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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Sun Ra Arkestra
Heliocentric Worlds 1 & 2 Revisited
ezz-thetics 1103

I can’t imagine anyone who reads Point of Departure being unfamiliar with these recordings, released separately by ESP-Disk’, with Volume 1 from an April 1965 session in NYC and Volume 2 from a November 1965 session. They feature the Arkestra having gone through its first major transition period, from the inside-out cosmic big band of the earliest Saturn sides (from the Chicago years) to a wilder, more expansive, noisier group music more comfortable in, yes, a vaster cosmos.

The April tracks are general somewhat concise, ranging from two to nearly eight minutes, with the Arkestra made up of Ra on keys, John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on alto and piccolo, Robert Cummings on bass clarinet, Danny Davis on alto and flute, Pat Patrick on baritone, Teddy Nance on trombone, Bernard Pettaway on bass trombone, Chris Capers on trumpet, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Jimhmi Johnson on percussion (several of the key figures also play various percussion instruments). It really can’t be overstated how much of an improvement the great Peter Pfister has made to the sound. The cloudy sonics I’m familiar with part to reveal an increased emphasis on mood and exploration than the thick slabs of my recollection. Percussion timbres really land. The texture of brass contrasting with reeds really sparkles.

What results is a renewed appreciation for the power and epic scope of tracks like “Outer Nothingness.” Ra’s piano benefits perhaps most of all: listen to the depth and fullness on “Other Worlds,” a real leap from the sometimes tinny one-dimensionality of the originals. It really helps capture what’s special about the music of this period. Unlike some of the furious density of ‘70s Arkestra jams, and unlike some of the tune-based stuff that precedes it, there’s a real openness and unpredictability to this music, sounding as fresh as ever. Ranging from modal miniatures and technical essays like “The Cosmos,” the registral journeys and huge range of tracks like “Heavenly Things,” it sounds glorious.

The November tracks are broader, with two clocking in at around 15 minutes. It’s a smaller group, featuring Ra, Gilmore, Allen, Cummings, Patrick, and Boykins, joined by trumpeter Walter Miller and percussionist Roger Blank (again, most members also double on percussion). The acoustic is even richer here with the small group, where the collective percussion explorations of “The Sun Myth” do sound as if they’re drawing energy from vital sources, as Boykins’ arco sounds out something primal and formless. Miller’s soaring trumpet is so good that I still want it to be higher in the mix, but it’s still a vast improvement on the ESPs. The gorgeous, balladic “House of Beauty” is a real treat, filled with soft cymbal splashes and Ra’s distinctive lyricism, always somehow fragile and difficult at the same time. And of course, on the closing, appropriately titled, “Cosmic Chaos,” there’s some fierce wailing from Gilmore and Allen before a true percussion space forest. The effect of the ending – with a tentative cooling, as if after star formation, before one final tutti blast – is marvelously underscored in this new edition.

If you for some reason don’t own this music, buy it. If you already own this music, buy it again.
–Jason Bivins

 

Ohad Talmor Newsreel Sextet
Long Forms
Intakt CD 341

Recorded in 2015, Ohad Talmor’s Long Forms demonstrates both the potential and the perils of the jagged, angular, and rhythmically complex music that has been the source of some of the most exciting jazz albums in recent memory. Featuring his Newsreel Sextet (trumpeter Shane Endsley, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Matt Pavolka, and drummer Dan Weiss), the album’s focal point is its collection of lengthy, baroque compositions that promise a great deal but don’t always make good on that promise. Put simply, much of the music verges on being overwritten. One gets the sense that Talmor’s compositional toolkit was a bit too large and that he felt obligated to use it all. This is most notable on “Layas Lines” and “Kayeda.” The transitions between different themes, meters, tempos, textures, etc. often feel forced; the effect is more rigid than fluid, jarring than natural. In the space of 90 seconds the band might slalom through several tempos, textures, grooves, colors, dynamic levels, and melodic ideas. Raggedy melodies, staggering polyrhythms, mesmerizing hemiolas, lines that wind through the ensemble: these devices can be crucial for reaching musical vistas that can only be achieved through complexity. But here, such complexity is an obstacle. Talmor’s ideas come so thick and fast that they often end up blurring together. Without much connective tissue, it’s all too different, too much, too fast. Numerous arresting ideas and gestures abound, but they often don’t hang around long enough to make much of an impact or reach their full potential. The first two minutes of “Layas Lines” has the basis for just about an album’s worth of great material on its own.

On an album that places the bulk of the focus on the compositions, it’s telling that several of the most inspired moments come when soloists get the opportunity to open up and aren’t hemmed in. During his tenor solo on “Kayeda,” Talmor develops ideas organically in a way the compositions often don’t. Likewise, Okazaki’s solo on “Musique Anodine” follows a narrative thread in an unhurried fashion. The album’s most stunning turn comes midway through “Scent,” where Talmor and Endsley start with a somewhat restless melody and, along with a huge assist from the rhythm section, transform what was once a quiet and sparse ballad into a nasty, full-throated declaration of bad intentions. Here the mix between the prescriptive and the improvisatory came into perfect balance. The sextet’s virtuosic execution of the album’s extremely difficult music and Talmor’s compositional command is breathtaking. But in the case of Long Forms, the complexity seems to exist for complexity’s sake, not for the music’s.
–Chris Robinson

 

Michael Thomas
Event Horizon
Giant Step Arts GSA 005

I’m a sucker for pianoless quartets with two horns, so I naturally gravitate to alto saxophonist Michael Thomas’ Event Horizon, which was recorded over two nights last August at New York’s Jazz Gallery. Featuring trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Johnathan Blake, the two-disc album has all the hallmarks of a great live recording: free and open blowing, great sound quality, an appreciative audience, and a locked-in ensemble that plays with an intensity that comes from knowing there’s only one shot to make it count.

Thomas possesses a stunning command of the horn that is comparable to contemporary masters such as Miguel Zenon. Like Zenon, he has a compact sound that can be both sweet and edgy. In the upper register he often adds a slight grainy, growling sound that carries some heft. On his solo intro to “Chant,” he churns out waves and waves of virtuosic arpeggios that don’t so much crash on the shores as much as they kiss the beach. On the tune proper he takes some of his ideas and dirties them up – in effect taking lines influenced by classical French saxophone literature and giving them a coat of grime. Palmer is more understated than Thomas, both in tone and approach, and uses more time to develop his ideas, whether beginning his solo soft and slowly increasing in volume, as on “Distance,” or countering Palmer’s fluidity with shorter phrases and more varied rhythms, as on “Framework.” The blend between both players is exceptional – when they move together through the charts, especially on “Drift,” they melt into each other.

Blake is impressive throughout, and must be a great drummer to play with. He has an endless imagination and a seemingly limitless number of different patterns and grooves for the rest of the band to work with. His time is unflagging and his hits and fills augment and put exclamation points on the soloist’s phrases. He sets the table, all the soloist needs to do is sit down and eat. On “Dr. Teeth,” a tribute to the Muppet bandleader, Blake pushes Thomas and Palmer, as if encouraging them, saying “dig in, you’ve got another level to reach.” Blake and Glawischnig – who possesses a clean, clear sound and a melodic approach – are joined at the pocket.

Does Event Horizon need to be two discs? Probably not. By the time you get to the album’s final performance, the lively “Fox and Cat,” you might be likely to miss Thomas’s electric solo, as after 95 minutes, things start to run together. That being said, both discs are of equal quality, so it would be tough to decide what could be cut. While I don’t get Thomas’ claim that the album’s music “represents the many ways technology impacts our lives on a daily basis,” it’s impossible to miss the quartet’s creative fire, artful musicianship, and deep rapport.
–Chris Robinson

 

Judith Wegmann
Le Souffe Du Temps II - Réflexion
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Swiss pianist Judith Wegmann released Le Souffle Du Temps (The Breath of Time) in 2017, a recording of solo prepared piano that combined elements of composition and improvisation. For this follow-up, Wegmann chose four Swiss composers, Daniel Andres, Cyrill Lim, Edu Haubensak, and Hans Koch, to write solo piano works reflecting on the original release. And to add an additional wrinkle, Wegmann performs “Réflexions” which serve as comments on the composed works. In the liner notes, she discusses the process. “I rehearsed the written compositions, simultaneously improvising and reflecting to see what compositions I myself could elicit. I made sketches to show how I would like to organize my improvisation ... With practice and preparation, and later playing the concerts, these activities [became] a natural process.”

Starting out with “Réflexion I,” the pianist draws out a dark, brooding sound world, with deep bass reverberations, string scrapes, creaks and knocks, and hanging layers of sustain. Daniel Andres’ five part “Souvenirs d'un instant” follows, laying out compact pieces with slowly evolving lines of lyrical abstraction. As the pieces progress, layers of sustain provide harmonic depth to simple frameworks. “Réflexion II” draws on the areas charted on the opener while pushing things further into textural abstractions. There is a strong spatial element as well, as the array of sounds Wegmann elicits from the instrument are hung against the dusky sonic field. Cyrill Lim’s brief “Weben” weaves wafts of subtle feedback into the long sustain of the piano and Wegmann astutely lets the harmonic overlaps and intersections and subtle ripples of decay recede against each other.

“Réflexion III” adds more agitated activity into the mix, with percussive sputters, hammered raps, and string preparations plied against the hanging string resonance to particularly strong effect. Like the piece that preceded it, Edu Haubensak’s “Manga” makes use of subtle preparations against abstracted harmonic structures, charting out a piece full of poised introspection. “Réflexion IV” follows the arc toward abstraction Wegmann has charted, with contemplative refractions shuddering and echoing against each other. The recording concludes with Hans Koch’s “L'ombre du Jour,” and the creaking timbres and abraded sheets of activity provide a contrast to the darker colorations of the other pieces. The pianist seems to relish the more open structures as she probes and pushes with prepared and amplified textures. Taken as a whole, it is a worthy document of the pianist’s playing and conceptual explorations.
–Michael Rosenstein

 

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