Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Jon Corbett + Nick Stephens + Tony Marsh
Nick Stephens thrives in a trio where he can soak up space with booming long notes, slip in a sleek line between the splash of cymbals and the texture of a horn, and place otherworldly arco color in the foreground. The bassist is the fulcrum of two of the better albums by improvising trios this year: the debut of Instinctual Ear with Frode Gjerstad and Kevin Norton (Barking Hoop; reviewed in PoD 6) and Trio Fo’s Breaking Silence (Loose Torque), featuring flutist Neil Metcalfe and drummer Tony Marsh. Today’s Play is equally fine, a percolating set with Marsh and trumpeter Jon Corbett. Both Corbett and Marsh share Stephen’s feel for flecking improvisations with just enough jazz-derived materials to provide perspective and sustain forward rhythmic movement, but without saturating the music entirely. This relatively low-keyed jazzcentricism informs even counterintuitive experiments as “Reverse Swing,” where the trio uses unorthodox phrasing and rhythms to create a decidedly unjazzy flow. For most of the set, however, the music is a compilation of the fleeting responses of what’s flying past each of the musicians. In this context, their jazz backgrounds come into play in the fullest sense of the word. So, is this free jazz as opposed to improvised music? It’s a close call; but, given how the jazz elements seep into the music instead of setting its terms, it tips towards improvised music.
Though Joe Harriott’s free jazz sent a seismic shock through the UK scene during the early ‘60s, the Jamaican alto saxophonist felt the experiments had run their course by 1963 when he recorded Movement, his last album predominantly comprised of free music. Even at the helm of his own group, Harriott began to favor standards and bop flag wavers, which brought out his roots in Charlie Parker’s intense attack and serpentine lines. This made for amiable encounters with local units throughout the UK when Harriott traveled as a single. Live at Harry’s 1963 documents a Leicester where Harriott locked horns with baritone saxophonist John Collins, whose quartet included pianist Colin Willets, bassist Fred Barnsley and drummer Tony Levin. Though it is three years before Tubby Hayes hires him away, Levin is already moving beyond an Art Taylor-like overdrive, employing Elvinesque polyrhythms and carpet-bombing at key points. He is the glue of the date, engaging an incessant Harriott and providing the draft for his cohorts to keep the brisk pace sustained throughout the album. Subsequently, Harriott and Collin’s crew really mixed it up, instead of routinely running through a set list. This elevates Live at Harry’s 1963 well above novelty; however, listeners should take the same route to this date as Harriott, through the music of his landmark albums.
One of the strengths of the Vancouver improvised music scene is that many of its major exponents did not make the jump from jazz, but from other idioms. One of the scene’s first luminaries, clarinetist François Houle crossed over from classical music, while multi-instrumentalist Jesse Zubot, who has come on strong in the last few years, is steeped in roots music. Houle and Zubot also exemplify how the Vancouver scene nurtures improvising ensembles comprised of musicians from disparate backgrounds. LaConnor, their electronics-laced trio with drummer Jean Martin documented on an earlier Drip Audio CD, is one of the more distinctive ensembles to emerge in Canada this decade.
This simultaneous release of respective solo albums has a collaborative aura about it, even though Houle and Zubot’s methods and materials differ widely. Houle’s improvisations were recorded in real time; he occasionally plays two clarinets simultaneously and also occasionally plays over a prepared piano for added texture, tactics that give several tracks the semblance of multi-track construction. In addition to featuring violin, mandolin and guitar, Zubot’s pieces use overdubbing to create antiphonal voices or nappy textured foundations. Developed during an Italian residency, Houle makes ample use of extended techniques like circular breathing; but, what’s truly startling about the album is its emphasis on sheer melodic beauty. Zubot places more emphasis on the primacy of sound outside the context of idiom, and proves to be tactically resourceful.
After listening to Aerial and Dementia, a revisiting of LaConnor is recommended to see how the sometimes disparate elements of Houle and Zubot’s respective sensibilities create a potent collective chemistry.
Apprenticeships in Dixieland and graduate studies in Monk gave Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd similar sensibilities that extend to their respective compositional orientations. Despite a lengthy list of methods and characteristics that distinguish his work from the other’s, Lacy and Rudd both employ syncopation, blues and other pre-modern vocabulary and syntax to decidedly modern ends. Certainly, during the early ‘70s, when the compositions included in Esteem were penned, Lacy thoroughly turned these conventions inside out; resulting in pieces that pivoted on phrases that pranced or thudded, satirically. Rudd, on the other hand, was less provocatively playful, as evidenced by pieces like “Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi” from his 1974 album, Flexible Flyer. Lacy’s presence on Blown Bone, Rudd’s ’76 date previously available only as a hard-to-find Japanese LP, facilitates a close comparison to the soprano saxophonist’s Trickles, a quartet date with the trombonist recorded two weeks before the Rudd date. It is a comparison to which Esteem provides part of the back-story.
Recorded at a Paris gig in ’75, and culled from Lacy’s own collection of cassette tapes, Esteem features an early edition of his quintet with saxophonist Steve Potts, violinist/cellist Irene Aebi, bassist Kent Carter and drummer Kenneth Tyler. Though the recording quality is merely passable, it does convey how Lacy tightly wove saxophone lines teeming with terse small intervals, and how he created bustling forward rhythmic movement with the tandem strings. Additionally, the lengthy running time of tunes like “The Crust,” “The Uh Uh Uh,” and the title piece document how, once the condensed themes were read, Aebi, Carter and Tyler laid down heated grooves for Lacy and Potts, who both throw down expansive, unrelentingly intense solos. This is a period where Lacy was reconciling the contrary strain in his writing, manifested in catchy motives that lurch and skip in ways seemingly impervious to conventional swing, and his bandleader’s imperative to lift the bandstand. In retrospect his success in this endeavor laid necessary groundwork for Lacy’s art songs, to which he devoted much of his energies by decade’s end, ultimately becoming the centerpiece of his legacy as a composer.
Rudd’s early forays into jazz operas and other extended forms requiring singers were, at best, spottily documented; and even Numatik Swing Band (1973; JCOA) has not been reissued on CD. Blown Bone fills in a few blanks, beginning with the previously unreleased ’67 prologue to his first jazz opera, The Gold Rush, “Long Hope,” a sensuous ballad performed by a quintet with Rudd on piano, alto saxophonist Robin Kenyatta, vibraphonist Karl Berger, bassist Lewis Worrell and drummer Horacee Arnold. On the two LP-issued tracks featuring Sheila Jordan and a third with Louisiana Red, the music is straight ahead, albeit studded with jewel-like phrases. It’s on instrumentals like “It’s Happening,” which features Lacy, trumpeter Enrico Rava, bassist Wilbur Little, and drummer Paul Motian, that Rudd’s writing approaches Lacy’s in terms of idiosyncratic phrasing and shifts in rhythmic feel. (On the second session included on the original LP. Patty Brown’s electric piano and Tyrone Washington’s tenor locates the music in the 1970s, offsetting the timeless playing of Lacy and Kenny Davern, heard on both soprano and clarinet.) Rudd and Lacy’s compositional trajectories came even closer as Lacy wrote songs like “Gay Paree Bop” and “Prospectus,” which shared the hipness Rudd achieved with Jordan, but on his own terms.