Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed

Sathima Bea Benjamim
A Morning In Paris
Ekapa S.A. 004

Sathima Bea Benjamim There are aspects of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s legendary first recordings that are perturbing, like the sweetening of her voice with airy reverb, which far removes her from the other musicians, who are rendered with a drier sound. Then, there is the truly inexplicable decision to have violinist Svend Asmussen play pizzicato exclusively throughout the album, which at times sounds disarmingly close to a ukulele. Still, A Morning In Paris is a fascinating album with a great back story, which, in a way, is encapsulated by the cover photo, whose blue tint, terse framing and softly blurred background has the look of a cinema still. Known as Beattie in 1963 (it was later that bassist Johnny Dyani dubbed her Sathima), Benjamin persuades Duke Ellington to catch her then boyfriend, the pianist then known as Dollar Brand, at Zurich’s Club Africana. In his capacity as A&R head of Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, Ellington quickly takes the couple and their trio to Paris, where he records two albums; Brand’s session launched the career of the future Abdullah Ibrahim, but Benjamin’s was rejected for release, despite the presence of Ellington on two tracks and Billy Strayhorn on two others. The album was consigned to the vaults, only surfacing in 1996 when Strayhorn biographer David Hadju was given a theretofore unknown copy made by the session engineer.

Its contemporary engineering and Asmussen’s contributions aside, A Morning In Paris vividly captures the essence of Benjamin’s and Brand’s respective approaches. Hearing the South African pianist on the same date as both Ellington and Strayhorn is reason enough to listen to this album, but it is not the most compelling reason, which is Benjamin herself. Benjamin’s appeal on her latter recordings center around her ability to project a sense of intimacy that is as wise and worldly as it is tender. At this nascent stage, Benjamin has an understated command of the material; her interpretative choices establish a clear line to her latter work. Her voice is lighter and wispier than in recent years, but that is at least partially due to the cloudy engineering (perhaps there are other contemporary recordings that would confirm or deny this); there are moments scattered throughout the album that suggest Benjamin had a fuller lower register. The rapport between Benjamin and Brand is already refined; the pianist nimbly slips about the singer’s already stylized phrasing, and creates contrasts between his work and that of a prime influence like Ellington and Ellington’s alter ego, Strayhorn. This is a debut that is worthy of its fairytale-like genesis and legend.
–Bill Shoemaker


Bite the Gnatze
Wals door het raam
TryTone 559-037

Zeno De Rossi Shtik
Me’or ‘Einayim
El Gallo Rojo 314-12

Bite the Gnatze Two entertaining examples of cross-cultural breeding, deftly arranged details, and unpredictable, frequently droll, instrumental maneuvers. Bite the Gnatze, a Dutch septet, revels in eclecticism; the compositions by guitarist Paul Pallesen spot-check Breukeresque theatrics, Mancini cool, tart Stravinsky harmonies, and Giuffre-etched folkisms before inevitably shifting gears for an atmospheric interlude or off-beat solo. Winsome colors illuminate the melody-driven arrangements – Pallesen’s guitar ranges from Fahey fingerpicking to Beefheart skronk and he adds bouzouki on a whim; Jasper le Clercq’s fiddle covers hoedown riffs and classical angles; the horns (Michel Duijves and Steven Kamperman) inject svelte sax shading and swing-to-klezmer clarinet; and plunger trombonist Joost Buis doubles on lap steel. But don’t expect a jam band; in matters seductive, charm and quick wit work wonders.

Shtik is drummer Zeno De Rossi’s mix-and-match ensemble of first-rate Italian jazz talent, offering an homage to the “intellectual agility and creative urgency” (in the words of booklet annotator Giorgio Signoretti) that De Rossi admires in Jewish culture—thus the “Fiddler on the Roof” covers and familiar fare (a la “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” and “My Yiddische Momme”) animated with modern jazz nuances and an inspired perspective that avoids reverential and satiric/ironic clichés. Appropriate to both Jewish and Italian traditions, the songs become vehicles for instrumental story-telling – notably, Nicola Fazzini’s sinuous alto sax on “Tradition,” Francesco Bigoni’s Dolphy-flavored tenor sax and Pasquale Mirra’s crisp vibes on “Hava Nagila,” and Daniele D’Agaro’s tongue-in-cheek tenor sax on a pseudo-Sephardic “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” But De Rossi shrewdly expands the concept to include comparable visions of “outsider” art, with Ornette’s pungent “I Heard It Over the Radio” (which Signoretti whimsically identifies as “Chagallian”), a version of Cecil Taylor’s early “Little Lees (Louise)” suitable for dancing, and a haunting “Unused Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America by Ennio Morricone. It’s a warm and well-crafted program – and ear-opening in more ways than one.
–Art Lange


Anthony Braxton
Solo Willisau
Intakt CD 126

Performance (Quartet) 1979
hatOLOGY 610

Anthony Braxton Making sense of the overall design of Prof. Braxton's recorded output from just a few lines is by now beyond hope, and I am sure he's quite happy of this: these new CDs mark a few more dots to be connected in the multilayered maze. This previously unissued Willisau program comes from a 2003 concert, one of the regular, almost periodic instances when Braxton goes back to the format he first shocked the jazz world with. (Try For Alto again on the CD reissue – it has lost most of the shock qualities, and the musical substance shines all the more). While his compositions are new -- the "328" pieces seem to be a new book of solo improvisations -- the logic behind them is a focused development of the Language Type System. The set opens with "328c,” firmly rooted in the post-Ayler continuum of long, thick sounds full of changing overtones, so that the fundamental note is not the basic concern anymore. "328a" is the third piece, a delicate exercise in phrasing, with soft sounds spiralling in tremolos, vibratos and embellishments slowly reducing themselves to breathing and clicking. The next to last piece is and "328b" is next to last, a march-like melody again in Aylerian territory evolving however in a good natured funny take on European Classic dance forms and folksy melodies, apparently inspired by study books. The second track, "344b," carries the highest opus number, and contrasts nicely in the sequence with rough, explosive sounds and super quick articulation. The standard is "All The Things You Are," one of his fetish themes from the pool selected by Tristano. On this version, Braxton searches for those little pouches of suspended time that attracted him so much in Warne Marsh's playing, inserting urgent comments inside different reading of the melody. "119m" comes from a series regularly surfacing in solo recitals – grunting, squeaking, gruff sounds produced by a combination of attack, overpressure and vocalizing, a dramatically alienated update of the half-valve, mocking tones of Rex Stewart and Lester Bowie. I'd never assign to this track the elegant coil of its pictorial title! The "106" series was also included in recently issued solo concerts like Pisa 1982 (Leo); 106p" is almost "Misterioso"-like in its pacing up and down the scale. A welcome recapitulation point that shows how the master, even when he is furiously engaged in large-scale projects, can always use this sparest of medium to explore new musical ideas.

From an earlier Willisau concert – in fact, 24 years earlier – comes Performance (1979) -- in its second CD incarnation after the original 1981 issue on the double LP (Hat Hut Nineteen 2R19) and hatART CD (hatART 6044). Both became almost instantly collectors' items: the gorgeous graphics, pictures and notes on the LP album simply cannot be reproduced in CD cover size, and that's why the original commands high prices. Be that as it may, the fact is that this music has been out of print for too many of the almost 30 years since it was recorded. This definitely contributed to its being obscured by the slightly later and well documented quartet with Marilyn Crispell. Which is a great pity, because this recording stands up with Braxton's best, and it's definitely different from the later quartet. It's pianoless, but percussionist Thurman Barker's unique versatility makes him often a very melodic player, not only when he uses the marimba; trombonist Ray Anderson is fast and furious, and also very funny, as in the long trio section in "69g," the longest single tune at almost 20', including solos by all group's members; bassist John Lindberg switches from purely rhythmic rasping sounds to beautiful arco work, as in the brilliant improvised section before "69f," with Anderson chattering on little instruments. Braxton's presence is felt all over the music, from silvery sopranino to growling contrabass clarinet, and the dramatic rendition of the familiar "23g" points towards the Rhythm Pulse pieces of the following decade. "40i," one of Braxton's quirky marches, is a fitting conclusion to a triumphant performance.
-Francesco Martinelli


Eivind Buene
Asymmetrical Music
SOFA 523

Eivind Buene It took some time – maybe more than expected, because old habits are hard to break – but it seems that finally there's a composer in European music who is able to fully integrate improvisation and composition, creating an object of sonic marvel that retains the flights of freedom of the improviser and at the same time the rigorous sense of shape and structure of the best of the classical European avant-garde. Perhaps due to his experience as a jazz and rock guitarist, Norwegian Eivind Buene has done so with Asymmetrical Music, which is performed by percussionist Ingar Zach, guitarist Ivar Grydeland, and ten other musicians conducted by Lene Grenager. In his unassuming and endearing way, Buene explains nicely why and how it worked: “I have collaborated with the individual musicians over several years and in many different projects, both with improvised, electronic and acoustic music. The score consists of a main score, and several shorter scores for parts of the ensemble, to be inserted at certain points in the main score, together with improvisation.” Another key fact is “that many of the performers in Oslo’s new music scene are as much at home with notated compositions as with improvised music.” The forces at work are clearly described by the composer himself in the notes he wrote for another program of his music around the keywords of process and friction: frictions are used “to create a sense of chaos”, and then the energy from these frictions “to make processes that orders these chaotic textures”. “Such processes may lead between simplicity and complexity, between the fluid and the static, between high and low, between order and chaos ...”

This CD is one of the very best of 2007, an exhilarating experience every time I listen to it: recorded with a spacious, warm yet detailed sound in an Oslo theatre by a sort of futuristic ten-piece chamber ensemble combining Grydeland’s “tabla machine”, whatever that is, bagpipes and a string section which almost never plays as such. The music develops in ten episodes, the longest at ten minutes (a numerologist would at this point run amok), apparently derived from judicious editing of a live performance. Inviting the attention of the listener with a quiet prelude where strumming and bowing slowly rise from soft harmonics against a background of distant electronic sounds or clattering metals, the piece goes through eight different episodes before the epilogue. Each episode is characterized by a different way of interaction between the musicians; the improvisers are invited to react to specific material performed by the ensemble, or vice versa, selected musicians from the orchestra join in the improvised dialogue. “III” and “IV” – which are among my favorites – evolves from a pointillistic dialogue, glissando lines from reeds and strings joining the dots of percussion, towards a kind of ostinato from the strings, colored above and below from rumbles and percussive notes in a thicker and thicker texture until what I swear are crickets signal the entering of a final phase. Bubbling notes and sounds then boil themselves to still silence before a melody on the strings and a pipe drone open the following section, where improvised guitar lines sit on a carpet of small sounds reminiscent of Gil Evans' iridescent background for “Saeta,” before a nasal saxophone over string waves brings to mind “The Rite of Spring.” All this and more in about 10 minutes. Buene does have his characteristic gestures – among others, a passion for notes that seem to come from a tape played backwards – so the sound manages to be extremely personal while allowing total freedom to the improvisers.

Cliché-free – no barren Nordic landscapes in view – and played with fresh enthusiasm, (thanks no doubt to the improvising guests, but also to the inaudible conductor who I think makes a series of quite important choices), this music draws equally from Schlippenbach and Schoenberg in a rarely achieved balance, fully of its time while aware of the different traditions from which it takes inspiration.
–Francesco Martinelli


Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble
On The Beach
Kelan Zulu Productions/Katalyst Entertainment 0256

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble
Black Unstoppable
Delmark DE-575; Delmark DVD 1575

Philip Cohran From its inception, experimental practice was essential to the AACM’s mission; the breadth of their methods is documented on the first Delmark albums by Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and others. However, founders like Kelan Phil Cohran created music more readily identifiable as jazz by contemporary audiences. Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble is the forerunner for several key AACM ensembles including Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and, most recently, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble.

The album generally known as On The Beach – it is not IDed as such on the cover; however, it includes a piece by that name – is as important to this facet of the AACM legacy as Sound is to the AACM’s experimentalism. Significantly, Cohran is the AACM’s archetypal instrument maker/inventor, a frontier he cleared for second-wave AACM members like Douglas Ewart and, arguably, George Lewis. Cohran played the Ukelin, a zither he made by splicing together a violin and a ukulele, on Sun Ra’s 1960 album, Angels and Demons at Play, and he introduced the Frankiphone, an amplified thumb piano, on his first album at the helm of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. At the same time, Cohran used grooves more than the other AACM co-founders; On The Beach consolidates African polyrhythms used by, among others, Sun Ra with popular rhythms appropriated by jazz artists like Eddie Harris. On this count, “Unity 68,” the roiling workout on which guitarist Pete Cosey’s legendary status was substantially predicated, was prescient, pointing towards the harder edge funk took on in the ‘70s. Additionally, albeit only as singers, women were integral members of the AHE – Amina Claudine Myers performed with the AHE at the first AACM concert. There’s a church-fueled fervor in the singing of Mrs. Ella Pearl Jackson and Patricia Ann Smith on “The Minstrel” that would reverberate widely for years in pieces like Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues” and even Carlos Garnett’s “Black Love.” Smith then hands in a contrasting, sumptuous performance on the ballad, “Motherhood.” The horn players in the AHE were markedly conservative, compared to Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and the AACM’s other arch experimentalists; however, saxophonists Eugene O. Easton, Donald Myrick, and Charles James Williams are consistently ebullient and occasionally searing. Although Cohran soon parted ways with the AACM, and his cohorts largely did not attain notoriety outside of Chicago, On The Beach remains essential to understanding the aesthetic history of the AACM.

On Black Unstoppable, flutist Nicole Mitchell exemplifies the comprehensive populist stance staked out by Cohran and the AHE, addressing issues of identity and community with rallying compositions that employ idioms clearly rooted in the progressive jazz of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In lesser hands, several of Mitchell’s composition would be merely facile; but, the flutist and her cohorts in this eight-person edition of Black Earth Ensemble succeed in giving the music an unforced sense of urgency or celebration, as required. Elsewhere, quoting “Down by the Riverside” would sound contrived; but David Young’s usage of it in his fat-toned flugelhorn solo on the buoyant “The Creator Has Other Plans For Me” has an offhanded piquancy that rings true. Conversely, tenor saxophonist David Boykin’s snarls and growls give similar materials a purposeful, momentary edge instead of blunt-instrument force. Together, with the leader’s capering C flute and enveloping alto flute, they form a well-balanced front line, and they repeatedly find satisfying ways to complement each other. Much the same can be said of the interplay between cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Josh Abrams; whether the issue at hand is the horn-punctuated, string-fuelled flail of the title piece or the shifting rhythms and phrase shapes of “February.” At every turn, drummer Marcus Evans lends unobtrusive support, and judiciously picks his spots to move to the foreground of the music, if only momentarily. On the three tracks featuring the powerfully soulful singer Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, Mitchell demonstrates a sure touch with materials to highlight the communitarian messages; the affirming “Love Has No Boundaries” is a mid-tempo blues with a jumping revivalist refrain; “Life Want You To Love,” a call to young women for sexual responsibility, glides on an West African groove; the mix of supple melody, dramatic chord progressions and reggae tinge on “Thanking The Universe” provides an uplifting conclusion to the proceedings. Mitchell and Young’s vocals blend well with Nwaogwugwu; given Mitchell’s gifts as a songwriter, the three voices could probably carry an album on their own.
–Bill Shoemaker

Henceforth Records

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