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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse
Morphogenesis
Pi Recordings Pi69

Widely considered among the most influential artists in contemporary jazz, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman is at a creative peak, developing new systems of composition based on improvisation and visualization that incorporate over three decades of research into African diasporic culture. His methodology, M-Base (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization), is neither a style nor sub-genre, but a compositional process derived from life experiences. Coleman’s previous recording, Synovial Joints (Pi, 2015), an ambitious hybrid of classical and jazz techniques, revealed another facet of his ever-evolving artistry. Though smaller in scale, Morphogenesis expands the scope of Coleman’s oeuvre; most of the session’s nine musicians worked as part of the 21-piece Council of Balance ensemble featured on Synovial Joints, and the varied roster’s use of unconventional instrumental combinations extends the previous project’s classical influence.

The nonet features Coleman joined by five Council of Balance members: vocalist Jen Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee, and clarinetist Rane Moore. Pianist Matt Mitchell and bassist Greg Chudzik are new to the fold, as is classical percussionist Neeraj Mehta, who is used sparingly on half the album. The absence of a trap set is notable; for the first time in Coleman’s long recording history, there is no drummer, which lends a sense of buoyancy to the proceedings – without sacrificing the metric groove that is the foundation of Coleman’s work. Chudzik’s pliant bass lines serve as the central rhythmic anchor, while the ensemble’s syncopated phrasing and myriad overlapping lines imply forward momentum, resulting in dense, sophisticated music. Coleman regularly draws inspiration from movement, invoking metaphors to human physicality, as with the anatomical references on his previous record; many of these new compositions stem from motions found in boxing.

Coleman’s compositional approach involves interweaving melodic phrases – in unison and counterpoint – that cumulatively multiply and shift. Group interplay takes precedence over individual soloists; using the ensemble’s entire color palette, each piece dynamically evolves in concert with the musicians’ collective conversations. At just under a quarter of an hour, “Morphing,” the centerpiece of the set, is indicative. The piece transitions through numerous ideas, alternating hypnotic fragments that gradually transform when played by various sub-groups of the larger ensemble, which culminate in increasingly complex permutations of the original theme. Other tracks include the swinging “Pull Counter,” a bebop-inspired cut complete with walking bass; and the final two, “Dancing and Jabbing” and “Horda,” which offer the characteristic rhythmic mobility of Coleman’s classic work. From the bluesy lyricism of “Roll Under and Angles” to the African inflections of “NOH,” there are ample examples of the broad sweep of Coleman’s artistry. More so than many of his recent efforts, Morphogenesis stands as a key document in the development of Coleman’s compositional progress.
–Troy Collins

 

dk & the perfectly ordinary
Car Dew Treat Us
Spool Spurn 2

Spool, the small Canadian label, produced more than 40 records in a decade-long run beginning in 1998. Directed by Vern Weber (in British Columbia) and Daniel Kernohan (in Ontario) the imprint was, among other things, the first to document Vancouver’s fertile turn-of-the-century improvised music scene, from cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff’s debut (These Are Our Shoes, 1998) to the NOW Orchestra’s widely acclaimed work with George Lewis (The Shadowgraph Series: Compositions for Creative Orchestra, 2001).

Now Spool quietly returns, with a new series, Spurn, and a familiar set of aesthetics, be it the album design or the music itself. Car Dew Treat Us arrives with an extreme, nearly self-produced level of austerity – cardboard sleeve, scant credits, and, unless you poke around a little bit online, no explanation of what you’re about to hear.

You might need a bit of help – or at least I did – to figure out what’s going on in this 45-minute rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise, once described as “the Mount Everest of graphic scores.” The complete composition, written between 1963 and 1967, consists of 193 pages of numbers, shapes, and symbols. Interpretation is left up to the performer.

Here dk (Daniel Kernohan, the label’s prime mover in its second incarnation) and the perfectly ordinary (Allison Cameron, Rod Dubey, Lawrence Joseph) bring a huge palette into play: guitars, electronics, keyboards, voice, and – taking my cue from Cameron’s website, I’m guessing now – ukulele, banjo, mini amplifiers, radios, crackle boxes, cassette tapes, mini objects, and toys.

Ten pages from Treatise were randomly selected. One guest was added for each track, largely other Canadians from the Toronto and Montreal scenes. “Each musician interpreted their page(s) from the score alone, unable to hear what the other participants were playing,” Spool explains online. “The tracks were then assembled with start and stop times slightly altered and mixed down by dk.” Each piece is listed at four minutes and 33 seconds, presumably a nod to John Cage.

The 10 performances include fuzz and spoken-word epigrams, Blade Runner moods and sheet-metal fancies. Voice artist Paul Dutton is here (“p. 172”), as is Bay Area percussionist Gino Robair (“p. 16”), and Montreal-based sound artist, and longtime Liverpudlian, Vergil Sharkya (“p. 109”).

These short performances – vignettes? pieces? conversations? – are self-contained and then carefully built into the 46-minute event. Highlights include “p. 192” (with sound artist Caroline Künzle), a magnificent mixture of spoken word, ambient sounds, Baroque strings (real or reproduced?), and faraway marching bands. Or “p. 102” (with Al Margolis), which culminates in the kind of extreme ear-splitting you only expect in wartime. I had an excellent time following the score (it’s easily found online). Car Dew Treat Us is something to hear and to see. Take the time. Try listening both ways: with and without your eyes.
—Greg Buium

 

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over
ECM 2581

Vijay Iyer is one of those rare musicians the quality of whose work seems to rise along with his exposure. Good thing for us, too, since Iyer is in a really productive phase. But of all his outlets, this sextet might be the very finest. He writes some of his best stuff for these deeply attuned musicians, who deftly realize tunes that are at once complex and multidirectional while also earthy and grooving.

“Poles” sets the tone right away, with very sensitive bi-directional piano and ultra-tasty cymbal work from Tyshawn Sorey. When you’re just about ready to settle in, though, the tune positively launches off. The three horns – altoist Steve Lehman, tenorist Mark Shim, and cornetist Graham Haynes – bounce around like contrapuntal pinballs. Counterlines, grooves, and long stretches of lambent blue repose fill this record. And Iyer doesn’t skimp on giving his bandmates solo space. Lehman regularly boils against Stephan Crump’s and Sorey’s urgent playing. Haynes takes a number of incredible turns here, often playing nice scalar lines against Iyer’s sizzling Rhodes (which he alternates with acoustic piano).

It’s a truism to say that this music depends on communication. But it’s still noteworthy when you find it happening at this high a level. Iyer signals all kinds of subtle but powerful transitions in the title track, for example: the big shapes of grouped horns bringing together small details; the dark angles that trace a strange, defiant uplift; the unison that shapes the counterline. These are some of the recurring elements, wrought different in pieces as varied as the spaced-out miniature “End of the Tunnel”; the cellular, contrapuntal “Down to the Wire,” with some of Iyer’s finest playing here; or the intense “Nope,” which opens with laid-back Rhodes and dives into a rotund, almost hip-hop funk (this track is nearly matched by the choppy, exuberant “Into Action,” with its intense, almost punishing staccato).

It’s a thoroughly group music, brought to life by the most intense individual statements. Horns buzz and soar (and by the way, Mark Shim is just ridiculously good on this record), dissonant chords clench tight to reveal pearls of melody, they dive deep into the lonely fire (nowhere deeper than on “Wake”) but in ways less ominous and more expansive. And if you want to settle on a single term to capture this record’s – and this group’s, this composer’s – defining trait: expansive just might fit the bill.
–Jason Bivins

 

Roscoe Mitchell
Bells for the South Side
ECM 2494/95

In 2015, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago invited Roscoe Mitchell to present a day of performances featuring four trios he had been working with over the years. The concert was part of the showcase The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM. The exhibit showcased the intersections of African American visual artists and musicians working in Chicago in the ‘60s, including an installation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s extensive percussion setup, many of the instruments restored for the occasion. Mitchell jumped on the invitation, and the performance was recorded in the museum’s theater as well as in the exhibition space, utilizing the full range of percussion on display, including Mitchell’s expansive percussion cage.

The four trios Mitchell brought, span four decades of collaborators. His trio with bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal mines a working relationship that goes back to the ‘70s when Mitchell lived near Detroit. The two were core members of the reed player’s group Sound Ensemble. Mitchell has been working with trumpet player Hugh Ragin since the 70s as well, and formed a trio along with Tyshawn Sorey on trombone, piano, and percussion after Mitchell met Sorey through a mutual friend. His trio with James Fei on reeds and electronics and percussionist William Winant, both of whom teach with him at Mills College, is more recent, convened for a performance in LA in 2011. Finally, the trio with pianist Craig Taborn, a member of Mitchell’s group Note Factory, and the young British percussionist Kikanju Baku came about when Mitchell met Baku when he was playing in London and brought him in for a recording session with Taborn.

The concert presented each group individually, ending with a collective meeting of all of the members. The two-CD set takes a different tact, freely moving between collective pieces, features for the various trios, and a variety of sub-groupings. Each of the trios is showcased individually. Mitchell’s open form composition “Cards” frames an extended section for solo drums by Tabbal, with acerbically angular opening and closing sections for trio with Shahid and Tabbal. “Prelude to a Rose” starts with the warm pairing of Sorey’s trombone, Ragin’s trumpet, and Mitchell’s sinuous reeds, opening into free-fractured interplay which resolves into sonorous collective voicings. “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” for the trio with Fei and Winant, builds a deceptively simple set of tones and timbres into lush sonic oscillations replete with tempestuous sopranino, electronics, and reverberant percussion. “Dancing in the Canyon,” for the trio with Taborn and Baku, takes a different tact, building from spare wafts of reeds, electronics, and percussion to caterwauling hyper-charged vigor.

In the ensemble pieces, Mitchell’s contemplative intricacies are in full display, like the opening “Spatial Aspects of the Sound” for two pianos, tubular bells, percussion, and piccolo. The ensemble can build to full-on roiling energy like “The Last Chord,” which starts with haunting piano and percussion, slowly building momentum as Mitchell’s growling bass saxophone kicks in over rumbling drums, followed by Fei’s angular sopranino and Ragin’s soaring trumpet, opening up to an extended section for percussion and wrapping up with Mitchell’s skirling soprano torrents. The title track, recorded in the exhibition space, creates a teaming maze of bells, gongs, sirens, and percussion, interweaving clarion trumpet, groaning bass and contra-alto clarinet. The full ensemble is featured in the symphonic, mercurial closing piece, “Red Moon in the Sky”, with morphing layers of electronics, percussion, reeds and brass. The group ably navigates their way as various voices jump to the forefront dynamically responding with spontaneous reconfigurations. The piece mounts into beguiling density, breaking open, 17 minutes in to a resplendent reading of Mitchell’s AEC classic “Odwalla,” the dancing lyricism bringing the CD to a close.

This release is a tour de force in Mitchell’s impressive catalog and the result is a tribute to his singular vision and sage choice in collaborators.
–Michael Rosenstein

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