Reviews of Recent Recordings
Sophie Agnel + Daunik Lazro
Daunik Lazro + Joëlle Léandre + George Lewis
Evan Parker + Daunik Lazro + Joe McPhee
Enfances à Dunois le 8 janvier 1984 presents Lazro, exclusively on alto, along with Joëlle Léandre (on bass and vocals) and George Lewis (on trombone and toys) in a series of duos and trios that are at once provocative and playful in the extreme, at times with the effect of radio dial twirling. 21 minutes of this 57-minute performance was released in 1985 as part of Lazro’s two-LP set Sweet Zee on HatHut (the other sessions had an international cast that included American cellist Tristan Honsinger, Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro). The restored concert gives a view of the music’s depths as well as its variety.
The performance’s brief events present musics of radically different shape. “Enfances 2” has Léandre practicing a kind of sprechgesang; after a few seconds of initial orientation, “Enfances 3” passes through a free-bop phase of light alto and trombone then goes on to other dimensions. Each piece is an explosion of different textures: there are different vocal and verbal intrusions, whether poetic or operatic; a whistling saxophone and chanson find momentary unison; bass sounds range from factory-noises to concert hall cello or violin elegance; trombone events range from trumpet register to gastric noise; sounds that suggest unlisted instruments (e.g. alto clarinet) occasionally arise.
The long segments – “Enfance 5” stretches to nearly 20 minutes – are both Dadaist playground and psychodrama in which any sonic event, including near-silence, is possible, and none is more likely than another, whether it’s Lazro’s soaring, Ayler-inspired melodies and choked whistles or Lewis’s speech-like muted episodes. In one particularly fine moment, Léandre supports a Lewis trombone oration with bowed walking bass (a creative feat as well as a technical one); elsewhere, Lewis lends a duck-quack mouthpiece obbligato to a pensive Lazro interlude. “Enfance 6” features the trio’s most sustained creative interaction, dense play that begins with Lazro and Lewis in duet to be eventually joined by Léandre supplying further forward momentum.
Seven Pieces: Live at Willisau 1995 documents a fine trio of three saxophonists who are also contemporaries – Lazro (born 1945), Evan Parker (1944) and Joe McPhee (1939). In 1996, material from the same tour was released eponymously on the Vand'Oeuvre label. The new release comes from a recently discovered cassette. If improvised music has at times suffered a certain surfeit of saxophones, the three heard here are models of taste and invention, consistently varying dynamics and approaches.
If the lineage of Ayler and Coltrane is inevitable, it’s entirely positive here, as in the cascading finale of “To Rush at the Wind” with Parker on tenor, Lazro on alto and McPhee on pocket trumpet. The Ellingtonian roots are less expected. The trio is at its lightest on the opening “Echoes of Memory,” emphasizing higher pitched horns – Parker and McPhee’s sopranos and Lazro’s alto. The dovetailing lines reveal consistent close listening, with lines frequently gathering in concluding unisons. Those Ellington suggestions are picked up with greater insistence later. On “Broadway Limited,” the extreme upper registers of Parker and McPhee’s soprano’s eventually give way to Lazro’s rough-hewn baritone, The finest of these moments is “Concertino in Blue”: it begins with Parker on tenor and McPhee on alto clarinet using circular breathing to play drones at the threshold of hearing, while Lazro creates a rich, lyric tapestry with his baritone’s lower register, a contemporary equivalent of Harry Carney.
The joy of this trio is that there’s a kind of excess of real contrapuntal content. It’s still densely musical when members lay out, whether it’s for a tenor/alto duet by Parker and Lazro (the two somehow suggesting a third voice) or Parker playing a characteristic soprano solo in which harmonics and lines multiply to create a choir of one. Recorded little more than a decade after the iconoclastic Enfances, Seven Pieces seems to reimagine traditions.
Marguerite d'Or Pâle (the CD invokes Mikhail Bulgakov’s wondrously strange The Master and Margarita) documents a Moscow concert from June 2016. It’s an intimate improvised study in concentrated listening and focused sonic gestures. Lazro plays baritone and tenor here, while Sophie Agnel gives as much attention to the piano’s interior and strings as she does the keyboard. While Lazro combines voice and embouchure to press isolated cries from his horns, seemingly seeking the instrument’s most authentic voice, Agnel strikes piano bass strings covered with multiple vibrating materials or creates bell-like chimes on the instrument’s frame. Sudden slashes of piano strings lacerate the air; in another moment, a saxophone sound will contort into speech. Occasionally the duo will opt for high-speed synchronicity (“Bbystro!”), but it’s in the unheard resource, the fresh gesture, the muffled or muted complaint that they reveal the intensity and invention of their collaboration. The final episode “Ochi Chornye” is music of continuous change, including a passage of Agnel constructing ostinatos made up wholly of distinct sounds to accompany Lazro’s free exploration of ancient jazz romance (Ben Webster comes to mind) before he concludes with a juddering, multiphonic roar.
Lazro is as much the dedicated explorer today as he was decades ago, at once maintaining focus and challenging expectations, creating music that’s both vivid and individualistic. His work is well worth seeking out.
Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio
Tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado’s Motion Trio has long featured the leader’s stellar rapport with cellist Miguel Mira and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini – often in collaboration with invited guests. Internationally renowned as a solo artist, Amado has worked with many respected luminaries, including Joe McPhee, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Luís Lopes, among others. His comrades are no less distinguished; Mira performs with the Iridium String Quartet and Variable Geometry Orchestra, while Ferrandini is a member of Lisbon Connection and RED Trio.
Beyond the members’ individual associations, Motion Trio regularly performs and records with other musicians. New York-based trumpeter Peter Evans appeared on The Freedom Principle (NoBusiness, 2014), and Live In Lisbon (NoBusiness, 2014), while Windy City trombonist Jeb Bishop guested on The Flame Alphabet (Not Two, 2013), and Burning Live At Jazz Ao Centro (JACC, 2012). Breaking with tradition, Desire & Freedom is the first effort to feature the core trio unaccompanied since its self-titled debut for European Echoes in 2009.
Brimming with energy, the ensemble’s aesthetic lineage encompasses the fervency of the New Thing and the instrumental freedom of the loft scene. Recalling the latter, the bass-less trio’s most striking feature is the unique timbre of Mira’s cello; played exclusively pizzicato, its bright upper register tone accentuates the speed of Mira’s brisk arpeggios and the sustained resonance of his plucked double-stops. Ferrandini’s shimmering cymbals, crackling rim shots and sputtering press rolls seamlessly interlock with Mira’s fleet pronouncements; together they generate a percolating undercurrent of endlessly modulating rhythm. In contrast, Amado’s muscular tenor is a monolithic presence that provides structural equilibrium; expressed without excessive embellishment, his bristling staccato cadences are models of terse concision.
The result of this triadic interplay is a tour de force of controlled intensity across three extended tracks (“Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword,” “Liberty,” and “Responsibility”), all of which were inspired by Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, an essay penned in 1946 by Jack Parsons, a rocket propulsion engineer, occultist and one-time friend of L. Ron Hubbard. Mira’s lithe cello work, the bustling chatter of Ferrandini’s kit, and the pneumatic focus of Amado’s brawny tenor all cohere into a unified sound on Desire & Freedom, the trio’s definitive recording.
Anthony Braxton/Miya Masaoka
All options are open as Anthony Braxton and koto player Miya Masaoka interact between themselves and with Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall software on three extended improvisations (called Experiences) spread over two CDs. They keep questioning the nature and possibilities of improvisation and keep coming up with more questions and possibilities as they play. At times, there’s an intimate conversational exchange between saxophone and koto, at others synchronous parallel improvising, sometimes a phrase from one player will inspire an extension and elaboration by the other. Timbres, textures, and attack vary widely. Braxton plays at times with a light, feathery texture, so soft and breathy that air becomes an actor in the improvisation, especially during “Experience 1.” Legato phrases alternate with notes that puncture the silence like an awl punches through leather. Masaoka is likewise virtuosic in her control of her instrument. Low, dry textures give way to waves of brittle, scintillating treble glissando. Lyrical phrases erupt into dense masses of strummed chords. They are amazingly in synch with each other – except when they chose not to be – even when their improvisations work at very oblique angles to one another. The electronic sounds generated by the Diamond Curtain Wall software throw an interesting wrinkle into the music. Appearing and disappearing at seemingly random intervals, the computer throws out tinkling wind-chime melodies, broad curtains of pulsing, colorful tones like an audio aurora borealis, or low hums and drones. Although triggered by the human players, whatever emerges seems totally unpredictable. As a consequence, at times it sounds as if there are several unrelated events unfolding at once, sometimes one or the other human will directly react to the machine, and at other times the electronic sounds are quite apt for the situation in which they appear. The software contributes to the multiplying questions and options. And with all the possibilities and ambiguities inherent in the human-machine interface, something magical and whole emerges spontaneously. The music seems to have no goal in mind when it starts, only a method for getting there, and a sense of when it has arrived at a stopping point. It is buffeted by unpredictable appearances by electronic sounds and contingent on what Braxton and Masaoka play and how they react to one another. It is open ended, perhaps never finished, in other words, deeply human and as mysterious as life itself. A beautiful performance.
Dave Burrell + Bob Stewart
Goodness knows why this 1994 date hasn’t seen the light of day previously. But thanks to the good folks at No Business, we can now enjoy this superb duet (if you’re lucky enough to grab one of the 400 copies). It’s always a treat to listen to Burrell engage canonical materials such as these Jelly Roll Morton tunes, though most folks reading this will know that this is no conventional tuba and ivories reverential romp. This isn’t to say that they play without any fidelity to the sources. Just listen to them dig lovingly into Morton’s “The Crave” to start things off; there’s an orneriness to Stewart’s pedals and lines, and Burrell’s own marvelous elaborations on tempo and melody.
The Chicago Plan
The international partnership between New York-based trombonist Steve Swell and Berlin-born multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann spans well over ten years. Swell’s first co-led quartet with Ullmann featured a rhythm section of fellow New Yorkers: double bassist Hilliard Greene and legendary drummer Barry Altschul. Swell and Ullmann’s newest venture, The Chicago Project, lives up to its billing, employing a pair of Windy City veterans whose intuitive working relationship goes back two decades: cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (doubling on electronics) and drummer Michael Zerang.