Reviews of Recent Recordings
Although its best known member may be alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Achille Succi, this quartet’s instigator seems to have been bassist Nicole Negrini, who originally created several pieces of abstract video art titled “Scoolptures” (they can be seen at www.nicneg.it). His musical/visual art inspiration is shared by Antonio Della Marina, who uses custom-built sound generators and mathematically-based computer programs to produce “sonorous structures” for gallery installations and ambient performances. Add Philippe Garcia, who has contributed percussion and electronics to scenes ranging from dancefloor hybrids to electroacoustic experiments, and you have a band that seems ripe for conceptual collisions.
Nevertheless, improvisation is their common denominator—the “human material,” as they ironically put it – with Succi’s edgy, elastic alto sax assertions providing the familiar jazz voice. Negrini’s and Garcia’s beats often intersect but avoid anything resembling a comfortable groove, while Marina’s real-time electronics elaborate on their efforts with alternately industrial clatter (“Chunkslice”), churning drones (“Bellyslice”), and textural shading (“Liverslice”). But, in order to thicken the plot, as John Cage would say, they’ve factored into the mix an extra layer of indeterminacy – a computer program which spontaneously interacts with and affects the group sound in ways beyond their control. So in “Brainslice” Succi’s alto sax lines are doubled and tripled, delayed and distorted, and sparks fly; likewise the treatment to his bass clarinet on “Skinslice.” For the most part it’s difficult to identify the source of particular sounds, amid the twisting, pulsating, ricocheting details. But in spite of their compact, protean, sculptural alignment of incidents, even the musicians can’t prevent the music, every once in a while, from bursting into son – angular and irregular, perhaps, but undeniably, song.
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith
Even in quieter passages of the’08 Treader date, Smith occasionally wields a rawer, lacerating sound than anywhere on the Nessa chestnut. This is not to suggest that Smith plays less persuasively on Spirit Catcher than on Abbey Road Quartet; each phrase on the Nessa dates has purpose, every nuance is precisely calibrated and every rest is pungent. Still, guitarist John Coxon, keyboardist Pat Thomas and drummer Mark Sanders produce a more formidable mass of sound than the edition of New Dalta Ahkri that performs “Images” and the Nessa album’s title piece. Coxon, Thomas and Sanders also pivot suddenly and pronouncedly to produce stark juxtapositions of iridescent sonic palettes. There are strenuous compositional demands on woodwind player Dwight Andrews, vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, bassist Wes Brown and drummer Pheeroan ak Laff; Smith was in the initial stages of documenting his Rhythm Units methodology, which sought a seamlessness between scored and improvised elements. The resulting music has stood the test of time; one has better odds playing Russian roulette than trying to guess if the music in a randomly chosen moment is either scored or improvised.
Subsequently, Spirit Catcher is not only a core document of this phase of Smith’s work, but a prime example of how Smith, like some of his AACM colleagues, implicitly triangulated non-Western collective traditions and 20th Century composition; Smith pointedly references Bartók and Stravinsky in quotes used in Robert Palmer’s original liner notes. It is now, at best, a secondary concern of Smith’s. The impetus of his outreach is now towards assertively non-academic border-jumping musicians, which is reflected in his work with Spring Heel Jack and his own Treader projects (his Brooklyn Duos with Coxon is comparable to the quartet date in terms of flinty interaction). Smith took part in Company almost two years to the day before recording Spirit Catcher, so Abbey Road Quartet suggests a decades-long trajectory with a London backdrop. Coxon, Thomas and Sanders, however, are representative of a less doctrinaire generation of British improvisers than either the first and second. They did not have an early immersion in jazz at a pivotal historical moment like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, nor did they have a penchant for agitprop like Steve Beresford (particularly with Alterations). They exuberantly use rhythm and noise, recalling at times Thomas and Sanders’ work with Gail Brand’s Lunge; the music also repeatedly benefits from Coxon’s complementary details and sudden bold strokes. Smith thrives on their work; in turn, the listener will thrive on Abbey Road Quartet.
With this release, drummer Chad Taylor’s Circle Down trio with pianist Angelica Sanchez and bassist Chris Lightcap stake out their place in the piano trio tradition. The piano trio offers infinite possibilites, but lesser artists never get beyond a Bill Evans template or the Hancock-Carter-Williams model. That’s not an issue with Circle Down. Everyone in the trio has a distinctive sound and approach and they consistently find surprising ways to work together. They respond to one another with warmth and enthusiasm, and they like to see in how many directions they can tip the balance among them. This is a group that’s obviously happy to be working together, the joy and daring they inspire in one another is heard on every track.
Lightcap’s clean and balanced line anchors the music much of the time, but his note placement indicates he’s not complacent in the role; he can shift the music dramatically with just a few simple gestures. On “Box Step,” his lowest tones have a lingering decay that prolongs notes and displaces his lines in subtle ways. Sanchez is constantly toying with density and line, letting right-hand phrases settle airily over the bass and drums, or bracing them with tight harmonies and interlacing left-hand phrases for a thicker, weightier sound. On “Level,” her phrases coil over an expanding and contracting pulse of shifting time signatures like ivy on a wall. “Rock” finds her layering irregular melodic patterns over a steady beat in a solo of powerful, but quiet, ecstasy.
The leader is constantly redefining his role in the group, sometimes a he’s timekeeper, sometimes an interlocutor, sometimes he follows his own path. Taylor creates a constant pressure that bears Lightcap and Sanchez upward on “No Brainer.” On “Specifica,” his cymbals accents drop like heavy weights in water, creating ripples of flashing sound, while rapid snare patterns cut across more stately bass and toms. It’s an undercurrent of physical and spiritual joy that suffuses the trio without overwhelming it.
This is a trio that knows how to exploit the tension between individual and collective that fuels so much of the drama in improvisation. And they use that inner dynamic to make extraordinarily beautiful music.
Tony Wilson Sextet
Benjamin Britten doesn’t seem the most obvious source for improvisers, but he keeps turning up at the moment: pianist François Couturier favors the big theme from The Rape of Lucretia; I recently heard a British saxophonist quote extensively from the “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” aria in Peter Grimes; and now guitarist Tony Wilson devotes a substantial part of this latest Sextet disc to an interpretation of Lachrymae. There’s an obvious “viral” explanation. Britten’s Op 48 is based on John Dowland’s mysterious “Flow my teares,” a sacred text to the New American Weird and England ’s Hidden Reverse people. Philip K. Dick was also a big fan, and I imagine Googling any of these names yields some interesting cross-references.
Without the benefit of reading John Tilbury’s authoritative booklet essay, “Christian Wolff and the Politics of Music,” Wolff’s hour-long “Long Piano (Peace March 11)” for solo piano initially registers as an endearingly ambling and autumnal work. In a seemingly casual, glancing manner, Wolff references touchstone-like composers from Bach to Ives, explores counterpoint and chorales, and reiterates an admiring, if arms-length relationship to the trajectory of jazz piano established by Monk. Pianist Thomas Schultz reinforces this impression with a performance that balances razor-sharp articulation with a discernable desire to let the music breathe. Although this is a piece whose mantle of “composition” is never obscured, there is a ruminative feel to “Long Piano (Peace March 11)” even in its most intense passages, one frequently found in improvised piano solos.
However, Tilbury, who knows the composer, his music and his milieu as well as anyone, places the work within an exactly drawn political context, one shaped as much by Wolff’s having children as any ideology. One of Tilbury’s many illuminating citations is Wolff’s comment about his intent for a piece from the early ‘70s, “Changing the System,” which he describes the music as a “focusing of concerted, persuasive but not coercive energy.” If, indeed, “Long Piano (Peace March 11)” is an essentially political statement, this lack of coercion is central. Indeed, the political context of the piece is something of an afterthought for Wolff, who admits tacking on the opening “peace march” – which uses tablature that assigns fingerings and rhythms but not pitches – as an “optional prelude” when he thought the piece might not meet the commission’s stipulation for an hour-long work.