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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Akira Sakata + Chikamorachi
Friendly Pants
Family Vineyard FV 66

Akira Sakata + Chikamorachi - TFriendly Pants Akira Sakata, known in our emisphere initially as a member of the Yamashita Yosuke trio and a one-time collaborator of Last Exit, has a decidedly originaly musical conception, mirrored in his diverse career: among his more recent collaborations there are projects with Japanese folk singers and musicians, as well as with DJ Krush and Jim O'Rourke, guitarist and electronic musician from Sonic Youth. In fact Sakata and O'Rourke have been developing several projects together in the past five years, including two Cds, released in Japan only, where they are joined by drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Darin Gray. This new recording is a very welcome chance to hear Sakata again at length, 20 years after his last record distributed in the West. O'Rourke is in charge of the production, without contributing directly, and Sakata is so presented in one of his favorite configuration, the saxophone trio. The music and the ensemble sound do bring to mind late Sixties free jazz – echoes of Ayler and Sanders, as well of late Coltrane, but played on the alto, like Trane did in his memorable Japanese tour – a rare exception in a scene focused on the throatier tenor. This is a specific artistic choice for the Japanese improviser, who in his solo efforts showed mastery of a vast array of reed instruments, and lends a specific character to this trio, due also to the fact that the clear, cutting voice of his saxophone comes through better than the mostly low-range work from bass and drums.

Clarity in articulation and timbre is a key aspect of Sakata's phrasing, often alternating dramatic shrieks and cries with longer, logically built melodies reminiscent of Charlie Parker (via Jimmy Lyons). The tracks, as exemplified by the first two numbers, are roughly divided between energetic, up-tempo workouts with a storm of sound built by all three instruments, and more reflexive episodes with quirkily sentimental saxophone melodies (to my ears they do have folkish echoes, but these are hard to pinpoint knowing so little of the musical and cultural background). In the slowest pieces Corsano and Gray show notable flexibility and listening capacity, gradually finding the best way to contribute to the general picture, while Sakata can alternate a Coltrane pattern with a lilting melody, a beautifully controlled, crystalline sound in the altissimo range with chewed and spitted notes, while he's not averse to funny, fleeting quotations and expressively uses vibrato.

The absorbing music of this trio definitley proves that Sakata – along with Marshall Allen, Anthony Braxton, Rob Brown, Darius Jones, Simon Rose and few others – inhabits the world of creative alto saxophone playing with a distinctive, original personality.
– Francesco Martinelli


Stuart Saunders Smith
The Links Series of Vibraphone Essays
New World 80690-2

Stuart Saunders Smith - The Links Series of Vibraphone Essays Full Disclosure: I took a Jazz History course from Stuart Saunders Smith at the University of Baltimore at Baltimore County, probably in the winter of ’77. Consequently, it’s not surprising that the first three Links in Smith’s series, penned in ’74 and ‘5, have the quirky figures and odd meters of mid-‘60s advanced jazz. There are several pungent pauses in these solo vibraphone pieces where Richard Davis and Anthony Williams could eloquently enter. In and of itself, his approach is not provocative by today’s standards, yet, contemporaneously, Smith also composed using a glossary of cues and other methods more closely linked to the New York School. In his informative, insightful booklet notes, Steven Schick applies the general proposition that 20th Century American experimental music is rooted in New England transcendentalism specifically to Smith. It fits my observations: Smith frequently appeared to be in deep thought, his brow furrowing. On the other hand, that construct doesn’t really explain the jazz of the early pieces, which Schick identifies as the series’ soul. Arguably, this aspect of Smith’s music reaches an apex in this 2-CD collection with Schick’s own performance of “Links No. 4 (Monk),” Smith’s ’82 essay on the recently deceased composer and pianist. It is a piece that also validates Smith’s use of “essays” to describe the series. While “No. 4” is dappled with phrases and chords that reflect Smith’s familiarity with Monk’s music, it does not sound derivative; rather than appropriate Monk’s lexicon, Smith ruminates ‘round about it.

Smith’s New Music moorings are more evident on latter “Links,” beginning with 1987’s “Links No. 5 (Sitting on the Edge of Nothing),” in which augmenting chimes and glockenspiel parts are performed off-stage (they are perhaps more prominent in the mix of this recording than they might sound in concert). “No. 5” also breaks the mold of the series being exclusively comprised of vibraphone solos. “No. 6 (Song Interiors)” (’89) is a duet with piano; “No. 8 (Confessions – Witness to 48 Things)” (’90) pairs vibes and flute; and the last piece – “No. 11 (Regions I-XXI)” (’94) – is for three vibraphones. While the pendulum of Smith’s sensibility began to swing away from jazz, “No. 6” contains what is arguably the most robust music of the collection. Vibraphonist Justin DeHart and pianist Katalin Lukács simply nail the demanding score. Similarly, vibraphonists Chris Leonard, Dale Speicher and Matthew Apanius have a startling close-order precision in rendering the intensely polyphonic passages of “No. 11.” These pieces reinforce the idea that Smith is a pluralist, a composer who taps multiple traditions in American music and infuses them with an idiosyncratic temperament that, while rooted in New England, also reflects a decades-long presence on the edge of Baltimore. Anyone familiar with a succession of Creative Music vibraphonists from Bobby Naughton through Kevin Norton to emerging players like Jason Adasiewicz and Chris Dingman (somebody with Mike Reed?) will be engaged by how Smith implants the spark of improvisation into his scores.
–Bill Shoemaker


Wadada Leo Smith
Spiritual Dimensions
Cuneiform Records Rune 290/291

Wadada Leo Smith - Spiritual Dimensions Smith presents two different bands on this two-CD set, each recorded in concert. The first group is the Golden Quintet, a further mutation of the Golden Quartet that in the past decade has included Anthony Davis, the late Malachi Favors, Jack DeJohnette and Ronald Shannon Jackson. The band here retains pianist/synthesizer player Vijay Iyer and bassist John Lindberg from the last version, but here it has two drummers, Don Moye and Pheeroan akLaff.  Recorded at the 2008 Vision Festival, the group is a fine complement to the drama of Smith’s trumpet lines. The contrast is particularly marked between Smith and Iyer. Almost every note the trumpeter plays is drenched in significance, a brassy blast of sound or muffled introspection. Carrying on the line of Miles Davis, Smith is a minimalist orator who must make sure every syllable is charged. Sometimes Iyer’s lines are a kinetic scrabbling, each note a passing instant en route to the next. This is an intense set, with akLaff and Moye embellishing the skein of rhythmic particles that highlights Smith’s testament.  Lindberg is a fine soloist as well as a supporting player, and he shines especially in an extended passage with Iyer on “Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2.” While this band is largely acoustic and the second, Smith’s Organic, largely electric, the ensembles don’t divide that clearly. Iyer creates a burbling electric setting on synthesizer for “Pacifica,” and Smith manages to maintain intensity while working with effects on the quintet’s concluding “South Central L.A.”    

That tune serves as a bridge between the two bands, opening the Organic’s performance at Firehouse 12 on the second CD. Lindberg and akLaff are along as well on a band that’s directly connected to Smith’s Yo Miles! project with Henry Kaiser, Smith the sole horn in a band that also includes Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Nels Cline (credited with overdubs) and occasionally Lamar Smith on electric guitar (a brilliant collection and I won’t try to sort them out), Okkyung Lee on cello and Skuli Sverrisson on electric bass. A dense undergrowth of chattering, processed guitars and funk rhythms appears almost immediately, gradually accumulating under Smith’s trumpet until there’s a swagger in his lines and new context as well as inspiration. There’s a simple pentatonic riff under “Angela Davis” that keeps the piece growing for almost twenty minutes, sometimes disappearing into electronic blips and string glissandi, then returning only to fade ultimately into sustained long tones. Along the way Smith and company find a kind of heightened musical street vernacular compounded of bending guitars, trebly drones, Lee’s dissonant cello bowing, and Smith’s own wary, incisive, bleats and smears.  “Organic,” the track not the band, begins by taking its electronics much further into a soundscape that’s not always traceable to particular instruments, the funk-beats not showing up until the five-minute mark.  The piece is also marked by strong contributions by the two bassists.    

I’ll confess to an acoustic bias—if only because the music I usually like (more clearly delineated, less ritualized) has acoustic instruments-- but here I’d give the edge to Smith’s electric project, funk functioning as community rather than commerce. There’s plenty of depth and focus in his Golden Quintet, but the Organic concert seems to take the trumpeter to another level of interaction, with a band that’s both more intense and more inventive. It’s not to be missed.
–Stuart Broomer 


Aki Takase + Louis Sclavis
Intakt CD 165

Aki Takase + Louis Sclavis - Yokohama It’s a long time since I read Around the World in Eighty Days, but I have a notion that Yokohama is where Phileas Fogg was reunited with Passepartout, who is working in a circus, trying to earn his passage to the United States. I am fairly certain that Yokohama was where, some twenty years earlier than Verne’s novel is set and published, Commodore Matthew Perry and his “Black Ships“ made their landfall on a still-sequestered Japan. This would be irrelevant Wiki-trivia if it weren’t referenced so strongly on the cover of Yokohama and if it didn’t resonate so strongly with the transcultural improvisation within.
Here is music that doesn’t attempt to find a mild common ground, which is why “trans-“ rather than “multi-“ or “poly-“ is the correct prefix. Unlike much contemporary improvisation, its goal isn’t “dialogue“ (that pseudo-diplomatic weasel) or, worse still, “conversation, “ but something in which the alien, and something of that old-fashioned aesthetic value contention, are still preserved. One senses that first in the shortness of these exchanges. Eight of the thirteen tracks are under five minutes in duration; none of the rest is longer than eight minutes. This is unusual, now, when improvisers can make small talk for hours at a time.
Commodore Perry’s mission is relevant, because this is music about commerce and trade. That isn’t to say that Takase and Sclavis (or Intakt) expect to sell this in the thousands, but rather that the music offers deals, sometimes veiled in threat, and promises long-term returns. Passepartout’s survivalism is also relevant. I once said of the clarinetist here – and caused some offence, though not, I think, to Sclavis – that he sounded as if he might have learned his craft in a circus. It was a more knowing comment than was immediately understood by BBC listeners because it referred to his background in that splendid French caucus called ARFI and its devotion to “folklore imaginaire“ a worthy and neglected attempt to create a new vernacular which drew on fairground crudities as much as it did on avant-garde sophistications. At his best and wittiest, as on that wonderful solo piece “Le chien aboie et le clarinette passe“ (a proverb/joke that obscure alludes to Duke Ellington), he has all the raw professionalism of the bal musette musician.

Arm in arm with Ms Takase, he shows off the awkward gentillese of a bluejacket squiring a lady round a foreign port, unsure of her status, and thus unsure of his own duties and privileges, but a million miles removed from the high cultural tragedy of Pinkerton and Cio-cio San. If you like, here is music that is less like Madama Butterfly and more like Steven Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.

Takase is a wonderful duo player, and largely because she never surrenders her own protocols for the meeting. Her past work on Intakt, with husband Alexander von Schlippenbach, with vocalist Lauren Newton, and most appositely with bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, has made me rethink and revalue the X-plus-piano improv duo, one of the easiest and thus laziest combinations in the music. It’s a measure of how strongly I feel about this that the only other piano player I can think of who similarly overturns the clichés is Borah Bergman, who in every other respect is a quite different kind of player.

With music as intensely focused at this, a track by track analysis seems almost essential, but even in web-space impossible to fit in. Some pieces are mutually improvised; others are credited to either player. Takase’s title piece properly stands out, but Sclavis’s “Vol“ and “Ligne de fuite“ are smart, sophisticated lines. His work of recent years for ECM has tended to be ambitiously high-concept, with 2005’s L’Imparfait des langues – music originally intended for the Spring Arts festival in Monaco, but delayed by Prince Rainier’s death – striking a nice balance between abstraction and songful plainness. A better comparison for Yokohama would be the largely overlooked Roman, a duo with guitarist and electronics man Jean-Marc Montera which let the reed man tick all his boxes. Here, his bass clarinet playing is still his strongest hand. He never impresses quite as forcefully on saxophone (soprano only) and his clarinet playing shares a similar awkwardness of pitching, a tiny bit sharp and acidulous. However, it would be perverse to praise him for rawness one minute and then damn him for it the next.

He’s an impressive fellow whatever he touches and Takase coaxes the best out of him. Her phrasing is still engagingly reminiscent of Monk – is this from listening to her husband, or is the connection the other way round – but she has something of Toshiko Akiyoshi’s ability to deliver a harmonic strangeness without stepping much outside bop tonality. A shared quality of attack, I suspect, and sometimes to do with the way the pedals are used.

Jazz, like rock music after it, has tended to thrive in seaports, where constant passage is the norm. That may no longer apply in a period when cheap(ish) air travel has extended the matrix exponentially, but the symbolism remains important and Yokohama is a grand exploration of cultural impact.
–Brian Morton


Horace Tapscott
The Dark Tree
hatOLOGY 2-630

Horace Tapscott - The Dark Tree The music played here could define an ethos, a combination of force and grace, tradition and individuality. It’s four musicians playing in a bar in Hollywood, more than two-hours of music taped over a four-night period in December 1989. The instrumentation is archetypal: piano, bass, drums and a reed, odd only for the clarinet of John Carter, an instrument not often played in modern jazz and never better. The music might be described as fundamental for the force of its dialogue, but it’s more than that; it’s elemental, a quality inhering in its purity as expression without compromising its high degree of artfulness in getting that emotional bedrock into the air. Part of what makes this music special is that it’s made by great musicians who have, no boon to them, almost no claim on celebrity. Listening to this, there’s a sense of the music’s centrifugal force, as if the world outside the Catalina Bar & Grill on these particular nights is little more than a rumor. A decade after his death, Horace Tapscott remains an under-recognized composer and pianist in an under-recognized lineage that he shares with musicians like Elmo Hope and Andrew Hill. There may be specific references to Monk and Ellington (and Sun Ra), but in Tapscott’s playing one hears the breadth of the tradition and the force if his own personality, from stride and boogie-woogie and blues to monumental modal blocks and broken rhythms, melodies poked at and lacing arpeggios, all speaking across the keyboard and then across the bandstand to the other musicians, devices and figures passed back and forth. Here Tapscott’s in company with two of the finest rhythm-section players imaginable, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Andrew Cyrille, who might have more claim on celebrity than that front-line of Carter and Tapscott but who have seldom gotten their full due as the consummate players that they are. It surfaces here in some stunning bass solos and drum solos as well, Cyrille playing as adeptly with hands as with sticks, but it’s the extended group passages –Carter soaring overhead in his ever-expanding upper-register as Tapscott builds thunderous, orchestral ostinatos and McBee and Cyrille elaborate dense rhythmic matrices beneath – that this music is at its most powerful. Any track is remarkable, whether the emphasis is lyrical (the fluttering and dissonant “A Dress for Renee”) or the menacing polyrhythmic world of the title track, heard here in two extended versions.  This is one of the year’s essential reissues.
 –Stuart Broomer

Wig Records

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