Reviews of Recent Recordings
Stephan Crump + Ingrid Laubrock + Cory Smythe
Intakt CD 285
At her best, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has an instinct for improvising whole, complete, aesthetically and emotionally fulfilling works – “composing as she plays.” Often she also reveals attractive empathy for her improvising partners, and on this CD she does so recurringly, becoming the catalyst that transforms sax, piano (Cory Smythe), and bass (Stephan Crump) into not just a trio, but an entity. Some of her finest soloing has come when she stretches out into big, sweeping explorations, as on the Tom Rainey Trio CD Hotel Grief (Intakt). Planktonic Finales is the opposite, mostly shorter works in which momentums, textures, dynamics, feelings, closeness, and sound are in flux. Laubrock’s tenor and soprano saxes are the most mobile instruments here. Her sax sounds convey intimacy. Her soprano sound is full-blooded; she makes that obstinate horn into a truly expressive instrument. Sometimes she does plays extreme sounds on her tenor – honks, screams, low subtones – but mainly she has a big sound that, again, moves naturally. Her tenor sounds so warm in her “Inscribed in Trees” melodies.
Two pieces have hot, fast tenor-piano ecstasies rather like Sam Rivers with Cecil Taylor. More typical are rubato pieces in which the players take turns leading improvisations while others follow. For example, there are the sudden soprano outbursts and ingenious piano ruminations on “Three-Panel.” “Through the Forest” is a gem, so quiet yet so fast and active until tenor honks and blasts appear over repeated bass and piano notes. Crump, Laubrock, and Smythe feel each other especially well in the longest piece, “Sinew Modulations,” from intensity to slow reflection, quiet, loud, some hot tenor, and later, vivid soprano lines. In fact, the ringing, contorted soprano solos here and in “Three-Panel” are the album’s high points. Some of the shorter pieces leave me hungry, they don’t develop or are simply conventional.
Smythe is romantic, dramatic, often a decorative pianist, and that “Three-Panel” solo is especially cleverly formed, with sudden chords and up-runs. Crump’s bass lines are more lyrical, he is central to “Tones for Climbing Plants” with a solo that Laubrock’s tenor interrupts; at first he resists her, then the two draw Smythe into interplay and they become a trio of independent spirits.
Our Cells Know
Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December
New World 80789-2
Flutist Robert Dick’s credentials as a revolutionary instrumentalist, improviser and composer have been established for decades. He is further separated from the pack via his invention of the Glissando Headjoint, a rough analogue of a whammy bar on an electric guitar. Yet, he seems to go years at a stretch without new recordings confirming and celebrating his singular status. Call it a case, perhaps, of being hidden in plain sight in New York, where he teaches at NYU. Subsequently, any reemergence of Dick on disc is cause to drop everything at least for an hour or two. For two albums of unaccompanied solo works to be released practically simultaneously prompts taking the afternoon off, although it takes much longer to fully digest Our Cells Know, a collection of Dick pieces for bass flute, and Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December, William Hellermann’s album-length composition for solo flute.
These are complementary recordings. Our Cells Know reasserts Dick’s strengths in combining rhythm and timbre to propel pieces with an limber ease, and to apply a spectrum of lustre ranging from the warmly inviting to bracingly surreal, effects often amplified through his use of circular breathing. Penned in close collaboration with Dick to fully exploit the flutist’s use of multiphonics, the Hellermann piece is a testament to Dick’s mastery of calibrated breath pressure control, which allows him to finely shade a multiphonic. This is crucial to the slow unfolding of “Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December,” which places the piece as something of a triangulation between LaMonte Young and Morton Feldman. While Hellermann inserts spaces for improvisation, the superstructure of the work is such as to all but guarantee a seamless transit between the notated and the extemporaneous. Somewhat conversely, Dick’s own pieces have an innate flexibility that integrates improvised elements effortlessly.
Despite being most welcomed, these solo albums are also reminders that many of Dick’s enduring recordings are ensemble projects like his overhauls of jazz and Jimi Hendrix with the Soldier String Quartet, and his rewiring of Claudio Monteverdi with Oscura Luminosa. Hopefully, comparable volumes are forthcoming.
Mark Dresser Seven
Clean Feed CF385CD
Born in Los Angeles, bassist Mark Dresser moved to New York in 1986, but has maintained creative relationships with many of his longstanding connections since returning to Southern California in 2004 to join the music faculty of University of California, San Diego. The septet featured on Sedimental You brings together emerging talent and established veterans from both coasts. Flautist Nicole Mitchell and trombonist Michael Dessen are recent high-profile collaborators of Dresser’s since his relocation to the West Coast, while multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich and drummer Jim Black are venerable associates from the bassist’s days back East. Less known are pianist Joshua White, an impressive presence at the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, and the young violinist David Morales Boroff, a student at Berklee College of Music.
The album’s multi-faceted compositions expand on large-scale concepts Dresser has been exploring as of late. Inspired in part by recent events, Dresser’s highly personalized writing alternates between mocking critiques and earnest reveries. The former is best exemplified by “TrumpinPutinStoopin,” a chaotic deconstruction of angular swing that expresses Dresser’s view of the current political climate. Equally scathing is the opener, “Hobby Lobby Horse,” inspired by the craft store chain that refused to comply with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Repeatedly interrupted by a series of derisive solos, the convoluted tune introduces each member of the group in turn, demonstrating the composer’s flair for balancing freedom and form.
The title track is an abstract re-harmonization of the standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” while the remainder of the set offers a series of heartfelt tributes. Orchestral in scope, these lush chamber-like pieces are variously dedicated, including: “Will Well (For Roswell Rudd),” which recalls the honoree’s sumptuous lyricism; “I Can Smell You Listening (For Alexandra Montano),” a lively tribute to the late mezzo-soprano; and “Newtown Char,” a powerful response to the tragic mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Charleston, South Carolina, conceived in the elegiac tradition of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”
Dresser plays a fairly magnanimous leadership role in this setting, enabling his bandmates to extrapolate on his bold themes at length. Breathy exchanges between Ehrlich and Mitchell reveal a notable chemistry and Dessen’s brassy variations perfectly complement White’s cascading flourishes, but Boroff’s heartrending tone provides an especially poignant vulnerability to the proceedings. Dark, but not disheartened, the music’s melancholy beauty offers optimism in spite of its downcast subject matter. Bolstered by his sidemen’s improvisational mettle, Dresser’s abilities as a composer, arranger and bandleader are amply demonstrated on Sedimental You, one of the most ambitious efforts in his vast discography.
Jimmy Giuffre 3 with Paul Bley & Steve Swallow
Bremen & Stuttgart 1961
Producer Martin Davidson salvaged treasure with Bremen & Stuttgart 1961. This two-disc set includes complete reissues of hat ART’s early 1990s CDs Flight, Bremen 1961 and Emphasis, Stuttgart 1961 (with Art Lange’s original liner notes), along with six – yes, six! – previously unissued performances from the Bremen concert. “Used to Be” and an unused take of “Trudgin’,” recorded in New York City six months before the trio’s European tour – and left off ECM’s reissue of the Verve dates – are also here, on CD in pristine shape for the first time.
I’m not sure I need to make another case for how extraordinary the edition of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow was. It was – and remains – extraordinary, one of the irreplaceable groups in the history of jazz. These live performances were an archeological wonder when they were acquired from German radio in 1992. At that point, there were just three recordings available, on Verve (Fusion and Thesis) and on Columbia (Free Fall). Lange called it the official canon.
Bremen and Stuttgart included new material: Jimmy Giuffre’s “Call of the Centaur,” “Trance,” and the largely through-composed five-movement “Suite for Germany,” as well as Carla Bley’s “Postures.” But most of all, they just gave us more: more from a group that had lasted less than two years and then, in the early ‘90s, was being re-examined by an entirely new generation of musicians.
Now we have something else to ponder. Among Emanem’s discoveries are three piano-bass duos from Bremen: “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Compassion for P.B.” Davidson is delightfully direct about his decisions. He’s quite sure he slotted the new trios (“Jesús Maria,” “Carla,” “Venture”) into the set correctly. “However,” he wrote, “I have no idea where the duo pieces fitted in, so I have used them as a break between the two concerts.”
These duets are exceptional finds. Steve Swallow has, even in these early days (he’d just turned 21), a complete awareness of sound and space and his role in these new forms. Paul Bley was, well, Paul Bley even then (he turned 29 mid-tour), producing a prescient, perfectly balanced microcosmos. The choices epitomize the era — Monk, show tune, Ornette – and, as this concert hall morphs into a coffee house (or the Hillcrest Club), you see, in less hyperbolic ways, shades of Bley’s famous 2002 quip: “I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible, and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying to play as good as possible.” (He finished by saying, “At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible.”)
“Compassion” is played exponentially quicker than Coleman’s original quartet on Tomorrow Is the Question nearly three years earlier. (Did Bley learn this from Ornette in Los Angeles?) And to put the duo – and the phrase “as good as possible” – in context: at the end of 1961, Bill Evans, still mourning the death of Scott LaFaro barely six months earlier, had begun playing with bassist Chuck Israels. Hindsight makes it clear: Bley and Swallow were their natural peers.
Her first name meaning “lofty” and “protective,” Araminta Ross was the birth name of famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman. For two decades, guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis have used her adopted name as their own. Despite the power trio’s longevity, its discography consists of a mere handful of titles: the studio debut I Am A Man (Knitting Factory, 1998); the live recording Prototype (Avant, 2000); and the double-trio concert document Ascension (Sunnyside, 2011). Three years in the making, Araminta finds the ensemble joined by ubiquitous veteran Wadada Leo Smith, whose late career resurgence has garnered widespread acclaim. The esteemed trumpeter’s manifold experiences – including co-leading Yo Miles!, a repertory band dedicated to reimagining the fusion-era innovations of Miles Davis – enable him to seamlessly assimilate into the longstanding group’s singular identity.
Encompassing a variety of styles, Harriet Tubman draws upon jazz, rock, funk, dub and electronica for its collectively improvised excursions. The trio’s interpretation of “free” music parallels Smith’s own concepts. None of the featured pieces employ traditional notation; instead, some use the quasi-fractal geometric constructions encoded in quilts made by the Shoowa peoples of Congo as structural signposts – much like graphic notation. The freewheeling date was produced and engineered by Scotty Hard, whose ability to help shape a cohesive album from multiple studio sessions draws a parallel to Teo Macero’s collage-like work for Davis during the Dark Prince’s seminal electric period.
Thick, powerful grooves alternate with lilting, atmospheric meditations throughout the set; the cyber-funk blues “Real Cool Killers” keenly demonstrates their ability to lock into a deep groove, while the ethereal tone poem “Nina Simone” trades syncopated down beats for the melodious ebb and flow of a rubato pulse. Numbers like “The Spiral Path To The Throne,” “Black Fractal,” and “President Obama’s Speech at the Selma Bridge” are groove-laden, Milesian work-outs featuring scorching dialogues between Ross’ efx-laden axe and Smith’s clarion horn. In contrast, “Sweet Araminta” is a serene ballad that ends the program on a surprisingly tender note.
By turns assertive and beautiful, Araminta is an exceptional offering from the combined forces of Harriet Tubman and Wadada Leo Smith. The collective’s spontaneous composing and Hard’s assemblage of multiple recordings occasionally results in abrupt fades and transitions, but the overall effect is one of visceral electric power with a futuristic aesthetic far removed from the spare acoustics of traditional jazz.
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