Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
by
Bill Shoemaker

 

Uri Caine
Plays Mozart
Winter & Winter 910 130-2

Uri Cane Remember the whole deal about how listening to Mozart made you smarter? It would be interesting to rerun the experiments, replacing straight readings of his compositions with Uri Caine’s brilliant subversions. Mozart’s smarty-pants facility and pat emotional string-pulling become launching pads for spectacular deconstructionist fireworks, while the depths of his last works are scoured for seeds of the angst that bloomed in the work of other Caine subjects like Schumann and Mahler. At the same time, Caine uses Mozart to give shout-outs to a wide swath of jazz pianists, from romp-prone stylists like Tatum to jazz's arch classicist, John Lewis.

Caine and Lewis are far closer as conceptualists than the vast differences in their work suggest. Both defy the idea that there are legitimate and illegitimate forms of music. It's counterintuitive to think of the MJQ as defiant; however, both Lewis and Caine pursue a stereotype-nullifying agenda. The difference reflects profound sociological change; in the 1950s, jazz was the outsider, a role now played by DJs, computers, et al. Even when Caine digs into a fierce, fleet Tynerish groove as he does on his take on an aria from Don Giovanni, it is far better mannered than the ensuing outbursts of DJ Olive, electric guitarist Nguyên Lê, clarinetist Chris Speed, and drummer Jim Black.

Lewis' legacy is cautionary in that it points up how decisively music moves on. It is ongoing amazement how infrequently Lewis' compositions are performed now. It's hard to imagine another ensemble tackling Caine's technically treacherous, player-specific constructions. Most of this ensemble (including trumpeter Ralph Alessi) has contributed to previous composer projects of Caine's, which accounts for the close-order precision of their hair-raising take on first movement of "Symphony 40 in G Minor" and the hi jinx of "the Turkish Rondo." Additionally, Caine places equal weight on both the light and dark in Mozart's music, sometimes requiring musicians to repeatedly regear their attack and tone throughout a composition. A consummate ensemble player, violinist Joyce Hammann can convey grandeur or a glint of caprice as required. Lê shows enormous range; he is a valuable second to Olive in providing noise, and can even slip in a few runs that seem plundered from a Queen album.

Through these means, Caine coaxes, cajoles and strong-arms the listener to rethink Mozart, and perhaps become smarter in the process.

 

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Hot 'N' Heavy
Delmark DE 574
Delmark DVD 1574

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble Singing and dancing. Modes of entertainment, some would say. Chanting. That's ritual. Kahil El'Zabar does all three in the course of a set, as well as excavating ancient grooves on handmade congas, pushing rhythms outward on traps, and thumbing charming patterns on kalimba. It is all of an obviously single fabric in performance. Still, it has taken 30 years for "the African implications, the spirit of community," for El’Zabar’s approach to be fully recognized by stentorian musicians, El'Zabar observes in conversation for Neil Tesser's notes to Hot 'N' Heavy. The set showers the listener with buoyant rhythms, bright-moment melodies and solos combining sustained heat and sharp focus – exactly the mix that elicits scorn from Puritanical commentators. Director Tom Koester’s eye-moving shots and Steve Wagner’s crisply paced editing of the DVD reinforces the seasonal aspect of the music and the setting. It is summer in Chicago, the musicians are dripping sweat (after the ebullient opener, “Major to Minor,” El’Zabar pithily welcomes the audience to Miami) and the audience is seated on folding chairs; but, there’s a body moving to the music in each shot. And, there’s a quality of movement, be it a heat-defiant sway or an energy-efficient nod, that signifies real engagement. It’s this engagement that best argues that this projection of creative music is as essential to the AACM’s legacy as its most experimental. It’s also significant that the recording was made at the Ascension Loft, El’Zabar’s performance space/gallery/residence; as a result, the performance is part parlor recital, part rent party, part civic association meeting, and part open house.

Hot ‘N’ Heavy is also noteworthy because it marks the debut of Corey Wilkes with the EHE. The brilliant young trumpeter displays complementary assets to those he brings to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He employs electronics, which are triggered downstream from his microphone; the resulting gurgles and smears give his fat bluesy phrases and darting lines a ‘70s tinge (which is vividly underlined when saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins gets out the police whistle). Wilkes’ two-horn passages are pungently Kirkish at times, a thorough mixing of the idiomatic and the idiosyncratic. And, his solos ricochet off the scrappy comping of periodic guest artist, guitarist Fareed Haque, and El’Zabar’s simmering grooves in unexpected directions. Most importantly, Wilkes alters the overall sound of the EHE, much more than Haque or other previous guest artists. The replacement of Joseph Bowie’s tailgating trombone with Wilkes’ soaring trumpet, particularly when paired with Dawkins’ exultant alto, places even greater bottom-supplying responsibility to El’Zabar. Fortunately, the percussionist is singularly deft at keeping the most elemental rhythmic information of a composition audible even when determinedly pushing the envelope of a piece. This is also what allows Haque a free hand in developing his flinty solos without a tethering bass.

In documenting the ongoing evolution of an esteemed, long-lived ensemble and encapsulates vital issues of community, Hot ‘N’ Heavy clears a high bar most recordings don’t even attempt.

 

Expanded Botanics
Refugium
Ninth World Music NWM 039CD

Expanded Botanics One of the more intriguing aspects of electro-acoustic improvisation is that, even though its methods can be all but concealed from the listener, even a relatively unqualified listener can quickly knows when the sparks – or the sine waves – are flying. Of course, engagement with the music does not necessarily get the listener as close to its workings than is the case with, say, blues or bebop. That’s the delicious conundrum of Expanded Botanics second album, Refugium. The parameters violinist Philipp Wachsmann (who also employs electronics), percussionist Peter Ole Jørgensen, and laptop player Jakob Riis are working with remain below the surface for the most part. But, whatever processes and protocols are embedded in the music, it makes small matter. It works. Jørgensen draws on an uncluttered, markerless syntax, which stands in marked contrast to the barrages he unleashes in full-throttle blows with the likes of Peter Brøtzmann and Mats Gustafsson. Wachsmann lets timorous violin timbres merge with his own electronics and Riis’ output, resulting in exchanges where no sound’s source can be immediately IDed. It takes the coyly folkish “Field” to make one realize the subtle role of rhythm in this music – not in the sense of jazz-related ideas of pulse, but in the primary idea that divisions of time can convey the sensation of movement. To this end, the electronics are co-equals of the percussion, and not simply because Jørgensen is frequently the source of samples and loops. Wachsmann and Riis repeatedly supply forward movement with soft-edged textures and motif-like sounds. Expertise in electro-acoustic improvisation, however, is not required to hear it.

 

Guillermo Gregorio + Pandelis Karayorgis + Nate McBride
Chicago Approach
Nuscope CD 1019

Mat Maneri + Denman Maroney
Distich
Nuscope CD 1018

Gregorio/Karyorgis/McBride Although these albums are rightly paired by Nuscope for their respective connections to the vibrant Boston scene, Guillermo Gregorio's 1998 Red Cube(d) (hatOLOGY) provides a useful genealogical reference point. While Gergorio's trio with pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and violinist Mat Maneri largely focused on the clarinetist/saxophonist's deconstructions of 1940s jazz compositions, there was a tug between cool abstraction and churning emotions in the album's improvised exchanges that was not only thoroughly engaging, but crystallized a way to sublimate but not snuff out the use of idioms. These two fine recordings parse out the two essences that created this exquisite tension. Though Chicago Approach is comprised mainly of collective improvisations, the inclusion of pieces by Jimmy Guiffre and Don Friedman is a reminder of the pull of cool jazz on both Gregorio and Karayorgis, while Gregorio's original compositions reinforces the notion that he triangulates ideas of structure found in abstract art. On the freely improvised Distich, Maneri's melting pot of influences -- which extend far beyond the reflexively cited microtonal work of his father, Joe Maneri, to include baroque and folkloric sources -- is boldly offset by Denman Maroney's hyperpiano.

A cursory listening to Maneri and Maroney's nine improvisations suggests a fundamental incompatibility between Maneri, who plays 5-string viola throughout, and Gregorio. Much of this impression is prompted by Maroney's jarring, iridescent vocabulary. Some of the pianist's techniques are based on methods of direct string excitement -- as opposed to passive preparations -- first devised by George Crumb. Whereas Crumb developed his approach in service of his Appalachian magic realism, Maroney has no such template-like sensibility. As an improviser, Maroney thoroughly operates in the moment, which is reflected in his sudden shifts in direction and methods of attack. Ultimately, this registers as an aura of instability, which is not suggest anything unsure about his intentions and execution; it is a cosmology of sorts that Maroney proffers. In a way, Maroney's work is as lucid and self-circumscribed as Gregorio's constructions, and it is the similarity of Maneri's responses to both – a mix of hesitancies, mulled phrases, and flaring intensities – that slowly rises to the surface after listening to the albums in tandem.

Conversely, the limpid surfaces of the improvisations by Gregorio, Karayorgis and bassist Nate McBride take on translucent layers with repeated listening. The trio's abilities to sustain a sense of spaciousness and to buttress form with timbre (particularly Karayorgis, who dampens with great finesse) produce pockets into which the listener can delve and recalibrate the music's motivations and movements. Subsequently, Gregorio's clarinet takes on an urgency not initially felt, one that further separates him from the implicit Giuffre mold of the instrumentation and the inclusion of "Variation." Likewise, when McBride's bow scrapes and skitters across the strings, evocative shadows are cast. Mix in the respective idiomatic facets of Gregorio and Karayorgis' playing, and there are many elements vying to be heard.

In addition to their individual merits, Chicago Approach and Distich suggests that a reunion of Gregorio, Karayorgis and Maneri is in order.

 

ECM Records

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