Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble
Polygon
Inner Circle Music 072

With Polygon – the follow up to his excellent 2014 album Saturated Colour – Canadian  composer and reed player Erik Hove sets the bar extremely high for contemporary jazz composition (“jazz” hardly seems to be the appropriate term here). While plenty of albums over the past few years feature compositions full of angular and uneven phrase shapes, unpredictable accents, polymeter, and the like, many of them sound as if they are complex for the sake of complexity. This is not the case with the aptly titled Polygon, as the presence of these elements seems necessary for Hove to carry out his musical vision.

Featuring Hove’s ten-piece chamber ensemble, Polygon opens with “Tessellation,” which is built upon a light, rapid clockwork rhythm laid down by a shifting mix of reeds, trumpet, and pizzicato strings. This highly rhythmic opener – which also features a lithe, if somewhat understated alto solo from Hove – sets the stage for the rest of the album, especially in its use of layered and contrasting textures and timbres. On the title track reeds and brass play a lilting two note figure before being interrupted by the strings playing a completely different idea that would fit in with the Second Viennese School. Some of the album’s most arresting moments come on “Inversions” and “Drift,” which contain elements somewhat reminiscent of James Tenney’s postcard pieces or some of John Luther Adams’ textures. The former begins with wide swaths of sweetly dissonant chords during which various instruments fade in and out, or briefly pop up, as if watching the momentary surfacing of fish on a glistening lake. The latter composition takes the idea of long, overlapping tones and runs with it. Individual instruments, which are at times hard to identify, fade in and out, rising and falling in dynamic levels. One hears the beats of the overtones ringing out from the dissonance. As the piece progresses small groups of instruments gliss up, and repeat; slide up, and repeat; bend up, stretch, and repeat. The piece would surely sound absolutely stunning in a cathedral, and it’s not hard to imagine it being stretched out into an hour length or longer composition.

Across the whole of Polygon exists an amazing amount of detail, complex textures, and ringing overtones, which gives the listener a number of different and rewarding ways to approach the album. Want to unpack how Hove moves lines and motives across instruments to create a continuously evolving sonic kaleidoscope? Then listen to “Morse Code,” on which a repeated two note pattern bounces off and echoes between clarinet, violin, and trumpet, which makes such a seemingly simple pattern sound more complex and interesting than it should have any right to be. Want to focus on the way Hove creates complex yet approachable grooves? Zone in on bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Evan Tighe’s lockstep hookup and how they are able to provide a firm grounding for even the most complicated wind and strings phrases. Want to hear how the soloists manage to navigate such a thorny, yet stimulating terrain? Listen to Hove and flautist Anna Webber bob and weave through LeBlanc and Tighe’s tumbling start-stop rhythms on “Fractured,” or trumpeter Andy King on “Tetrahedron” as he hooks up with Tighe before being swallowed up by the rest of the ensemble.

Given its creativity, execution, and vision, Polygon is one of the finest and most intriguing albums of the year. It deserves as much, if not more, attention, praise, and listeners as some of the more obvious records that will surely grace numerous year end top ten lists. Sure, the new albums from Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, and Wadada Leo Smith are great, but don’t let Polygon slip through the cracks.
—Chris Robinson

 

Roscoe Mitchell
Duets with Anthony Braxton
Sackville SK 3016

Recorded in 1976, Roscoe Mitchell’s Duets with Anthony Braxton is a somewhat reserved affair compared to the contemporaneous work of these AACM stalwarts. Although Mitchell’s seminal early works like Sound (Delmark, 1966) are widely celebrated for an innovative use of space, such interludes often served to contrast denser musical passages. Similarly dynamic, the unprecedented popularity of Braxton’s then burgeoning fame was galvanized by a penchant for abstract bebop. Such bold excursions are in relatively short supply at this meeting however, which focuses on the nuances of instrumental timbre, lyrical interplay, and well-placed silences.

Mitchell’s pieces occupy the first side of the original vinyl issue, with “Five Twenty One Equals Eight” opening the set in ruminative fashion. Braxton’s subterranean contrabass clarinet underscores Mitchell’s diaphanous flute, setting the stage for much of the date’s introspective tone. An exceedingly brief but impassioned alto rendition of “Line Fine Lyon Seven” arrives suddenly, with Braxton’s contrabass saxophone churning out the catchy tune’s off-kilter rhythm in just over a minute, followed by the caterwauling miniature “Seven Behind Nine Ninety-Seven Sixteen Or Seven,” which features dovetailing altissimo overtones. The lengthy “Cards – Three and Open” closes out the first side much like it began, with pointillist call-and-response interplay punctuated by long silences.

The second half of the program kicks off with Braxton’s “Composition 40Q,” an outlandish march driven by paired contrabass saxophones. In contrast, “Composition 74B” is unexpectedly subtle; a lyrical ballad for flutes, its surprisingly conventional harmonies recall contemporary chamber music. “Composition 74A” is more typical of Braxton’s polytonal writing; his sporadic contrabass clarinet cadences are paralleled by Mitchell’s sinuous soprano in increasingly animated fashion, resolving in contemplative unity. The CD reissue ends with an aggressive alternate take of Mitchell’s third number from the first side, adding a short variation of the duo’s more extreme extrapolations to the proceedings.

Duets with Anthony Braxton may be a lesser-known item in the discographies of Mitchell and Braxton, but it speaks to the boundless creativity fostered by AACM members during the association’s early decades.
–Troy Collins

 

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Paint
Hot Cup 171

Paint is the first recording released by Mostly Other People Do the Killing in a classic piano trio configuration. Initially formed as a piano-less quartet in 2003, bassist and founder Moppa Elliott recruited pianist Ron Stabinsky to join the unit as a permanent member following his guest appearance on Red Hot!, the band’s 2013 Hot Cup release. Stabinsky’s wily virtuosity has made him a valuable member of the band’s volatile rhythm section, alongside longstanding drummer Kevin Shea.

For this streamlined effort, the trio embarks on a colorful program of hard-swinging tunes once again named after small towns in Elliott’s home state of Pennsylvania. Even the sole cover – an elegant reinterpretation of Ellington’s “Blue Goose” – bears this out. The majority of these numbers employ blues-based structures, which lends stylistic consistency to the proceedings. This is further reinforced by the unit’s tendency to explore a vast dynamic range within each cut – regularly vacillating between frenetic interludes and euphonious motifs. Subtle variations add tonal color to the session’s overall flow: “Orangeville” alternates between Stabinsky’s scintillating cascades and Elliott’s melodious bass work; “Plum Run” evokes a noir-inflected, avant-garde blues waltz; “Green Briar” is a bracing modal jaunt; and “Golden Hill” delivers a gorgeous melody with rhapsodic glee, stoked by Shea’s freewheeling accents.

The key difference between Paint and the group’s prior efforts is the absence of horns – specifically, the multihued interplay between saxophonist Jon Irabagon and former member, trumpeter Peter Evans. Nonetheless, the smaller formation provides illuminating insight into the group’s inner workings: the incessant forward momentum of Shea’s chaotic drumming; the harmonic foundation of Elliott’s bass playing; and the remarkable dexterity of Stabinsky’s multi-stylistic pianism. Adventurous yet accessible, Paint is a fascinating addition to the growing discography of one of today’s most infamous jazz ensembles.
–Troy Collins

 

Tom Rainey Obbligato
Float Upstream
Intakt CD 292

When I first slipped Float Upstream into my player I half-attentively listened to it while doing something else, and so when I listened to it again closely and read the track list I was surprised to see that the bulk of the set consists of standards. And not just any standards, but some of the music’s most reliable warhorses: “Stella by Starlight” and “What is this thing Called Love,” among others. As Christian Broecking explains in the liner notes, Tom Rainey wanted to find a new, individual way to approach standards, and rather than writing prescriptive charts for the session he supplied his band with vague instructions for tunes they each knew well. Obbligato is a crack band, whose members – Ingrid Laubrock, Ralph Alessi, Kris Davis, and Drew Gress – achieved Rainey’s goal with a looseness and flexibility that allowed them to make these tunes new again in pleasantly surprising and charming ways.

On “Stella” – rendered here as a waltz – and “What is this thing Called Love,” Obbligato holds out on its listeners, teasing them with only the slightest taste of the tune right at the end. On both cuts we find that rather than highlighting the familiar melodies, Rainey places the focus on Laubrock and Alessi’s friendly sparring. Float Upstream’s emotional critical mass appears on a stirring and pathos-laden performance of “What’s New.” Here, Davis plays a beautiful reading of the song, and as she nears the end of her solo Laubrock and Alessi’s delicate obbligato lines slowly come to the fore as she transfers solo duties to Alessi. On her own solo Laubrock – whose tone sounds a bit weightier than I’m used to hearing – delivers a depth of feeling on the order of Coltrane’s solo on “Blue in Green.” The album is worth getting for “What’s New” alone. To add an extra element of intrigue, the title track is a collective improvisation. That its aesthetic matches so closely with the rest of the album demonstrates that there might not be as much distance between free improvisation and standards as some might assume.

If nothing else, Float Upstream reminds us that in the hand of inventive and committed musicians, there’s plenty of life left in songs that seem to have been played to death. This is a superb album.
—Chris Robinson

 

Roswell Rudd + Fay Victor + Lafayette Harris + Ken Filiano
Embrace
Rare Noise RNR085

One flashy, eclectic singer; next to her, three straightforward, no-bull instrumentalists; eight songs, mostly familiar ones. Singer Fay Victor, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and bassist Ken Filiano are the three customarily outside musicians who, here, play inside the changes for this session. There’s also pianist Lafayette Harris, a late-bop sophisticate with a rare gift of playing ever so simply yet tellingly (and the fine Filiano supports his lyricism beautifully). The four medium-up tempo pieces get clever settings, especially “Goodby Pork Pie Hat” with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s lyrics, which are far superior to the more familiar Joni Mitchell lyrics. The wonderful Mingus melody is reset as a samba featuring Rudd’s lovely theme statement and solo. The lyrics of “Can’t We Be Friends” are subverted by the tempo; “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” starts rubato with Victor and growly Rudd in fetching unison, then turns positively joyous. The fourth swinger is “I Looked in the Mirror” – and here’s a cheer for its songwriter, the important new-music producer Verna Gillis. Rudd and Victor especially set the jaunty feeling about these four tracks.

But the four slow pieces emphasize Fay Victor’s weaknesses: her whiny voice, her frequent pitch issues, her seemingly random decorations, and, most of all, her attempts to convey a highly stylized manner. “House of the Rising Sun” is way too fancy, her worst. By contrast there are Rudd’s simple, sober obbligatos and the purposeful way he mounts his solos, here with a burry sound, there with a mute that gives his sound a tuff edge. He improvises in a grand manner in the faster pieces, and he really sounds like he’s the 21st-century heir to the great swing-era trombone expressionists. In the slow pieces, even in broken phrases, his quest for melody yields tension. Harris is the most consistent player here, in unadorned solo lines and accompaniments. He’s subtle, he always accompanies perfectly and yet captures the soloist’s feeling – he doesn’t exaggerate. His solo style is post-bop, pre-Bill Evans, his lines are bright-sounding and ingenious. Filiano’s bowing and plucking project similar virtues in clean lines, closely attuned with Harris. This pair has the sensitivity and simplicity that gives good taste a good name.
 –John Litweiler

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