Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
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Art Pepper
Unreleased Art, Vol. II: The Last Concert May 30, 1982
Widow's Taste APMC 07001

Art Pepper Art Pepper knew he wasn’t long for this world when he performed at the Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in DC. As suggested by the cover photo of the alto saxophonist throwing a left jab, Pepper was determined to go down swinging, in both senses of the phrase. This set with pianist Roger Kellaway, bassist David Williams and drummer Carl Burnett confirms that he did. It is a testament to how Pepper’s edgy, occasionally raspy tone and his scrappy lines created a beguiling incandescence. Whether the vehicle was a hard-boiled blues variant like his “Landscape” or “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” Pepper conveys a world of hurt and a determination to survive it a chorus at a time. Though Kellaway was brought in just prior to the tour culminating in this performance, he understood when to buoy Pepper and when to counterpunch. Kellaway’s pyrotechnics are prominently on display, but they do not obscure Pepper’s grit and gravity. Williams and Burnett muscle the set along without blinking at Pepper’s most vulnerably tender utterances or his most stark cries.

Only when Pepper picks up the clarinet for his encore, “When You’re Smiling,” is he capable of laying aside the burden of being Art Pepper, and blow in a credibly carefree manner. It is a touching resolution to a lifelong struggle, encapsulated in one hour’s music. Art Pepper slipped into a coma ten days after this set, and passed six days later.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

James Saunders
# [unassigned]
Confront 15

James Suanders James Saunders is a Huddersfield, UK-based composer who works with modular materials that can be recombined from performance to performance, shaped by the circumstances of each. Saunders’ modules can be through-composed or based upon a single action, like a sustained tone, and can be performed by any instrument or combinations of instruments. To a degree, Saunders’ approach is similar to Anthony Braxton’s music system, where any material from any previous composition can be brought to bear on the performance at hand by any musician; but, Saunders’ use of modules precludes the need for an umbrella-like composition that provides context for the other materials. A Braxton composition is like an epic Maileresque sentence that, parenthetical clause by clause, leads the reader deeper into associative thought; Saunders’ modules, on the other hand, produce a run-on of monosyllables, where shape and sensibility are established in real time rather than through a compositional superstructure.

# [unassigned] is not just the name of this 2-CD set, but also the name for the project, ongoing since 2000. Since each performance is essentially a new piece, the resulting work subsequently takes on the performance date as its title. Neither the CD of 65 modules performed by clarinetist Andrew Sparling nor the CD of 66 modules realized by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze are titled, reflecting the idea that, since they can be played separately or together, either from beginning to end or in shuffle mode, they are yet to be fully realized. It is this empowerment of the performer and the listener that is one of the intriguing aspects of Saunders’ work. His liberal use of silence and small, even monosyllabic details creates anticipation without creating expectations. Even when the two CDs are played together, the pools of silence outnumber the instances where clarinet and cello commingle; but, it induces a free-floating, judgment-suspending mode of listening.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

Wadada Leo Smith + GŁnter Baby Sommer
Wisdom In Time
Intakt CD 128

Smith/Sommer Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Günter Baby Sommer were brought together in 1979 by Peter Kowald to form one of the more profound internationalist improvising trios of the Cold War era. It is odd that 23 years elapsed between the making of the FMP LPs Touch The Earth and Breaking The Shells and their reunion at the 2005 Total Music Meeting, given how attuned the three were to each other. Smith and Sommer understand how quickly and specifically a primary sound takes on forward motion, tone and color in an improvisation; their respective uncanny abilities to create on the terms of the moment are equally essential. This is why the first seconds of their nine exchanges on Wisdom In Time are so important. A muted trumpet phrase or the sounding of a gong are not simply devices to center the musicians or to buy time for someone to make a move. Both Smith and Sommer make instant reads; the music does not just coalesce as a result, but takes on an edge. It’s impressive how they immediately dive into the deep end, and then, in mid-flight, make sudden, impeccably timed changes in direction. Their sparse balladic contours are palpably sanctified and their fast tempi are blazing; the gradations in-between are equally vivid and their numbers have been exponentially increased by Smith’s electronics. The duo also has a spot-on sense of when and how to end an improvisation, a big reason why the album has an excellent pace.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

Sun Ra
Strange Strings
Unheard Music Series ALP263CD

Sun Ra "Strange Strings" Recorded about 1966-7, Strange Strings is a stand-out Sun Ra album for its use of various, mysteriously unidentified zithers, lutes and other string instruments, a complement of fancifully named percussion instruments (“lightning drums” being particularly swell), and, especially on “Worlds Approaching,” a broad use of reverb reminiscent of the somewhat contemporaneous Delmark debut of Muhal Richard Abrams. Though Ra stalwarts like saxophonists Marshall Allen and (presumably) Danny Davis and less well-known players like trombonist Ali Harsan have their moments, the ordinarily auxiliary string and percussion instruments loom large on the three tracks comprising the original LP. A previously unissued bonus track features Ra playing a squeaky door in tandem with the strings and percussion. Frequently, Ra’s approach to sound is more akin to AMM and Fluxus than Fire Music. Elsewhere, Ra is a step ahead of the AACM’s budding use of collage. Yet, for the most part, the music is readily identifiable as Ra’s. This a really smart pairing of sessions that share rare characteristics; the connections are expertly tied in Hal Rommel’s booklet essay; and the photograph of a young space-vested John Gilmore holding a pipa is extraordinary.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

Michael Vlatkovich Quartet
Alivebuquerque
pfMENTUM CD045D

Michael Vlatkovich Quartet Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich is a stalwart of the LA creative music community, an early cohort of Vinny Golia and other artists associated with the multi-instrumentalist’s Nine Winds imprint. He has led his own ensembles since the early 1980s, emphasizing an idiomatically off-center compositional vocabulary and providing ample space for improvisation. Recorded at Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space in 2003, this quartet set with baritone saxophonist David Mott, electric cellist Jonathan Golove and drummer Christopher Garcia shows how Vlatkovich’s writing can encompass stentorian themes and sardonic waltzes in a single piece without fracturing it into vaguely connected sections. He is also adept at slipping in such sudden jarring changes in direction as a riveting unison phrase in the midst of a pensive, elastically stated canon without sabotaging the overall mood of the piece. As an improviser, Vlatkovich is thoroughly grounded in the post-Mangelsdorff trombone lexicon, but throws down his chops sparingly. When Vlatkovich and Mott do lock horns, the resulting intensity is refreshingly stunning. Still, Vlatkovich’s music frequently has a formal bearing that owes much to the ensemble-minded work of Mott, Garcia and Golove, whose electric instrument proves to be remarkably flexible in lending rhythmic support and tonal mooring, or providing counter lines and harmonic extensions. It’s music with more than a quarter-century’s refinement behind it. Vlatkovich has known the loneliness of the long distance runner a long time – it’s time for folks to catch up to him.
-Bill Shoemaker

Black Saint Records

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