Reviews of Recent Recordings
Count Basie + Lester Young
As long as the tenor saxophone remains fundamental to jazz and improvised music, no matter how they may mutate in the future, Lester Young will remain relevant. The same goes for Count Basie’s piano as long as economy of expression is valued. Their relevance pours out, track after track, on the 8-CD Classic 1936 – 1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions. The timelessness of Basie and Young’s vitality is rooted in the timeliness of their emergence in the depths of the Depression, and, in Young’s case, how that youthful vigor was damaged yet deepened by the mean ignorance that permeates the US when it is at war.
Like many oft-told tales, Mosaic tells Basie and Young’s through well-known recordings from repeatedly-culled sessions first issued on, among others, Decca, Commodore, and Alladin. There are no surprises, small or earth-shaking (unless you’ve never heard Una Mae Carlisle’s head-spinning “Blitzkrieg Baby (You Can’t Bomb Me),” recorded nine months before Pearl Harbor); just the familiar tropes of jubilant swing, plain talking blues, and wistful romantic longings and pleadings. The freshness Mosaic has infused into this sprawling collection is through its occasional non-chronological sequencing, which inserts flash-forwards and flashbacks into the narrative. In spanning the earliest date, the November ‘36 [Jo] Jones- [trumpeter Carl] Smith, Incorporated session and a late ‘43 septet date led by trombonist Dickie Wells, the first disc creates reverberations that are reinforced throughout the remainder of the collection. Sometimes the displacement of chronological order is only by several weeks, but the results are illuminating, as when an earlier alternate of Jimmy Rushing singing “Good Morning Blues” follows “Blues in the Dark” on the second disc.
When a familiar story gets even slightly tweaked, new light is thrown on even minor personae previously thought to be long anchored by the cement of history. Such is the case with trombonist-electric guitarist/arranger Eddie Durham, whose role in whittling down the Basie orchestra’s charts and triangulating the urban and rural features of territory band jazz is crystallized by his and saxophonist Buster Smith’s 1937 arrangements of “One O’Clock Jump” and other Basie essentials. Throughout the remainder of the collection, the other stars in the overlapping Basie and Young constellations light up sessions recorded years apart, initially as fresh new voices and later as matured artists. Helen Humes is a fetching ingénue on “Dark Rapture,” cut with Basie’s orchestra in ‘38; by the time she fronts her All-Stars with Young, trumpeter Snooky Young, and alto saxophonist Willie Smith in ‘45, her voice has some of Billie Holiday’s worldly lustre, but without the scars. The collection also confirms Wells to be one of the most unheralded trombonists in jazz history, and one that rose to the occasion when confronted with truly inspired improvising from his bandmates. The case in point is “I Got Rhythm” from a ‘44 Kansas City Six date, which includes a stunning Wells response to some of the most rousing up-tempo playing Young ever committed to disc, an abstraction-studded solo that presages post-modern tailgaters like Ray Anderson.
Still, it is the twin suns of Basie and Young that provide the collection’s primary sources of light, heat and gravity. Particularly given the wealth of other pianists backing Young on his ‘40s dates – including Johnny Guarnieri on smoking quartet date with Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, and Nat Cole on a ‘46 trio outing with Buddy Rich – the 1938-9 Basie quartet sessions with Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jones merit close listening, as they detail how Basie cohered disparate regionalisms with a radical minimalism. When heard in seconds-long bursts on his classic orchestra recordings, Basie is a master of the vignette; on the quartet dates, he has a Hemingway-like quality of making razor-sharp declarations and leaving resonant spaces between them. Young, however, remains the consummate storyteller in jazz, a pinnacle he reached, arguably, years after leaving Basie. Young is well served by the intimacy of a drummer-less trio with Cole and bassist Red Callender on his ‘42 reading of “I Can’t Get Started.” In tandem with pianist Dodo Marmorosa and drummer Henry Tucker Green, Callender again lends sympathetic support to Young on a ‘45 take on “These Foolish Things.” On both tracks, Young cuts to the emotional quick with a searing tenderness.
Given how labels continually get gobbled up by larger corporate entities, or go dormant because of sundry legal issues, collections like Classic 1946-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions are increasingly necessary. It’s reassuring that it will be around for a while – at least until Mosaic’s 5,000-copy run sells out.
Chris Brown’s album-length Six Primes for solo piano uses the first six prime numbers to determine everything from the tuning of the instrument to rhythmic subdivisions of forms. The information-packed booklet essay by author Amy Beal even includes a matrix of the ratios Brown employs for every interval of every note of the chromatic scale. It is a lot to take in. Fortunately, none of this is required for full immersion in Brown’s supple lyricism, his spritely rhythms, and the rich overtones emanating from his tuning, a richly resonant Yamaha concert grand, and his judicious use of the sustain pedal.
If anything, Six Primes has something of a retro tinge, if indeed the music of composers like Henry Cowell has ossified as period pieces. There’s also a pan-Pacific Californian feel to the piece, unsurprising given Brown’s Bay Area roots, where he teaches at Mills College and has collaborated with everyone from Pauline Oliveros to ROVA. Air and light prevail over knotty abstraction throughout the piece. Adhering to systems is one thing; creating flowing, uncontrived music from them is quite another – and Brown has achieved this in an exemplary manner. To these ends, Brown’s assets as a pianist are essential; his touch allows his contrapuntal passages to breathe, gives his cascading lines loft, and pillows his rests-punctuated moments.
Six Pieces is one of those rare recordings that are as easily recommendable to the uninitiated as it is to the hard core listener. –Bill Shoemaker
Don Cherry + John Tchicai + Irene Schweizer + Leon Francioli + Pierre Favre
With some bands, the less they prepare ahead of time, the better the music. Such is the case with this all-star quintet, who all knew each other from other situations and who apparently simply hung out at the hotel together, briefly ran through a few tunes, and then hit the Willisau Festival stage and played this extraordinary set. The beautifully recorded tape of the performance, fished out of festival producer Niklaus Troxler’s archive by pianist Irene Schweizer, shows what a group of disciplined improvisers can do when there’s a minimum amount of material to get in the way of listening, intuition, and spontaneous composing.
They open with a collective improvisation in which you can hear them developing a form as they go along. Each player’s voice shines through in the ensemble – Tchicai, angular and cryptic; Cherry, playful and impish; Schweizer, intelligent and percussive; and Francioli and Favre propelling the music with Africanized rhythms and pure energy. They’re an egoless bunch, no one feels the need to play all the time, so the instrumentation varies, the tempos shift, and they play with an awareness of the need for contrasting density, color, texture. And when they finally swing into Tchicai’s lovely “The Real Kirsten” near the end, it feels like the destination they’ve always been working toward. The second track, titled for the purposes of the CD “Musical Monsters 2,” is episodic in character as different vamps, most of them spontaneously created, drive the music into new areas the for band to explore. Tchicai’s marvelously titled “Transportation of Noodles” surfaces several minutes into the improvisation and again toward the end. “Musical Monsters 3” is essentially a head-solos-head arrangement of guitarist Pierre Dorge’s “Xongly,” but even here, the outline of performance is varied, with a trio section for Cherry at his most blithe and carefree, and Tchicai soloing with a vibrato-heavy watery flow over an intensifying vamp played at a lickety-split tempo. Schweizer is at her most exultant, all graceful dissonance, at the fast pace as well. This is a great historical find that still sounds lively and relevant more than 35 years after it was played.
The Claudia Quintet
For nearly two decades, The Claudia Quintet, founded in 1997 by drummer and composer John Hollenbeck, has gracefully traversed the tenuous boundaries between free jazz, contemporary composition and progressive rock. Super Petite, the unclassifiable group’s eighth album, is a slight departure from its prior efforts. Alluding to the title, the new record imparts the accessibility of its ten brief compositions with pointed virtuosity – all in the concise time frames typically allotted to radio-friendly pop songs. According to Hollenbeck, “When tunes are longer, there tend to be moments when not a whole lot is happening. If you have a really short tune, the whole thing has to be compelling.” Nowhere is that principle better exemplified than in the circuitous minimalism of “Pure Poem,” which boasts some of the most elaborate charts the quintet has recorded, all in under two minutes.
Accompanied by clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Drew Gress and accordionist Red Wierenga, Hollenbeck draws inspiration from numerous sources throughout the program, including two radical re-interpretations of classic jazz staples. The atmospheric “Nightbreak,” opens the album, based on a hypnotic translation of Charlie Parker’s famous alto break in “Night of Tunisia,” while “Philly” transposes a Philly Joe Jones drum lick into a vivacious exercise in bebop deconstruction, featuring one of Speed’s most bracing tenor excursions on record. Demonstrating the expansiveness of Hollenbeck’s stylistic purview, he adapts the work of master Senegalese drummer/composer Doudou N’Diaye Rose for the program’s longest, most exuberant cut, the kaleidoscopic opus “Rose-Colored Rhythm.”
Forging headlong into uncharted territory on the cusp of its twentieth anniversary, The Claudia Quintet continues to adapt aspects from multiple genres and styles for its melodically harmonious grooves, making Super Petite one of the Quintet’s most engaging and enjoyable releases to date.
Angharad Davies + Tisha Mukarji
Linda Catlin Smith
Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji have played together for quite some time, and it shows on ffansїon/fancies. Recorded in the resonant space of St. Catherine’s Church, whose palpable sonic qualities are very much part of the performances, the pieces here are striking examples of sympathy, responsiveness, and imagination. The highest of high notes, with coiled overtones, and single, spacious piano droplets, open “ffansi/fancy i,” which evolves into an interesting circular whorl of restrained sawing (just at the edge of audibility) and Tilbury-esque pianism. But as one gets pulled into this environment, the piece transforms unexpectedly: it opens up, becomes slightly menacing, only to retreat once more. That kind of dynamic is everywhere on these pieces. Much of it is impressive on the level of instrumentalism. Note the variegated pizzicato and pointillism on “for Lucio i” (which also contains some vocalic glissing and general raucousness), or the bewitching, whining ascent of “ffansi/fancy iii.” But it’s the duo’s ability, through the most pared down means, to create total, immersive atmospheres that is so compelling. Something about the single-note obsessiveness of “ffansi/fancy ii” suggests Scelsi’s music, albeit with more eldritch effects seeming to hover in the rafters. The lovely incandescence of the lengthy “ffansi/fancy iv” is made from a steady ripple and resonance that Angharad and Mukarji explore from multiple different angles, tonal and textural. And they are able to move convincingly from the almost complete self-abnegation of “for Lucio ii” to the fulsome drone of the closing “ffansi/fancy v,” with lovely, understated preparations from Mukarji. Absolutely terrific stuff.
Bryn Harrison’s compositional universe is an increasingly distinctive one, wherein he achieves sometimes transformative audial effects through long-form experiments like Repetitions in Extended Time and the marvelous Vessels. Receiving the Approaching Memory, though, might be his most compelling work yet. Imagine, if you can, a soundworld like fast-forward Feldman or perhaps some late, lost piece from Messiaen, with those burbling arpeggios and avian slashings. Mark Knoop’s piano pinwheels with a continual motion and density, while the incredible, everywhere-at-once course set for the violin is navigated with grace and conviction by Aisha Orazbayeva. The music moves on indefatigably and the changes (rapid dynamic shifts and flareups) that occur over its 38-minute duration are subtle; you only notice them having crept up on you after they’ve taken place. Knoop seems to reach out from the initial pathways he’s established, winding tendrils everywhere, until the musicians are speaking craggy intervallic languages simultaneously, eventually merging in a weird floriculture of trills, buzzes, and all manner of resonant details. In its latter phases, the piece achieves a kind of alien elegance, like chamber music being played back on instruments from another dimension. It’s glorious music, and must be heard.
Illogical Harmonies is Wandelweiser member Johnny Chang on violin and bassist Mike Majkowski. On the five-part, nearly hour-long Volume, they do some serious transformation of their strings. The particular qualities of the arco playing in the first movement suggest the kind of breath and grain of saxophones somehow, but the players avoid mimesis or excess in favor of long-form spatial exploration that this sort of texturalism enables. It’s fascinating to hear how the different sections flow from and into each other. After the grain of the opening minutes, the second section proceeds via single notes that are like droplets of black ink hitting water, while soft velvety tones ghost above, moving to and fro like the slowest counterpoint. In some ways, perhaps especially in the thick of the middle section’s languorous sonorities, the strings textures recall some of Gavin Bryars’ writing to my ears. Or maybe it’s just the sense of melancholy that sometimes pervades: a lonely, keening bass foghorn and a violin siren intone all the space in the world, gently lolling on waves. Somehow from this limpid space, the final sections emerge accretively in a long sustained, drone/overtone venture, and a gorgeously layered conclusion that ends with what sounds improbably like a hurdy-gurdy. One of the most sheerly subtle pieces of music I’ve heard in quite some time.
Composer Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road has a similarly expansive quality to it. The nearly 70-minute piece – performed by violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick – creates an incredibly distinctive space where one encounters a series of really compelling instrumental effects knit together by a marvelously recurring sense of layering and disorientation, as if one were walking into and out of fog on that titular road. It opens with a keening violin drone matched by lovely tuned percussion and malletophones. But before long, the piece assumes its personality through the careful interleaving of tones. At times, as when the chord progression unfolds in the second of the piece’s fifteen movements, this effect is so seamless that it’s almost as if one is listening to a calliope or accordion, one instrument rather than two. In this and other places, one gets the sense that something like enchantment, in the literal sense, is at work here. Throughout, I was especially compelled by the drowsy, chordal effect that Benjamin achieves on her instrument. To my ears, it recalls Alvin Curran’s “Schtyx,” especially when set against the choppy pulse, or in the almost abandoned sounding violin in the eighth section. Despite the enumeration of these different qualities or features, Dirt Road isn’t merely episodic so much as it is unconventionally incremental in its movement. From the spacious vibes to the pronounced violin melodies – craggy, folkish, and quite affecting – to pinging oscillations, arpeggios, lush chordalism, and passages that are sparse and airy, or filled with clouds of metal, the music turns corner after corner, leaving us with a kind of heavenly lostness perfectly captured in the conclusion: a sweet, wistful little dissipation rather than a pronounced kiss-off. Marvelous.