Reviews of Recent Recordings
Integrating the roles of improviser, composer and bandleader has traditionally been a requisite for someone to create significant jazz, jazz that initially speaks to its times, and eventually to the ages. Journalists and critics recognize this when they string these roles together in unwieldy hyphenations; but such run-on IDs do not fully describe or weigh the grey areas between these functions, which are so clearly obvious in the work of an Ellington or a Coleman. In most cases, this integration is discernable because there is sufficient documentation of, say, the Blanton-Webster band or the Atlantic quartet that not only allows listeners to understand how such integration functioned within a specific chapter in an artist’s history, but how it shaped their work, overall.
Demonstrating this integration is exceedingly difficult in an era inimical to working bands. Inherently, hit-and-run projects are about the sparks of a moment, and not the mulling and distillation that produces a deeper expression. There are precious few leaders over the past 30 years, who, like Dennis González, have regularly convened projects featuring original, even unlikely combinations of players, and have reinforced his bona fides as an improviser-composer-bandleader who produces grey area-rich music. “Projects” arguably low-balls what González does; he creates ensembles.
The fine mesh of scored and player-initiated materials the trumpeter/cornetist consistently achieves in what can generally be called ad hoc situations is in very much in evidence on A Matter of Blood, a quartet date with pianist Curtis Clark, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Michael T. A. Thompson. González’s cohorts have a fluid, complementary rapport, whether fanning the lyrical, smoldering “Arbyrd Lumenal” or forcefully heralding the ramparts-beckoning “Anthem of the Moment.” Throughout the album, González’s cohorts have a keen sense of when to linger on the margins and when to move front and center, even if just to apply a single stroke of color; they also have a sure touch when feathering the edges between shades of grey between notated and improvised materials. And, when fixed materials are dispensed with altogether, as is the case with the rousing closer, “Chant de la Fée,” they reinforce the idea of improvisation as composition in the moment, particularly in their crisp, decisive conclusion.
Still, the final track and Clark, Thompson and Workman’s respective interludes notwithstanding, this is an album largely driven by González’s compositions and playing. A clean sense of line and an unrushed approach to development is crucial to both aspects of his work, and are well served by the horn-plus-rhythm configuration. As is the case with the opener, “Alzar La Mano,” which has a tinge of an Ornettish dirge, and the somber title piece, González frequently uses pungent, even lush long tones to gird his themes, which he then laces through his solos. It is an approach that promotes incisive commentary from his colleagues; these asides repeatedly close the circle of improvisation, composition and bandleading that makes Dennis González’s music significant.
John Hollenbeck is one of those musicians who has the ability to put everything he knows into a project, a seemingly exhaustive outflow of invention, only to come back with something equally capacious next time. The drummer is also one of those “eclectics” who also sustains a high level of consistency, identifiably the same whether working with a big band (this one, or Soundassembly, for J. C. Sandford and David Schumacher), with his own Claudia Quintet, or on a klezmer project.
Darius Jones Trio
On Man’ish Boy, alto saxophonist Darius Jones delivers one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory, displaying a remarkably well-developed concept and individual sound.
Jones and his trio with pianist Cooper-Moore and drummer Rakalam Bob Moses create a modern music drawn from an exclusively African American tradition. The jazz avant garde frequently seeks musical resources from outside sources. Coltrane’s use of the music of India and Braxton’s admiration of Stockhausen come immediately to mind. But Jones and company reach back to into the pre-jazz African American folk, spiritual, and blues traditions to inform their music. In most cases the influences are indirect, but nevertheless discernable. “Forgive Me” has an affinity with spirituals. “Big Train Rollin’” evokes railroad imagery common to the blues. Cooper-Moore’s handmade diddley-bo seems like modern-day variant on a wash-tub bass. It’s Jones’ ability to make those deep connections to a long tradition and absorb them thoroughly into his own music that helps give the album its heft and beauty.
Jones has a big, fleshy, lived-in tone, with a vibrato that owes as much to Johnny Hodges as it does to Albert Ayler. It’s defiant, vulnerable, proud, and weary; there is laughter and sobbing in it. He imbues simple melodies and phrases with huge emotional weight. On “We Are Unicorns,” he paints with monumental Franz Kline brush strokes, erecting huge architectural melodies tense with energy. “Forgive Me” is prayerful, pleading, and it’s not clear whether the music is addressed to a lover or a god. Jones exploits the ambiguity in a solo that manages to be both sensual and transcendent. “Chasing a Ghost” benefits from the complexity of Jones’ sound, as he intersperses manipulations of tone colors and the textures of pure sounds among longing melodies.
The alto saxophonist’s big sound doesn’t overwhelm or unbalance the trio, since both Cooper-Moore and Moses are awfully big presences themselves. Cooper-Moore’s piano playing, for many years the lynchpin of bassist William Parker’s In Order to Survive quartet, plays a central role on “Cry Out.” His left hand maintains a propulsive four to the bar beat while his right hand hammers out massive sound-block accents and carves huge granite-hard riffs to match the intensity of Jones’ alto and Moses’ drums. His diddley-bo, a bass-like amplified stringed instrument, provides oddly springy rhythms and a mysterious darkness to “We Are Unicorns” and “Chasing the Ghost.” Moses keeps up a continuous patter, like Roy Haynes freed from strict meter. On “Meekness” he disperses the beat in several directions, filling the air with floating rhythmic figures. On “Big Train Rollin’” he orbits Jones’ glowing alto like a planet around a sun.
Amazingly, there’s little sense of two veterans supporting a younger, less experienced player. They sound like a trio of peers, which bodes well for this exciting new voice in the free jazz tradition.
Lee Konitz + Martial Solal
Dan Tepfer + Lee Konitz
Konitz and Solal are both master improvisers, but they’re not musicians I’d necessarily associate with one another. Konitz is a lyrical improviser who can edit on the fly; Solal piles run atop run and key upon key and double times until the sheer density of his approach liberates him from specifics of form (as Art Lange notes in his liner, Solal’s “virtuosity truly does border on the Tatumesque,” and that’s something one can say of very few pianists). There’s a kind of manic playfulness in Solal’s improvisations: anything might turn suddenly into something else; a sudden interpolation might be sheer banality or sudden insight. His solo outing here, “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur,” eventually turns into “Satin Doll” and stays there. Otherwise, this is very much an adventure in standard repertoire, and the two have elaborate and thoughtful conversations over themes that have been with them throughout their careers. The interaction is apparent almost immediately in the unexpected turns that arise in “Just Friends.” On “Star Eyes” the two individually move towards and away from the melody, while “What’s New” matches Konitz’s pensive dissonance with Solal’s lightest touch, a kind of effervescent longing. The concluding “Cherokee” confirms Solal’s almost complete unpredictability, whether he’s shifting from free-time to boogie-woogie bass or multiplying keys and tempos, and it’s clearly a stimulant to Konitz.
The alto saxophonist‘s duets with Dan Tepfer are utterly different. There are no standards at all, and the CD is largely devoted to a series called “Eliande, Nos. 1-10,” free improvisations that move through the keys chromatically. Tepfer resembles Konitz stylistically to a surprising degree, a genuinely linear player whose improvisations weave uncannily with Konitz’s own inventions. Konitz’s sound is an evocative instrument in itself, at once dry and slightly hollow, keening and sweet. He can accomplish much with intonation alone, moving moods around with the slightest variations in pitch. Several of these duets have an etude-like simplicity and coherence, a melodic clarity that resembles composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. In fact, that classical legacy is felt throughout here, with a certain Bach-like development implicit in the way the two work through keys. Elements of Chopin and Satie seem to fall naturally under Tepfer’s fingers, the latter most apparent in the elusive scalar language of Tepfer’s “Merka Tikva,” the only written original here. References to popular repertoire are less apparent, though “Eliande No. 10” is sub-titled “Free for Paree,” much of it deriving directly from “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Together Konitz and Tepfer create a beautiful and almost hermetic musical language, its strangeness highlighted by the concluding “Trees,” a rarely heard tune from the 1920s that seems to wear both its original and new harmonic forms while Tepfer alludes to “Autumn in New York.”
This scrapbook of sessions featuring bassist Scott LaFaro will satisfy anyone starved for more music by an extraordinarily gifted jazz musician who left few recordings before he died at the tragically young age of 25. Indeed, there may be no other jazz great whose reputation rests on fewer albums. He secured his place in jazz history on two live albums recorded with Bill Evans Paul Motian. Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debbie pretty much defined the post bop piano trio and those discs continue to set the standard against which piano trios are measured to this day. LaFaro also made two albums with Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz and Ornette! – on which he staked out a significantly different approach to Coleman’s music than the quartet’s founding bassist, Charlie Haden. There is some good journeyman albums from the West Coast with Harold Land and Russ Freeman, and very little else released in LaFaro’s lifetime.
LaFaro’s style was one of the most searching in jazz bass (and perhaps not quite fully formed at the time he died, either). He was always messing with the space, dropping only one note per measure so the bottom fell out of the music and floated, or letting a note’s decay fill in for another note. Then he could crowd the beat with a short flurry of triplets or off-center notes. He was an expert embellisher of other’s phrases, a skill that served him especially well with Evans. He loved to angle in on the beat and then drop in unexpected harmonic ideas that didn’t sound like they belonged where they were until he found an equally unexpected resolution. His oblique, highly mobile approach wasn’t the best fit for Ornette’s music, but he brought a certain ambiguity and elusiveness to the bass role in the Coleman quartet that was unique. Mingus and Pettiford were his most direct predecessors, and his influence is felt in the work of Gary Peacock and Dave Holland.
Pieces of Jade offers no major finds, but there is good music and many revealing moments. A five-track, studio-recorded demo tape with pianist Don Friedman and drummer Pete LaRoca is an interesting historical document. It’s nice to hear LaFaro stick to fundamentals with walking bass lines on “I Hear a Rhapsody,” but, always impatient to explore, he roots among the changes for intriguing intervals. By the next track, however, he begins to chaff against playing too straight, and starts veering away from the beat, disrupting the smooth forward motion of “Sacre Bleu” with lagging notes and offering more commentary and embellishments on what LaRoca and Friedman play. His companions don’t always respond, and those tracks as well as “Green Dolphin Street” have an underlying tension pulsing through them as the trio’s heartbeat develops alarming irregularities. They take “Woody’n You” too fast for any of them to play much more than licks, although there’s a certain physical exhilaration in the sheer speed. Still, for the fanatical LaFaro hound, this is a session that needs to be heard.
A 20-minute rehearsal tape of Evans and LaFaro playing “My Foolish Heart,” yields the album’s greatest insight. “My Foolish Heart” is one of the indelible Evans trio performances from the Vanguard sessions and it’s wonderful to hear Evans and LaFaro put it together. It shows so clearly how much work and planning goes in to creating a proper framework for improvisation. You hear LaFaro finding the notes that work with Evans’ voicings, Evans trying out different ways to move from one chord to the next, determining where to create tension, where to resolve it. The atmosphere is casual, but intense and as they work, the outline of their final approach gradually becomes firmer and their freedom with it greater, until there it is – the familiar contours of their version of the tune in embryonic form. At the end, just before the tape is switched off, Evans asks rhetorically, “What is it that makes that tune so good?” “I don’t know,” LaFaro replies with a just touch of wonder in his voice, and the track ends. That question and the sense of wonder that motivates the search for its answer seems like the key to the alchemy of Scott LaFaro.