Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
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Drew Gress
The Irrational Numbers
Premonition 90775

Drew Gress Bassist Drew Gress has been recording as a leader for a decade now, but instead of getting better, he does that even cleverer trick of showing you how good he’s always been. That isn’t to say there has been no development since his first Soul Note album Heyday with David Binney, Ben Monder and Kenny Wollesen, but it’s the kind of development that suggests a slow unfolding of a core idea rather than a move into new territory. The group sound has been steadily evolving, and this is the second appearance on record by the quintet with Ralph Alessi, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey, which is about as good a line-up as you’ll get for your dollar in this corner of the music.

It’s my impression that Gress, who isn’t seen often enough this side of the pond to confirm it, is quite a theatrical player, not in the sense that he wants to make the bassman a figurehead at the centre of the stage, and he lurks just off-centre in the mix here, but rather than he’s interested in building up the kind of big, almost orchestral effects he pulled off on “Disappearing Act I” on his first Premonition album, Spin And Drift, recorded in 2000.

I’ve been listening to the new one as if it were a theatre project or movie soundtrack and it helps a lot to lend this music a perhaps unintended consecutiveness, for there is a very faint sense that Gress reworks similar ideas, and particularly round the bass, too often for the comfort of a conventional album of discrete tracks. Using tinges of electronics, Berne's hard-boiled alto and Taborn's free-ranging harmonic and colors, Gress gets a great density of sound, with lots of separation up and down through the registers. His own playing still has that jagged quality, as if the strings are being plucked with shards of glass, but he knows how to vary his register more and more, or more likely appreciates the virtues of alternating a softer articulation. What’s interesting is to hear him interact (and Gress is a listening player, for all his ambitious architectonics) with Alessi’s higher note figures and with Rainey’s miniature torrents. It would fascinating to hear this trio at work, even if only one a couple of tracks.

The group’s previous record 7 Black Butterflies (Premonition; 2005) had promise and qualification circling round it in equal measure. This one clinches its potential and does away with any remaining doubts. Gress is now just a fine bass player, but also a leader of some vision. Let’s hope this group gets to work together again, and catch some of that energy in the studios, where Gress’ best work seems to be happening at the moment.
-Brian Morton

 

François Houle + Joëlle Léandre + Raymond Strid
9 Moments
Red Toucan RT9333

François Houle/Joëlle Léandre/Raymond Strid Is this record fun! While pre-structured music might probably be useful for educational purposes, there isn't anything remotedly like an inspired, everything-goes improvised session like this to bring the listener to a state of elation. Rollicking atmospheres change with quicksilver speed, putting considerable personal resources to the service of the development of the group's sound with no feeling of egotism, while different personalities are clearly defined and contributing to the variety of the different tracks. Raymond Strid continues the tradition of European non-drummers, or post-Coltranian drummers, like Bennink, Lytton and Lovens – I mean with this that in his playing the rhythmic element is not necessarily more important than the melodic or timbral ones, just like in any other instrument. He's a passionate listener, and a wealth of knowledge is distilled in his music. Both Léandre and Houle have the ability to switch from a perfectly-shaped, traditionally tuned and controlled chamber music sound to the wildest muscular explorations; they use with perfect ease unconventional areas of their instruments, like overtones or percussive sounds, incorporating them in the narrative. Houle manages to fuse (Brubeck-affiliated clarinetist) Bill Smith's and Evan Parker's inspirations to create a fully formed new language on the clarinet; while Léandre draws from classical avant-garde as well as from opera; but more and more her inspiration seems to come from from jazz bassisms. In fact, there are a few moments in the second track where they sound close to an Artie Shaw trio on speed, with Joelle vocalizing instrumentally – beginning with a cabaret scatting style and then getting scaringly closer to Tricky Sam Nanton than Joya Sherrill, while Houle veers into Bigard's territory. (This might have to do with Strid's presence: at a recent gig of the Electrics, for a long spell with Ericson on baritone they were able to truly evocate the elegance, intricacy and finesse of the early Mulligan/Baker quartets, better than any note-by-note imitation: Axel Dorner might sound like an unsuitable candidate for Chet Baker only if you don't realize the beauty and finesse of his palette. With institutional and educational jazz reduced to dehydrated hardbop it might well happen that only avant-garde will keep swing and west coast jazz alive). Of course, this is a fleeting passage in the middle of a longish improvisation that might remind here of bagpipes and there of industrial sounds, but this didn't make it less striking to my ears. Be that as it may, I cannot see anyone even slightly interested in creative music remain unmoved by this highly recommendable, infectious set.
–Francesco Martinelli

 

Earl Howard
Clepton
New World Records 80670-2

Earl HowardThe title piece here is a 38-minute composition realized by a quartet comprised of composer Howard on synthesizer and live processing and the long-standing trio of pianist Georg Graewe, cellist Ernst Reijseger and drummer Gerry Hemingway. It’s composition of sometimes startling complexity, but it’s also work of vision and beauty. Howard’s metaphors and processes are drawn from physics, as Dan Warburton points out in his illuminating notes: “Clepton is ‘lepton with a C,’ a lepton being ‘any of a class of particles with spin of ½ that are not subject to the strong force and that are believed to be truly elementary and not composed of quarks or other subunits.’” It may be an effective metaphor for the way in which sound particles operate in “Clepton,” a piece in which instrumental “solos” are accompanied by the sonic deconstruction of live processing as well as the materials of the composition. The detailed score evidently consists of ten sections with Howard using pre-planned interactive methods for each, while the soloists actually compose their own parts based on his instructions. Whatever the practical details, the ultimate effect is music of rare empathy, an extended piece that not only fuses the processes of composition and improvisation, but seems to extend the range of intuitive interactivity. As the piece develops, one increasingly experiences its special ground and its interconnected details, its ebb and flow and its shifting densities, rather than its individual voices and techniques, or even the sheer brilliance of its execution. By its conclusion, it possesses both a purity and an inevitability that mark it as work of rare if ineffable substance. The CD also includes a ten-minute improvisation recorded during the “Clepton” rehearsals, an airy piece in which piano, marimba, cello and synthesizer lines overlap and fuse. A live performance of Howard’s “Rosebud,” recorded in 1989 by the duo of Howard and Hemingway, is a percussion and electronics dialogue of scrapes, whistles and knocks that expands to create whole music.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Jason Kao Hwang + Edge
Stories before Within
Innova 679

Jason Kao Hwang + Edge This is the second CD by Edge, a quartet that’s been together for three years and which is an effective vehicle for Hwang’s compositions. Consisting of Hwang on violin (and occasionally viola), cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, it’s a thoughtfully constructed and flexible ensemble, the leader occupying a pitch range that’s often ignored and leaving a middle ground that Drury fills admirably. It’s rare that a band of two rhythm and two leads gets to sound both spare and orchestral, but somehow Edge manages it consistently. Each piece is approached with a certain deliberateness, with the apparent goal of finding a composition’s core and amplifying its identity through a series of distinct textures. On the opening “Cloud Call,” Hwang’s violin immediately invokes the bowed strings of China, emphasizing a pentatonic scale and expressive pitch gradations. It’s a frequent touchstone here, whether displacing or abetting the traditional vocabulary of jazz. The band constructs a novel environment, seemingly suspended between two (or more) tonal identities. The Asian influence is especially strong in the segmented “Third Sight” in which the band invokes a Korean orchestra, complete with bowed strings and Drury’s omnipresent orchestral drumming. Jazz is most strongly alluded to in “From East Sixth Street,” Hwang’s invocation of his former Lower East Side neighborhood that had once been home to Lee Morgan and Charlie Parker. The band’s affinities are strong, with Hwang’s keening treble instrument bonding with both Bynum’s slightly muffled cornet sound and Filiano’s deeply resonant bowed bass which often shadows the violin lines. The concluding “Embers” is another example of how thoughtfully Hwang writes and how richly this group can interpret his lines, creating a continuous melody that develops throughout the group improvisation. There’s a stunning moment where Drury’s cymbal work rises under Hwang’s violin like a group of metallic strings, magnifying the sound and dimension of the whole ensemble. The cumulative impact of the piece is startling, a kind of pan-experiential elegy that demonstrates both the specific and the transcendent in Hwang’s forms.
-Stuart Broomer

 

Daniel Levin Quartet
Blurry
hatOLOGY 653

Daniel Levin QuartetCellist Levin’s drummerless quartet with trumpeter Nate Wooley, vibraphonist Matt Moran, and bassist Joe Morris occupies a musical space bordered by many kinds of music, but fully defined by none of them. It’s a musical terrain full of mystery and ambiguity, and on their second hatOLOGY release, they meet the adventure of exploring it with a thoughtful vitality. Certainly there are elements of European classical music heard in Levin’s cello solos on “209 Willard Street” and “Untitled” and in the microtonal inflections of his lines on “Law Years.” The extended techniques of European free improvisation are heard on “Improvisation II” and “Blurry.” Morris’s dry, gut-string sound is almost African in character, like a baritone mbira. The jazz tradition figures prominently as well. The swinging bass lines of Morris on “Cannery Row,” Nate Wooley’s muted trumpet on “209 Willard Street,” and Moran’s rhythm punctuations most directly evoke jazz, but no one in the group limits himself exclusively to the jazz vocabulary. Of course, without drums, the band’s explorations of timbre and texture are varied and subtle. The burbling trumpet and liquid shimmer of vibes mesh into a gorgeously fluid sound on “Cannery Row.” And the trumpet-cello-bass trio on “Improvisation II” is an alluring braid of lines shaded by autumnal colors, vocal inflections, and precise dynamics. It’s rare that all four of them play at once and none of them feels constrained to fill every inch of the musical canvas, so the colors and density of the music are pleasingly varied and unpredictable. Every sound and gesture is telling and often framed by silence. For all its balance and clarity, the music tempers its delicacy with a dark, unsentimental edge that pushes it past the polite banter of chamber jazz into something deeper and truer.
–Ed Hazell

Henceforth Records

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