bowed cymbals. Strident themes are also introduced, with paired reeds quavering against each other, buoyed by the sputter of mallet rolls or the hard-edged angularity of hammered bells. During the final section, Mitchell introduces an unhurried theme on bass saxophone, anchoring Fei’s bristly circuitous countering lines. The two propel this into a fractious ending as Winant’s tympani salvos lead the way to a skirling sopranino swirl.

In lesser hands, this could easily devolve into episodic dalliance. But, the three maintain a collective focus throughout. Mitchell’s structuralist abstractions have always been a particular favorite of mine, and this one is a winning addition.
–Michael Rosenstein

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