Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed


Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble
Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-006

Nicole Mitchell - Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler Novelist Octavia Butler died after a fall outside her home in Lake Forest Park, WA, in February 2006. She was not yet 60. Her science fiction – she commented that there wasn’t much science in it – was typical of much African-American writing in the genre in concentrating very largely on racial and gender issues, but one of the intriguing aspects of Butler’s work, buried away in that self-deprecating comment, was the extent to which it overturned familiar expectations about genre and literary form, even as it utilizes familiar elements of both. To that degree, if no other, she seems an obvious source for flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, whose sole physical encounter with Butler seems to have been somewhat confusing though she was clearly powerfully moved by the novelist’s Lilith’s Brood (formerly Xenogenesis) trilogy.
The first of these, Dawn (1987), tells the story of an African-American woman called Lilith Iyapo who is resurrected by an alien race following a catastrophic thermonuclear war on earth. The Oankali have three genders, male, female and ooloi. They also seem to have a sense of humor, a commodity strikingly missing in most mainstream science fiction. In the other books of the sequence, Lilith’s offspring Imago (Jungians and entomologists, prick up your ears!) and the ooloi Jodahs complete a cycle of identity and transcendence. Mitchell, though, seems for the moment more concerned with the set-up of Dawn, though she provides no more than a few passing references and texts in her liner-notes.
Essentially, Xenogenesis Suite pitches vocalist Mankwe Ndosi as the human element (Lilith, presumably) against the alien environment proposed by the instrumental ensemble. This requires some adjustment of expectations since Ndosi’s part – compounded of elements of sung text, scat, Schrei, panting sounds, giggles and whoops – is more immediately alien, or alienating, or estranged, than the relatively conventional rocking meters of the accompaniment. That’s deceptive, though, for the vocalist does provide a thread through a musical discourse that’s clearly no longer tied to “jazz” or “classical” norms.
Mitchell is an AACM member whose adoption of that organization’s aesthetics and social ethics – described recently in a book by senior member George E. Lewis – is both squarely in a tradition and subtly opposed to it. Mitchell’s insistence on an ensemble approach reflects AACM’s communitarian roots, but her willingness to draw on Western art music as well as jazz language is suffused with a non-dogmatic feminism that seeks to blend the genetic material rather than simply oppose its different elements. This, at bottom, is ooloi music.
In the same way, Mitchell takes a highly individual approach to the non-Western mythography that was as central to AACM’s various projects – think Braxton’s Trillium – as it was to the Arkestra’s attempt to boldly go where many had gone before but never as dramatically uniformed or as polyculturally alert. Set for a moment Octavia Butler’s ?topian vision against the liberal-progressive H. G. Wells model or the brutally transgressive manner of a Samuel Delany, and you have a sense of how different this music sounds to the Arkestra, the Art Ensemble, to various Braxton groups, Lewis projects, Ewart, Mitchell, Abrams, Smith collaborations. With Xenogenesis Suite, Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble have taken a step beyond the more normative language of last year’s Delmark Black Unstoppable.
At first hearing, one’s disappointed to hear so little of Mitchell’s extraordinary flute playing at the front of the mix. For that, you need to go to her Indigo Trio work with Harrison Bankhead and Hamid Drake.  Whether played clean or with superbly controlled overblowing, she’s the most exciting player on the instrument for a generation, the natural successor (when one is needed!) to the great James Newton. For much of the first half of the record, with Ndosi dominant, the instrumental sounds that push forward are Justin Dillard’s piano, Tomeka Reid’s cello and Marcus Evans’ and Avreeayl Ra’s percussion. There are surges from trumpeter David Young and tenor saxophonist David Boykin, as well as that fine bass player Josh Abrams, but the human voice predominates. Intriguingly, as soon as Lilith/Ndosi starts to acquire verbal language, that sense begins to fade, and by the time of “Transition C”, some thirty minutes into the suite, Mitchell and Ndosi are at moments almost indistinguishable in the mix, even when the vocalist has a text to work from and the flutist is playing without obvious vocalization. The concluding “Dawn of a New Life” restores that impression after an interlude called “Before and After” that seems to sum up much of what has gone before. Structurally, it’s a vital element of the piece, though it seems to delay the inevitable climax.
Critics who rush to pronounce a work “important” are a little like millenarian prophets announcing a new messiah. If they turn out wrong, they look kinda stupid and even if they’re right they’re liable to be trampled in the subsequent rush. So maybe best to say that this is a remarkable achievement by a still-evolving talent whose recording debut Vision Quest was only seven years ago. That’s long enough for a full evolutionary transformation, and with this set Mitchell seems ready to embark on something even more radically exciting and impressively achieved. I have a sense Anthony Davis and Jeanne Lee may have dabbled in similar territory. Braxton certainly has, but with Stockhausen’s ghost – and therefore Wagner’s – hovering uneasily nearby. Like the other AACM Mitchell, she’s already beyond category and working at some distance from the tired debate about composition vs. improvisation. If that isn’t important, I don’t know what is.
-Brian Morton


Open Loose
Strange Unison
Radio Legs Music RL 013

Open Loose - Strange Unison The name of the band and the title of the CD pretty much summarize the music of this trio led by bassist Mark Helias. The loose arrangements leave most of the music open to the improvisatory skills of the band, but they work together with uncommon unanimity of spirit. In part, that’s because they know how to use a composition to guide improvisation, and in part it’s thanks to how well they listen to and leave room for one another when they play. That can be said of many bands, but Helias, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and drummer Tom Rainey use the collective setting to generate a casual-sounding intensity uniquely their own. Malaby in particular has developed into a superlative ensemble improviser. On “Sonic Rights,” he effortlessly matching his pace to his band mates, leaving space for bass and drum fills, and absorbing ideas readily from others in the band. “Circling” showcases his pleasingly warm and earnest tone, a musical ear for bending pure sound into melodic contours, and deep lyrical streak. For all his ability to put a personal stamp on the music, his willingness to work with the band displays a becoming humility. He’s such a likeable player. Rainey shares a collaborative approach that would be self-effacing if it weren’t so imaginative. On “Johns and Marks” and “Blue Light Down the Line,” he keeps several things happening at once and moves the focus of his actions around the drum kit so there’s sonic as well as rhythmic variety in his playing. Helias enjoys weaving himself into the seams of the music, fills out the group sound a deep sensuous tone, and keeps the momentum going with a highly developed sense of tension and release. Their resourcefulness and relaxed camaraderie make this a delightful and substantial album.
-Ed Hazell


Mike Osborne Trio
All Night Long
Ogun OGCD 029

Mike Osborne Trio - All Night Long British commentators take every opportunity to remind their constituents that Joe Harriott independently arrived at many of the same conclusions as Ornette Coleman did about the shape of jazz to come at the dawn of the ‘60s; but, they curiously don’t apply the same metric to alto saxophonist Mike Osborne and his bead on ‘70s freebop. They should be holding up All Night Long as Exhibit A. The music of Osborne’s trio with bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo slightly overlapped areas explored by contemporary trios such as Air and Sam Rivers’ units, but they largely roamed in their own space. Some of Osborne’s originals have the sharp angles and staccato attack favored by Henry Threadgill and other contemporary Midwestern composers; and the trio’s use of pungent grooves in their extended improvisations bear passing resemblance to Rivers’. But, these traits are superseded by a unique, contagious intensity informing every aspect of his music, beginning with a collar-grabbing alto sound that can honk, bray, scream and purely sing at the same time. This transforms compositions like “Waltz,” a lithe Coltranish figure, and “Country Bounce,” a happy-go-lucky line, into barnstormers. Additionally, bebop was a more prominent touchstone for Osborne than for many of his London colleagues; not only does the trio gleefully tackle “Round Midnight” in this ’75 Willisau Festival performance (Moholo’s rumba touches are priceless), but Osborne’s writing and playing frequently draw deep and long of the Charlie Parker legacy, which his solos on the lengthy four-tune sequence beginning with “Ken’s Tune” are riveting examples. These ingredients were kept at a boil for most of the original LP, for which Miller and Moholo deserve equal credit. Though they employed a different set of gears than, say, Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond, Miller and Moholo’s ability to change tempo and feel at will to kick the music up yet another flight of stairs is repeatedly stunning. By 2008 standards, Miller’s sound is coarsely thickened by his amp, but it has the upsides of giving his furious arco an otherworldly presence and contributing to the overall electricity of the music. This is a rare instance where just the original LP would have more than sufficed; the inclusion of a riotous, seemingly truncated second take of “Scotch Pearl” from the same night and an extended reading of the brightly hued, but ultimately searing “Now and Then, Here and Now” from another, unspecified gig are true bonuses.
-Bill Shoemaker


George Schuller’s Circle Wide
Like Before, Somewhat After
Playscape PSR#060607

George Schuller - Like Before, Somewhat After All hail, the New Repertory! It seems remarkable that after umpteen Coltrane, Dolphy, and Ornette tributes, that even given the rise of Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke as the new Rodgers & Hammerstein, and in the face of a developing consensus that “Body and Soul” has succumbed to psychosomatic decay as a base for improvising, nobody much has turned to Keith Jarrett’s substantial body of compositions. There are reasons for this. A massive discography, much of it sui generis solo improvisation, followed by a subsequent turn to both orthodox standards and free playing has put a certain distance between us and Jarrett’s American Quartet of the early 70s. Fortunately, a presumably lucrative reissue program has kept the content of Expectations, Fort Yawuh, The Survivors’ Suite and the others clearly in sight, even for musicians who were, as he admits, too young to hear much of the Jarrett group first time round (older brother Ed did, though).
Ed’s not involved this time – as he is in the fraternal Schulldogs – and his place is taken on bass by Dave Abrosio, whose booming ostinato on “De Drums” is worthy of Charlie Haden. The other participants are vibist Tom Beckham, a vivid presence throughout, guitarist Brad Shepik, who seems to me consistently undervalued up against flavors-of-the-month like Ducret and the tiresome Frisell, and saxophonist/alto flutist Donny McCaslin.
According to Schuller, who gets some help in the percussion department on five tracks from Jamey Haddad, McCaslin hadn’t checked out Dewey Redman’s work before work began on this project. If so, his understanding and adoption of that rugged but quintessentially rational persona is a key element in the success of the record. His playing on “Common Mama” and “Survivors Suite: Part 1” (where he doubles alto flute and soprano) is exemplary and with that intriguing hard-to-place-but-unmistakably-him quality which McCaslin’s busy work-diary has steadily instilled. The opening “Dew Point”, dedicated to Redman, isn’t the obvious set-starter. “Survivors”, whose two parts were recorded here in a single continuous take, seems to have been Circle Wide’s curtain-up piece off and on, and it might have been more effective in that role on the record. Otherwise, it’s hard to fault an album that’s full of good things. Beckham’s playing has a luminous quality, a real shimmer that isn’t just about the setting of his motors or even his attack, but something to do with an innate musicality. Similarly, Shepik’s dabbles in wah-wah and distortion aren’t merely 70s nostalgia. He actually finds interesting things to say. Through and around it all, George keeps order, calls cadences, cracks the whip and once or twice bangs a shoe on the table to get his point across. What I liked is that it takes the politeness out of Jarrett’s music, and puts an earthier taste into it without in any way violating the beauty of these admittedly very beautiful tunes. Keith will probably wince at parts of it, though secretly I suspect he’ll be mollified. His contribution as a composer was overdue for recognition.
-Brian Morton


Wayne Shorter
The Soothsayer
Blue Note RVG Edition 50999 5 14373 2 9

Wayne Shorter - The Soothsayer Wayne Shorter’s first Blue Note to feature a group larger than a quintet, The Soothsayer was recorded seven months prior to The All Seeing Eye, the saxophonist’s 1965 watershed album. Because it was first released in 1980, and then only as half of a two-fer, its foundation-laying role in Shorter’s discography has not been duly emphasized. In this regard, the presence of Tony Williams in a rare Blue Note sideman appearance is something of a sidebar, even though his ever-shifting polyrhythmic feel is a real asset to the proceedings. The game-changer is James Spaulding, the other newcomer to Shorter’s Blue Note sessions – Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter having already contributed to earlier, now classic albums. For a single horn, Spaulding’s alto impressively bulks up Shorter’s front line. Whether they are negotiating the rhythmic undertow on the melody of “The Big Push” or putting their shoulders into the hard-hitting, Messengers-appropriate “Angola,” Shorter, Hubbard and Spaulding blend perfectly on “Lost,” a swirl of lithe and sultry phrases, and the title tune, which requires them to turn on a dime to bracket cascading blues-based phrases with staccato notes that have an almost proto-AACM prickliness. The latter features a scalding Spaudling solo that exemplifies how the altoist came close to upstaging the leader several times throughout the album. But “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and at this point in history, jazz was neither; Shorter’s playing and writing is as strong as on any of his Blue Notes, and he clearly leads.
-Bill Shoemaker

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