Reviews of Recent Recordings
Marc Baron’s ongoing work has been one of the most engaging musical journeys of the last half-decade. With each release, he continues to compel, flummox, provoke, and astound. After the dense, distorted landscapes of his previous two releases, Baron here uses some of his now established recording methodologies to create very different sounding pieces. “Un salon” is quite spare, a very open sonic environment. It’s tempting to hear this as a commentary on Hidden Tapes, almost like that closet full of cassette tapes were now discovered to be almost empty. In this space, we hear the voices of a father and a son as they wander from room to room in a reverb-y, unfurnished apartment. The father lifts the child up repeatedly, each time with a “hup!” followed by peals of laughter. Machines are heard switching on and off, vaguely recalling Taku Unami’s work. But the scene struck me as very touching.
Shrieking carny music takes over for a spell, supplemented by video game blare and horror movie organ. The same machine clicks on again, to a Doppler effect, then winds down once more to reveal the child now perhaps in the bathtub. Water splashes along with multiple machines humming in the background as a small rhythm is tapped out on resounding wood or porcelain. One key to understanding the power of Baron’s work is that he doesn’t simply assemble sounds for shock value or quirky juxtaposition; rather, he’s a master of spatial dynamics who effectively manipulates the acoustics of proximity (both in the recording spaces themselves – here via hiss, water, and mournful cathedral tones – and between the listener and the composition).
After a bout of heavy breathing, a hugely distorted low end voice, and a giant laser, “La structure” starts with a recitation of numbers, bathed at length in hiss and bird-cry. It’s like a digital beach, a different water realization of the process of time. Finally Baron arrives at “Un lac,” with the church choir returning to a setting of crumbling tape and laconic piano movement. Things flicker out one by one, as the sounds get more and more spare. A baby cries, and one wonders if this is another child in another place, or if, as I continued to think on each listen to this gripping piece, it’s a rumination on memory and death. Baron gives no easy answers, and permits no firm conclusions. That’s both the content and the consequence of his extraordinary art.
On Gloomy Sunday – a continuous solo set recorded in Budapest – pianist Michiel Braam comes off as a sort of Dutch Earl Hines. That is not a comparison to make lightly, and we won’t push it too far. But like Hines, he’s always stood a little apart from his peers. When Hines’s buddies moved on to New York in the late 1920s, Earl remained based in Chicago, under the mob’s thumb. That’d be one explanation for why, even though he played a mean stride bass, Hines never sounded like one of the Harlem masters. There was always something more wayward in his timing and keyboard textures: he could step out of the stylistic frame and look back at it – like a few Dutch players to come.
Braam, who comes from the Netherlands’ southeast and runs the jazz and commercial music program at Arnhem, was never an Amsterdam cat. It might even be a point of pride. Not that he’s a reverse snob; he employed a few Amsterdam regulars in his now defunct orchestra Bik Bent Braam, and has had an occasional trio with Wilbert de Joode and Michael Vatcher for 25 years. Braam came up hearing distinguished countrymen like Misha Mengelberg and Guus Janssen, but Michiel’s whimsy and percussive rattle aren’t quite the same as those of his respective keyboard forbears; he can break away from the mold, the way Hines’s left hand would suddenly strike out. Like Earl he likes to break down the time and then pick it back up. And he loves a low-end racket. The opening “Opus Espresso” is all power bass runs and grumbles; “Opus Walk” has a Tristanic walking bassline under chordal cross-rhythms.
The Hines kinship is most obvious on Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” in the ways Braam will seem to misplace the form altogether, sprinkling upper-register confetti around, only to jump back in, right on time. On the former tune, he may use one finger of his right hand to poke you in the ear, à la Mengelberg. Many pianists play chromatic connecting runs between phrases, but rarely in a halting staccato, as Michiel does here. If you can’t always tell if he’s kidding or playing it straight, that may be because he manages to sound like he’s doing both at once. That’s about as Dutch as it gets – though piano profs like Eubie also knew how to dazzle while joking around. But Braam doesn’t sound like his sometimes serious, sometimes comic lowland elders; he doesn’t have Guus Janssen’s diamond attack, and Misha doesn’t have Michiel’s formidable chops.
Braam can jackhammer the middle range with alternating hands, playing tight clustery chords that convey harmonic direction. And on “Q1,” a riffy blues with the high drama of John Lee Hooker, there’s some of what Louis Andriessen once called Dutch wooden-shoe timing, a deliberate clunkiness, alongside vintage keyboard figurations echoing South Side Chicago and New Orleans R&B. “Pit Stop Ball Ad” roams far in seven minutes, but the melody at its core is redolent of a ‘20s Ellington funeral march.
Michiel Braam is a trickster, and one of his tricks is to show real feeling when you don’t expect it. A kind of un-Amsterdam sentimentality may intrude. His performing the so-called Hungarian Suicide Song “Gloomy Sunday” straight suggests as much. In fairness, this music was recorded in Budapest – and he dedicates the tune to a late student, for whom Braam played it at his funeral. There is a whiff of Hungarian zither in some repeated notes and swirly chords, and another plunge into the lower register, this one more ominous than irrepressible.
He also plays a Chopinesque mazurka by the Antillean composer Jan Gerard Palm, and ends with the slightly cracked “Cuba, North Rhine Westphalia,” where he flirts with habanera and clavé rhythms without pulling them all the way out of the dancefloor. Then he brings it up short without warning, leaving us wanting more.
Although best known for his work with drummer Marcus Gilmore in pianist Vijay Iyer’s high-profile trio, bassist Stephan Crump also leads his own unique groups, including the Rosetta Trio, with guitarists Liberty Ellman and Jaime Fox, as well as Secret Keeper, a duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson. The self-titled debut of Rhombal, Crump’s quartet with rising trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, esteemed tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and powerhouse drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a very different affair however. Where Crump’s string-based projects tend toward the pastoral and rustic, this piano-less quartet lineup leans toward old school urban swing.
Dedicated to his late brother’s battle with aggressive sarcoma, Rhombal is not a eulogy as much as it is a commemoration of a death well-confronted. Diverse in mood, but cohesive in approach, Crump’s plangent motifs reinforce this paradigm, providing thematic direction for the group members’ creative extrapolations. No matter the style explored, the leader’s assured phrasing resonates in tandem with Sorey’s virtuosic technique, whether playing tender ballads, soulful blues or blazing hard bop. Despite their disparate experiences, O’Farrill and Eskelin engage in astute exchanges teeming with inventive lyricism, investing Crump’s harmonious melodies with a resolute emotional core.
Crump has stated that Rhombal allows him the opportunity to explore the “creative freedom and challenge that comes from omitting a chordal instrument, and at times to find how the band, itself, might be that instrument.” Together as one, the quartet achieves that goal, executing multifaceted arrangements in a manner that yields a sound greater than the sum of its parts.
Whit Dickey + Kirk Knuffke
On Fierce Silence Whit Dickey and Kirk Knuffke turn popular conceptions of the ballad on their heads, offering a radical new possibility for balladry. On his first album in ten years to appear under his own name, Dickey refers to Fierce Silence’s ten tracks as a “collaborative meditation on the ballad form.” In Dickey and Knuffke’s hands, the ballad is transformed; no longer familiar and comfortable, it becomes a vehicle for exploration and challenging preconceived expectations.
The most direct correlation between the ballad’s standard execution and the duo’s interpretation here is in regards to tempos. Here they are generally slow and elastic, meters appear and dissolve. “Bone” – on which Dickey’s cymbal work recalls that of Paul Motian – perhaps most closely resembles a “ballad.” In addition to Knuffke’s bittersweet lyricism, at points there’s a hint of a slow 4/4 that remains in the listener’s ear like a phantom limb, that is until Dickey introduces a medium-slow waltz near the end. Dickey favors the waltz elsewhere as well: on “Legba’s Dance” he gives it some swagger with a rocking kick drum downbeat, while on “Step Back” he alternates between 12/8 and free time. Other tracks, such as the “The Calling,” seem to lack a discernible pulse for much more than a fleeting moment. To say the slow tempos are implied does not do enough to indicate how nebulous and abstract they often are. It is these performances where some may lose the ballad connection.
But if one thinks of the ballad less in terms of how it sounds than what it expresses, then the aptly titled Fierce Silence is a straight up ballad album, avant-garde as it may be. The sensitivity, nuance, quiet fire, and intimacy that great balladeers possess are here, albeit realized in a completely different manner. Knuffke – who is one of those players who can play anything with anybody at any time – gives listeners breathy whispers, hushed cries, and stark melodies. In Dickey the cornetist has a partner who values and uses the power of silence to intensify a poignant moment. The pair also doesn’t hesitate to turn and burn, as they do halfway through the disc. The recording and mastering augments the warmness and immediacy of Knuffke and Dickey’s playing, as each detail is in full relief, from the depth and character of Dickey’s drums and cymbals to the individual shape of Knuffke’s every utterance.
Dickey sees this album as a “step toward further realizations and evolutions.” By confronting our expectations of what a ballad can be and sound like, he and Knuffke remake it and revel in its possibilities, thereby providing the means and inspiration for unsettling that which is assumed to be evident.
Paul Dunmall Quartet
Hot, fast, joyously violent music – a celebration. Paul Dunmall is a grand tenor saxophonist who, at his best, improvises very long, energetic works that are as eventful as, but more concentrated than, movements of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. In the six pieces on this album, though, he shares equal time with fellow tenorist Howard Cottle, so his solos are necessarily less long and grand. The post-Ayler bigness, the authority of Dunmall’s sound and attack, in solo and in two-tenor duo improvisations, are sure-enough grabbers. He likes to build solos from theme elements into lines that move without decoration or digression. His fast phrases are often long, many-noted, and there’s a classic-tenor intrigue about his twists and turns. You can hear aspects of Ayler in Dunmall’s thematic-improv. method and in occasional, usually brief turns to multiphonics and overtone hollers. But Dunmall is a step beyond.
Dunmall conceived this CD as a two-tenor tribute to John Coltrane’s Sunship, but Cottle is the more Coltrane-influenced one here. Cottle has the big sound – not, perhaps, as big as Dunmall’s – and speed and high energy and overtone screams. “The Inner Silence Was Too Loud” begins with the fine bassist, Olie Brice, and drummer, Tony Bianco, asserting a perfect-for-swinging medium-up tempo that soloist Cottle’s energy quickly savages. If I remember rightly, Max Harrison once wrote something like this: A potential pitfall of free improvisation is a human tendency for habits – habits, first of all, of nerves, muscles – to take over and fingers and breath to fall in recurring patterns. Too often Cottle returns to repeated material, especially even-length screams and a fast four-note lick, from solo to solo. The many improvised duets delight, with Cottle’s less-mobile lines against Dunmall’s flights.
The free accompaniment of Brice and Bianco is ideal. The bassist begins “Timberwolf” with musings in big, stern, rubato tones that, after the theme, become lower, busier, very serious. The liberated Bianco also gets a solo in “Sun Up,” tomes vs. a snare with cymbal commentary. The foreground of the rest of the CD is the two tenors enjoying each other.