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Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
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Michael Musillami Trio w/ Mark Feldman
The Treatment
PLAYSCAPE PSR#050607 CD/DVD

Michael Musillami Michael Musillami doesn’t so much play jazz guitar – that wearisome, generic stuff full of octaves and casually bent notes – as jazz on his guitar. This is as convincing a statement of what’s still possible with the instrumentation as anything I’ve heard in years. Even without Feldman’s presence – and it would be the poorer for his absence – this is strong stuff. Fonda anchors every line and Schuller has a light, rapid touch that often delivers pulse rather than a countable meter, something akin to Joey Baron a decade ago.

Schuller’s the effective dedicatee of “Brooms”, Musillami’s little tribute to those percussion guys who’re happy to set aside their sticks for a bit in favor of brushes. The unison theme statement comes a little way in, leading off into a first extraordinary solo from Feldman, who quotes “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” but basically sticks to the contours of the melody. Musillami himself, by contrast, goes well outside it, a markedly abstract feature that imparts a curious asymmetrical feel to the performance as a whole.

The title tune is oddly reminiscent of one of Ornette’s stop-start themes. This time the guitarist leads off and the central section is a basically a dialogue between his chunky octaves (Wes hasn’t been completely excommunicated) and Fonda’s modified walk. There’s a brooding, anxious quality to it that’s less in evidence on the live DVD version. Interesting – as you’ll see from the dates above – that the filmed performance isn’t a working of album tracks, but a kind of last rehearsal for the studio session, and how it all came together for that!

It isn’t clear whether “Stark Beauty” is some kind of reference to “Ugly Beauty”. There’s a remote blues tonality to the statement and the descending figure which somewhat recalls the Monk tune, but there are hints of “Bumpin’”. Again, Feldman picks up on the tail of a descending phrase and soars out on a thermal, barely moving his wings.

“Human Conditions” is perhaps the only cut that’s marginally preferable on the DVD selection. There’s a funky, stopped-note thing going on at the start, Feldman playing pizzicato with great accuracy; melody and vamp seem to be working in opposite directions, with a sense of fours played against threes, generating a nice tension. There are similar things at work on “Mezz Money” (inspired by the night Michael signed an autograph on the cheque for the gig). The final number presumably relates back to the trio’s first CD Beijing. They’ve come a ways since that occasionally stumbling and over-stretched date, and you have to say that Feldman has taken them to a new level. A stylish, compelling group, who’ll be worth catching whenever they get a chance to showcase this material.
-Brian Morton

 

Rempis Percussion Quartet
Hunter-Gatherers
482 Music 1056

Rempis Percussion Quartet Here’s a man who’s perhaps just a bit too busy. Saxophonist Dave Rempis has worked with Ken Vandermark, the Chicago Improvisers Ensemble, the Territory Band, Crisis Ensemble, most of the names you’d associate with Euro-Chicago improv from Axel Dorner to Michael Zerang, as well as leading Triage with bassit Jason Ajemian and drummer Tim Daisy, who along with Frank Rosaly, account for the percussion in the present group.

Back in 2004, when Out of Season appeared, I was inclined to dismiss Rempis as one of those ready, willing and able types with sufficient chops to cut it in most any company, but without a distinctive enough vision to set him apart from the crowd. That earlier quartet was a basic horn/piano/bass/drums affair, with a spot of synth thrown in, mostly for camouflage, I thought.

Then 2006’s Rip, Tear, Crunch appeared, again on 482, and blew any such thought away. The only working parallel I have for what Rempis is doing with this group, which isn’t a percussion quartet at all, but an augmented pianoless trio, is one of the earlier versions of British altoist Trevor Watts’ Moire Music, which emerged out of his earlier Amalgam trio with Barry Guy or Jeff Clyne and John Stevens. If Rempis’ horn line on the opening “A Night at the Ranch” is almost abecedarian in its straightforwardness, that’s because much of the action really is devolved to the two percussionists. So it isn’t quite the misnomer it seems.

The opening of “The Bus and the Canyon”, half an hour of steadily evolving improvisation, is reminiscent of two aged saurians trudging slowly over a dry soda lake. Rempis has switched to baritone, to deliver what’s almost a cello line, while bassist Anton Hatwich, the easily overlooked component of this group, thuds away with deceptive casualness.

Disc two sees one of the drummers trying to quiet the crowd at the Hunter-Gatherer, a South Carolina venue, with some peremptory mottos and rolls. Eventually, Rempis, back on alto, plunges in, delivering short Ornette-inspired phrases over the kind of stop-start meter Charles Moffett used to do as a specialty. To be honest, it tails off after “More Green Than Giraffe”. The last three tracks suggest a touch of idea-fatigue, if, indeed, they’re sequenced here in the order played. “A Night at the Ranch: part two” doesn’t revisit the opening material more than incidentally, but it evokes a similar mood. So, perhaps too much of a good thing. This would have made a very decent single CD, one of those occasions where value for money isn’t matched with consistent quality throughout. That said, Rempis has my vote for the immediate future, or rather his group does. There’s a language these guys are feeling their way towards, and it’s going to be hugely exciting when they get there.
-Brian Morton

 

Matthew Shipp
Piano Vortex
Thirsty Ear THI57180-2

Matthew Shipp Matthew Shipp is rarely praised for his versatility; commentators entranced by his intensity just miss it. But, the pianist has exceptional range, even if it takes several recordings to get a full picture of it. The value of this trio session with bassist Joe Morris and drummer Whit Dickey is that Shipp covers so many stylistic bases, mostly in a glancing manner. Subsequently, sources like Bley, Nichols and early Taylor blur past and what registers more distinctly is Shipp’s hallmark mix of finesse and bluntness. Incessancy tends to perceived in monotones; but Shipp can project it in many shades; the staccato octaves of “Nooks and Corners” sustains an arresting stridency, but, even as he obsesses over it, the bluesy theme of “Key Swing” simply gets catchier. Conversely, when Shipp takes a more impressionistic tact on the title tune, there’s a serrated edge that doesn’t permit too much comfort. Still, Shipp deals in more than contrary pastiche; on the closer, “To Vitalize,” he revels in the pocket, even when he’s throwing down his most shrapnel-like clusters. Throughout the proceedings, Morris and Dickey are spot on, creating counter voices that give Shipp great tactical latitude, as well as soloing with authority. Piano Vortex is a persuasive one-volume case for Shipp’s command of the instrument and the idioms.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

Warren Smith
Natural/Cultural Forces
Engine e023

Warren Smith We’ve Been Around: That was the name of one Warren Smith’s fine Strata East LPs with The Composer’s Workshop Ensemble (now collected on a Claves Jazz CD). The composer-percussionist certainly has. Case in point: Smith played vibes at Charles Mingus’ 1962 Town Hall concert. He’s also made unexpected, even contrarian choices over the decades. During loft jazz’s heyday, Smith’s CWE concentrated on straight-up tunes and blowing. When playing heads-up with a bona fide flamethrower like Julius Hemphill, he emphasized color and space over BTUs. Whether negotiating demanding charts or total freedom, Smith’s approach always exudes strong formal properties, but it allows his cohorts to be flexible in their respective responses to the moment. Smith achieves this on Natural/Cultural Forces through the use of conceptual improvisation, using images and ideas, instead of materials, to guide the musicians. He then makes the decidedly bold move to convene a quartet with bassist Tom Abbs, tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb and French horn player Mark Taylor, but only for the opening 20-minute track; Smith then devotes the bulk of the album to duos with each of his cohorts and then ends the album with two percussion solos. There is a robust quality to the music, regardless of how many musicians are on the track, or whether Smith plays traps, tympani, and marimba. Smith leaves few fingerprints in terms of structuring the music; much of the time, Abbs’ gravelly textures, Lamb’s full-throated tone and Taylor’s low roars and blurted phrases seem determinative in the development of the work; but, the primacy of sound in much of this piece is not at the expense of rhythm. Smith has an unerringly knack whether to employ the whisk or the churn to blend the elements; it is often sufficiently subtle so that there is a real snap at the cue points in the piece. Smith’s ability to alternately provide an orchestral heft and satisfying swing is also very much in evidence in the duets, where he limits himself to a single instrument. On traps, Smith coaxes Lamb to stretch tremulously whistling reed timbres into hard-edged contours that split the difference between the Rollins of “East Broadway Run Down” and Fred Anderson. On marimba, Smith dovetails Taylor’s melodic development, embedding shifting harmonic layers in cascading runs and woody trills. Smith’s expert pitch manipulation on tympani not only mirrors Abbs’ own antiphonal use of arco and pizzicato, but it is also the fulcrum of the first of the two program-closing solos, setting up a finale profuse with cymbals, gongs and marimba. This is a major statement by someone who’s been around.
-Bill Shoemaker

 

The Stan Tracey Big Band
Alice In Jazzland
ReSteamed RSJ102

Stan Tracey Very few jazz musicians have permanently altered the jazz psyche of a nation the way Stan Tracey did with Under Milk Wood, his 1965 interpretation of the Dylan Thomas play for voices. This made the prospect of a follow-up particularly daunting. The pianist again looked to literature for inspiration; instead of florid and voluptuous verse, Tracey turned to a book then loved by his kids, Alice in Wonderland. But, instead of using his acclaimed quartet with tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins (whose haunting performance on “Starless and Bible Black” on the Thomas project is truly timeless), Tracey opted to record his first big band date, a limb that the hindsight of history has somewhat shrunk. One has to go no further than Derek Jewell’s sardonic lead to the LP sleeves notes, which states that there was nothing special about the record except that Tracey and his cohorts were British, to understand what Tracey faced. Even though his distillation of Ellington and Monk are now articulated as foundational to British modern jazz, Tracey’s use of scant motives to carry a piece like “Afro Charlie Meets The White Rabbit” and his penchant for bulldozing power set him apart (“Murdering The Time” is Tracey’s “Machine Gun”). Even lyrical vehicles like “Fantasies in Bloom” have a dash or two of vinegar, usually in the form of Tracey’s jabbing chords and lacerating fills, but also in the tug between the horn parts and the changes. One telling measure of Tracey’s charts is how they tested the best British tenor players of the day; Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott hand in exemplarily barreling bop and blues choruses, while Wellins showed he had muscle to match his finesse. There is also a changing of the trumpet guard commencing on this ’66 date, as both trumpeters Kenny Baker and Kenny Wheeler are on “Murdering The Time;” however, it is Baker, the Swing Era-bred stalwart, not Wheeler who gets the solo, a fluid mix of darting lines and fat toned proclamations. With the exception of Wellins, however, none of the marquee names in Tracey’s band play with the commitment, let alone the fervor, of later Tracey associates like saxophonists Art Themen and Don Weller, or trumpeter Guy Barker. Themen’s atomizing take on “Afro Charlie Meets The White Rabbit” on the recently ReSteamed The Return Of Captain Adventure is a case in point. Sure, it was recorded almost a decade later; but, perhaps, therein lies the point: Just as Monk’s music took years to be played correctly, let alone interpreted authoritatively, so too did Tracey’s.
-Bill Shoemaker

Black Saint Records

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