Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Juhani Aaltonen Trio
Mikko Innanen + Jaak Sooaar + Han Bennink
Juhani Aaltonen, Iro Haarla and Mikko Innanen are emblematic of three phases of Finnish jazz’s coming of age. Aaltonen has been at the center of the Helsinki scene since the ‘60s; a co-founder of the Finnish flagship UMO big band in the ‘70s, the tenor saxophonist was for years one of the few Finns who could enlist the likes of Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman for his projects. Haarla now embodies the advents spearheaded by the pianist/harpist’s late husband, Edward Vesala, with whom she worked in the drummer’s mold-breaking Sound and Fury. Still in his 20s, Innanen is the beneficiary of not only his elders’ artistic progress, but also the sustained governmental commitment to jazz in Finland. Heard in tandem, these albums bring the Finnish tradition of individualism into clear focus.
Aaltonen signals his interpretative approach by naming his newest album Illusions Of A Ballad. By stretching the rhythms and harmonies of well-loved tunes by Ellington, Gershwin and Ornette, Aaltonen cagily moves this trio session with bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Tom Nekljudow beyond the usual parameters of a “ballads album.” It’s a simple tactic: At crucial points in the tune, the trio muses on a phrase or a chord change, throwing the meter and bar structure off enough to thrust the trio outside the tune. The beautiful irony of the approach is that, in doing so, they get much closer to the heart of the tune than most players achieve by playing it straight. This setting also highlights Aaltonen’s nuance-filled tone, smart, supple phrasing, and understated brawn. Krokors and Nekljudow pick their openings judiciously, offering Aaltonen pointed feedback instead of yeomen’s support.
Generally, the main innovation of Nordic jazz since the 1970s has been the replacement of generic blues feeling with their indigenous melancholy, and the superimposition of their folk and art music traditions with the flexible line-based compositional approach of Ornette and others. On Northbound, Haarla does this as well as it has ever been done. Her melodies are as entrancing as they are foreboding. Her pan-Nordic quintet with Krokfors, saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick, and drummer Jon Christensen know how to feather the edges of the ensembles to give them more evocative power and use intensity in the solos to emphasize the compositions’ mystery and awe-laced moods, not overwhelm them. Haarla is an equally engaging pianist, who builds solos with offsetting phrases that reinforce the dramatic tension of her materials. All of this tends to push her starkly beautiful harp somewhat to the background; she employs it just enough to whet one’s appetite.
The trio of Innanen, Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooaar and drummer Han Bennink simply light it up on Spring Odyssey, a club recording of predominantly high-voltage free improvisation. The first half of the album finds the trio veering between warp-speed blues licks, frenetic guitar synth saturated environments and Ayleresque reveilles, until the intrusion a bluesy lull that slinks into a smokin’ take of Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle.” A series of less heated duos and an Innanen solo draw out both Sooaar and Innanen’s moorings in the jazz tradition in a more pointed, concentrated manner. Additionally, these tracks serve as an interlude before three concluding trios takes the set out blazing.
Rabih Abou-Khalil + Joachim Kühn + Jarrod Cagwin
Anouar Brahem Trio
Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have contrasting approaches to bridging musical traditions rooted in their respective sensibilities as oud players. Brahem’s attack is formal, even when the tempo is brisk, and his phrasing exudes reverence. Though he makes entreaties to European music, Brahem is not an exponent of al-Jadida, the modern Arab music Abou-Khalil embraces. Additionally, Abou-Khalil’s brand of virtuosity poses a more direct challenge to jazz improvisers, and his compositions often synthesize traditions more baldly. Markedly in tone, Journey To The Center Of An Egg and Le Voyage De Sahar nevertheless share the high common denominator of the timeless mysteries and beauty evoked by the oud.
At first glance, pianist Joachim Kühn seems a good match for Abou-Khalil for his abilities to improvise fluidly using non-Western scales and odd meters. The only potential liability was the pianist’s penchant for throwing down a lot of notes and overwhelming the oud. For the most part, Kühn fastidiously gives Abou-Khalil and the drummers – Jarrod Cagwin, who shuttles between kit and frame drums, is joined by Wolfgang Reisinger on two tracks – the space to set the pace, which alternates between brisk and languid. When Abou-Khalil lays out, Kühn soars. Since Abou-Khalil and Kühn co-wrote all eight compositions, they explore various methods of reconciling Arab and European sensibilities; their most effective and most frequently employed solution was emphasizing razor-sharp lines and percolating rhythms. Only rarely and briefly does Kühn’s tendency towards lushness comes into play, so the net effect is a plus. Kühn also plays a surprisingly fluent and engaging alto saxophone, and more than holds his own heads-up with Abou-Khalil.
Brahem has chosen an almost polar opposite approach on Le Voyage De Sahar, favoring precisely calibrated ensembles and concise solos. There is precious little of the heated give-and-take between Brahem, pianist François Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier that distinguishes Abou-Khalil’s outing with Kühn. By album’s end, it is obvious that maintaining a limited role for the Western instruments is a good call, not because of any deficiency or incompatibility, as Matinier arguably contributes the most dazzling solo of the set. This decision allows Brahem to take the lead in establishing a contemplative stillness over the entirety of the album. This is an album where ambiance is next to everything. It is reinforced on an almost track-by-track basis by the thematic material, much of which has the feel of centuries-old ballads and dance tunes. But, most of all, it is Brahem’s soul-penetrating sound that is key to this strategy. Even though Brahem, for the most part, demurs from improvisational fireworks, his every note is stirring. As a result, Le Voyage De Sahar is one of the most cinematic ECM releases of recent years.
Timeless, Live at the Velvet Lounge
Fred Anderson is one of the very few musicians to whom the title “griot” can be aptly applied. When the tenor saxophonist plays, he tells the whole story. Obviously, the pace, the characterizations and the arc of the tale changes from piece to piece, depending upon what sensitive collaborators like drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead contribute. Anderson is also is way beyond laying down referential markers in his playing, so the listener has to reach deeper to connect the dots. But, once the listener is in sync with Anderson’s methods and materials, this album’s title makes perfect sense. Time does stop when Anderson plays, and that’s when his stories really sink in.
Recorded at the now old Velvet Lounge a month after Anderson was honored at the 2005 Vision Festival, this album presents Anderson, Drake and Bankhead in a finely balanced program culled from two nights of performances. “Flashback” starts up as something of a dirge, but gathers steam and takes on a more exultant tinge. A tribute to the venue’s prior owner, “Ode to Tip” is an excellent example of what could be described as Anderson’s quasi-ballad playing; “quasi” in that it lacks the sentimentality most jazz players milk, but nevertheless conveys palpably heartfelt emotions. Featuring Drake’s softly ecstatic singing and frame drum, “By Many Names” has a firmly grounded by Bankhead’s gently strummed chord pattern, around which Anderson draped flowing lines. Spanning gritty riffs and reverent rubato pleas, the extended title tune is a satiating tour-de-force performance.
The DVD version of the performances is well shot and crisply paced. The stationary cameras are well positioned to give varied perspectives and close-ups, while the handheld unit discretely moves about the space, providing some very well composed shots. Additionally, the DVD features a lengthy interview with Anderson, in which he discusses everything from his earliest exposure to Charlie Parker, through his first discussions with Muhal Richard Abrams that led to the creation of the AACM, to the present.
Sathima Bea Benjamin
It’s unfair to identify any artist with his or her spouse at the top of any review or article. But, it’s essential to know that singer Sathima Bea Benjamin is the wife of pianist Abdullah’s Ibrahim, with whom she has worked since the late 1950s. They rose together in the relatively open Cape Town jazz enclave before the Sharpsville Massacre and the suspension of what passed for democracy in South Africa convinced them exile was the only option. While in Zurich in 1963, both Benjamin and Ibrahim were discovered by Duke Ellington, who recorded them on separate albums for Reprise; unfortunately, Benjamin’s A Morning In Paris did not see the light of day until 1996. A Newport performance with the Ellington band followed in ’65, but a Stateside career was not forthcoming for Benjamin. It wasn’t until her inception of the Ekapa imprint in 1979 that Benjamin began releasing albums every few years, with ‘82’s Dedications garnering a Grammy nomination. Musical Echoes continues what is now a remarkable run of recordings.
Like Sheila Jordan, Benjamin’s voice seems impervious to aging. You would have to know Benjamin’s recordings like the back of your hand to determine which were made when she was in her 40s and which were recorded, like Musical Echoes, in her late 60s. What is truly beguiling about Benjamin’s singing is its seeming effortlessness, as if she just opens her mouth and all of this elegance just pours out. She also has this rare, almost dichotomous quality of being intimately involved with the material, but never rising to the bait of an incidental splash of color or voltage spike in her accompaniment. Benjamin knows the essence of elegance is remaining unperturbed.
Except for the wistful, Benjamin-penned title tune, Musical Echoes is comprised of oft-repeated chestnuts by such usual suspects like Ellington and Gershwin. Yet, Benjamin’s arrangements employ sleeker than usual tempi on some tunes and African rhythms on others to refresh them sufficiently. Additionally, she gives pianist Stephen Scott ample room to hand in some of his more impressive performances of recent years. The South African tandem of bassist Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana keep the rhythms pulsating on the uptempo tunes, and cradle the changes on the ballads.
Frank van Bommel + Willem Breuker + Alex Coke + John Engels + Arjen Gorter + Eric Vloeimans
In his last years, Eric Dolphy was a galvanizing force for Dutch jazz. His traditionally rooted but structurally daring music profoundly inspired an emerging generation of progressive Dutch musicians, the most celebrated of which are Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, who played on the multi-instrumentalist’s Last Date. For players already on the scene like drummer John Engels, and teenage prodigies in the wings like reed player Willem Breuker and bassist Arjen Gorter, Dolphy’s music signified the apex of jazz modernism.
In 2000, a sextet comprised of Breuker, Engels, Gorter, pianist Frank van Bommel, woodwind player Alex Coke and trumpeter Eric Vloeimans toured Holland, playing Bommel and Gorter’s faithful arrangements of Dolphy chestnuts. Culled from two performances, The Compositions of Eric Dolphy is a testament to the fervent passion Dolphy’s music still evokes among Dutch musicians. Whether the issue at hand is the lean, driving bop-informed changes of “Les,” the cry-infused melody of “The Prophet,” or the Monkish bounce of “Hat and Beard,” this sextet vividly conveys the nexus of brinkmanship and soul that Dolphy articulated.
The album also demonstrates how successive waves of Dutch musicians – Engels; Breuker and Gorter; Bommel and Vloeimans – have incorporated the lexicons of the advanced jazz exemplified on Dolphy’s classic recordings into their own work. Engels’ mix of agility and precisely applied power recalls Roy Haynes’ ability to make Dolphy’s music swing without rounding down its edges. Both Gorter and Breuker, who plays both alto saxophone and bass clarinet on the album, know how to redline the intensity of Dolphy’s music without bulldozing his melodies or unorthodox bar divisions. Bommel and Vloeimans distill the innovations of Dolphy’s contemporary in engaging ways, with the pianist alternating between Byard-like sweep and Waldronesque obstinacy, and the trumpeter leaning toward Little-like erudition, beefed up with the occasional Hub tone.
Alex Coke is something of a wild card on the set. While he nails Dolphy’s chirping lyricism on flute, the Austin-based Coke’s tenor is a fresh, antecedent-free element that enhances the proceedings.