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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO
Occupy the World
TUM CD 037-2

When trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon released 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity) in 2008, the political ramifications might’ve been somewhat surprising. After all, Dixon’s work is not generally thought of as overtly political, nor is it programmatic or representational. He often said that his work is abstract and that his titles mean nothing more that he “liked the sound of the word” or the associations it might engender were “curious.” In my personal conversations with Dixon, the weight of the conflict in Darfur was something he addressed both as fact and obliquely – the pieces on the disc didn’t specifically reference non-musical actions or thoughts. Darfur wasn’t the only political reference to appear in Dixon’s work; in 1987, he premiered “Quinacridone: For Nelson and Winnie” with the Sage City Symphony, utilizing the speech that Nelson Mandela gave upon his sentencing in a more overt statement of intent (a related title also was given to a suite on the 1987 Soul Note LP Thoughts). Politics and improvised music are complex bedfellows; it’s difficult to represent a specific political gesture or idea without words or visuals, but the nature of creative freedom and free play necessitates a rejection of authoritarian hierarchy. Furthermore, the implications of a given title placed on otherwise nonrepresentational art allow the viewer, listener or experiencer free play with the ideas of the work and the words, something disallowed by most lyric settings.

It’s interesting to look at the work of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith in light of political movements and historical change, especially as one career-defining statement recently appeared in the four-disc set Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012), a grand document for small orchestra that reflects on Civil Rights-era struggles. If Smith’s work previously seemed apolitical due to its profound spiritualism, kernels of political truth lay strewn throughout his oeuvre in the form of dedications, exemplified in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the abolitionist David Walker (Procession of the Great Ancestry, Nessa, 1983). But the concentration – as it should be – in Smith’s work has always been on sound and rhythm, associated instances in a divergent field. Wadada Leo Smith is the orchestrator, the organizer, and the performer of massive music that frequently inhabits small scale. Though working in orchestras has been part of Smith’s method for decades, the exigencies of money, time and personnel often required concise units to workshop these possibilities, given that in order to perform orchestrally all that’s required is a single trumpet (see Creative Music -1; Kabell; 1971).

Occupy the World may not have the same conceptual largesse that Ten Freedom Summers presents, but the two discs of orchestral music offer a striking and sobering rumination on Smith’s composed history, colleagues, ancestors, and the political situation that this music must inhabit. Smith is joined by longtime colleague bassist John Lindberg on a program of five pieces fleshed out by the Finland-based TUMO orchestra, consisting of twenty musicians including reedmen Juhani Aaltonen, Mikko Innanen and Fredrik Ljungquist, percussionist Stefan Pasborg, guitarist Mikko Iivanainen (all relatively familiar names to followers of modern free music) and drawing from both improvised and “classical” realms. It’s interesting to think about the use of the term “Occupy” in this piece; the Occupy movement was diffuse, which was part of what led to its inability to “grab on,” and presented itself more greatly as a conversation-changer than a specific political movement. The word “occupy” has been co-opted by brand sloganeers and in a sense its significance has become fluid or even meaningless. Perhaps that’s perfect for a thirty-minute orchestral piece that cannot sonically mirror the arcing actions of a political-historical moment. It begs the question, in the Dixonian sense, whether like “Darfur” or “Webern,” “Occupy” has meaning beyond being a “merely” interesting word.

The title piece – “Occupy the World for Life, Liberty and Justice” – begins pastorally in a slow Eastern European dance for strings, pas-des-deux and filigree around a rather chunky pulse. At a shade over two minutes in, clambering chords from reeds, guitar and accordion are applied; at first they seem stacked, but there’s a gooey parallelism that quickly emerges and the music gauzily shapes itself into a form almost without axis. Smith pushes the orchestra into absolutely massive albeit particulate rhythm-unit gestures in an ascending motion; the leader’s trumpet is a blistering and steely cry across a rustling field of Ligeti-esque scrabble and long tones, cavalcade-like orchestral events in rushed assaults breaking uneasy horizontal drones. As with every TUM disc I’ve heard, the recording quality is peerless and the massed improvisations are rendered with shocking presence, the orchestra’s cries physically terrifying against bone-shaking, pummeling trap sets. Smith knits together areas of extreme density and gauzily sparse improvisation so that a sense of force – however close or distant that might appear – imbues the entire work. A quartet for trumpet, guitar, harp, and piano strings is therefore as churning and physical as taut, twenty-player trills. The piece is bookended by pastoral string movements and pillowy masses that grant a clarion resignation to the entire, heaving expanse of “Occupy.”

“Occupy the World for Life, Liberty and Justice” is actually the closing piece and follows “Crossing on a Southern Road (A Memorial for Marion Brown),” an elegy for one of Smith’s most significant historical collaborators and, perhaps, a portrait of the frustration that the embattled altoist encountered in his final years, fraught with health problems and mistreatment. Though the piece opens pastorally – as one imagines the drawling and patient Brown via his rural Georgian tone poems – Smith places tension front and center, sometimes released and sometimes used as a vehicle to create motion (brilliantly in a section for strings and three drummers). The piece drifts into a state of anomie, phrases and ideas distant and unfinished, placing tremendous and complex weight on the skeleton of a fallen comrade.

Of the three pieces on the first disc, it’s especially curious that the orchestra performs Smith’s “The Bell,” which first appeared on Anthony Braxton’s Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1968), not coincidentally Smith’s first appearance on record. Of course, it was pretty clear then that the trumpeter-composer was adept at building a small group out into something much larger, so it’s not surprising that “The Bell” would translate into a grand orchestra work. Beginning with pedal-actuated guitar scumble the full orchestra enters with a surprisingly gradual attainment of mass, as the theme has been transposed with extraordinary detail and a lightness that recalls the Creative Construction Company at their most athletic and punchy. Percussion and strings swirl around soloing guitars and trombone (the excellent Jari Hongisto), and while Occupy The World never really presents individual, unaccompanied players as “orchestras,” some of the set’s sparsest moments occur in “The Bell – 2” (as it’s titled here), though the a capella and duet sections are full with emblems of the surrounding context.

The closing volley of Occupy The World’s first half is an extraordinary homage to John Lindberg, titled “Mount Kilimanjaro (Love and Compassion for John Lindberg),” in which the bassist approaches his hull, strings and bow somewhere between a fiddle showman and a guitarist’s pyrotechnics, muscular and deft fireworks met by orchestral glissandi and populated accents. Lindberg’s bass capriccios are spry and volumetric, and the orchestra alternately nudges them upward or revels in blocking their advance, creating thuggish, warped spaces at particular intervals. Though a concerto for double bass and orchestra, there are sections for other instrumentalists to work the canvas, including a clamorous passage for percussion and Aaltonen’s incredibly bent flute in conversation with nattering orchestral webs. Lindberg’s discography is large and full of wonderful recordings, but “Mount Kilimanjaro” stands out as both a paean and a chance to hear the bassist let loose amid sculpted swells.

As a statement or a series of statements, Occupy The World may be unified in its variance, but it presents individual players and collective mass in an intensely rendered balance for which the title is befitting if not exacting. One can take each piece as a specific portrait or a work in which the words attached to it are only loose entry points. In terms of Wadada Leo Smith’s work as a bandleader and orchestrator, Occupy The World is among his finest recent achievements.
–Clifford Allen


Trio 3 + Jason Moran
Refraction – Breakin’ Glass
Intakt 217

Jason Moran proves to be an excellent foil for Trio 3’s ongoing collaborations with pianists on Refraction – Breakin’ Glass. Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman have refined a balance between elastic interplay and distinctive compositional forms for more than 20 years, a chemistry substantially altered in their past recordings with Geri Allen and Irène Schweizer, albeit to rewarding and, in the case of their Mary Lou Williams celebration with Allen, surprising ends. A consummate sideman as well as an envelope-pushing leader, Moran is noticeably mindful of fitting in with the trio, contributing just enough to beef up the ensembles without obscuring the sinews that hold the trio’s music taut when they’re on their own. His versatility is strenuously tested throughout the album, and he rises to the occasion, whether the vehicle at hand is the drummer’s funky, 4+2-beat driven “High Priest,” the sharply contrasting, compacted materials comprising the saxophonist’s “All Decks,” or the grand sweep of the bassist’s “Summit Conference.”

The two compositions Moran contributed to the album also reflect this sensitivity; his album-opening title piece is sublimely hand-in-glove, rhythmically, with Lake’s text, an ebullient reminiscence of his entrepreneurial parents – a major addition to Lake’s discography of spoken word performances. “Foot Under Foot” is a well-proportioned multi-section piece, which begins with hovering long tones, pivots to skittering phrases steadily brought to full boil, and ends with a hard-swinging theme. The real measure of Moran’s input, however, is the responses elicited from the trio. On this count, Moran is an unqualified success: Lake is blazing; Workman’s undertow-like lines pulls the listener deep into the pocket; and Cyrille’s trademark blend of bounce and power permeates every track. Moran is at a point in his career where he needs to do little more than show up for the mainstream jazz press to fall over themselves with superlatives. He does much more than that on Refraction – Breakin’ Glass.
–Bill Shoemaker


Ken Vandermark’s Topology Nonet featuring Joe McPhee
Impressions of Po Music
Okkadisk 12095

If you’re going to pay tribute to a longtime hero, nothing beats including that hero on the album. Even given Vandermark’s and McPhee’s usually exalted standards, this is exhilarating music, both playful and intense. Vandermark rescored eleven McPhee pieces from 30-some years ago. As with Jelly Roll Morton and the Fast Citizens, these settings have a very Chicago spirit of colorful sounds, textures, moods. Jeb Bishop, perhaps channeling Lawrence Brown, plays one of his loveliest trombone solos over the repeated theme of “Impressions of Sweet Dragon.” The freest, in every sense, solo is cornetist Josh Berman’s Mobius-strip-shaped work – such sounds! – over the stop-time of “Impressions of Future Retrospective.” There’s marvelous music by electric cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, especially his solo over the “Impressions of Knox” blues lick, and the CD includes some of Jason Adasiewicz’s vibes counterpoint and dark shades, too.

Three reed players are primary pyromaniacs. McPhee is credited with playing tenor sax and I wonder, does he play some alto, too? I’m thinking of “Impressions of Good-bye Tom B.,” in a fine, mostly elegiac duet in which one of the horns has a lovely sound with an alto-sax range and weight and the other presumably is Vandermark on tenor. I love the screaming yet structured tenor sax of McPhee in the opener “Impressions of Astral Spirits/Age” and in the album’s last solo, his high, low, and strained tenor over blue chords in “Impressions of Knox.” Vandermark plays clarinet with a lovely, rich, woody sound and Dave Rempis offers very fine alto sax improvisations. From the album’s churchy opening to its funky closing McPhee and Vandermark present a pleasing variety of moods. Yet nervous tensions run throughout the album and they explode several times into big cathartic band freak outs.

Bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Daisy light the fires and fan the flames. It’s a joyous CD.
–John Litweiler


The Whammies
Play the Music of Steve Lacy Vol. 2
Driff Records CD1303

Steve Lacy used to talk about the need to let music cure. He did not use “cure” to mean healing or, strictly speaking, preservation; though it was closer to the latter, letting music cure was synonymous with letting it ripen. And, if one wanted to let the other connotations linger, that was ok, too. With their second album, The Whammies demonstrate their understanding of the curing process. Their first collection established their connoisseurship in their mix of lesser known and all-but-unknown Lacy compositions, and their keen ears in finding the jams embedded in each of them (“jam” being another oft-used term of Lacy’s; The Cry was a “jam opera”), Vol.2 reinforces the most important take-away from their debut: Interpretation begins with the performer, not the material.

This being said, The Whammies know Lacy’s music inside out; like very few others, they get how Lacy got texts to tumble inside his phrases – the sextet’s take on the slinky “Somebody Special” argues well that Brion Gysin’s poems were a singular inspiration in this regard – and how Lacy’s fealty to a chosen poem manifested in beautifully spindly lines, reflecting an affinity for reductivists like Giacometti. The latter quality is exemplified by alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis’ duet reading of “Art,” perhaps Lacy’s most poignant song, which throws new light on how Lacy gave wispy and flowing phrases a steel spine.

Lacy’s sense of swing is nuanced, even at its most rambunctious; not as anchored in Monk as is widely presumed, it encompasses earlier strains of jazz and Latin dances like rumba and cha cha cha. Even without factoring in his long history with Lacy, which reaches back to early ICP projects and the Regeneration band largely responsible for the rediscovery of Herbie Nichols, Han Bennink is the perfect drummer for this endeavor; not only does he swing like mad throughout the proceedings, he repeatedly highlights the contrasting contours within a given piece like “Hanky-Panky” with deft precision. Additionally, he has a solid rapport with bassist Nate McBride, who exerts something of a Kent Carter presence.

The comparison of Lacy associates with trombonist Jeb Bishop and violinist/violist Mary Oliver is tempting, but ultimately unsatisfying. Bishop doesn’t have quite the broad joviality of a Roswell Rudd, and he doesn’t have George Lewis’ zeal for complexity and abstraction; instead, Bishop tailgates keenly, but without showy bluster, and he has a straightforward approach to solo construction, one that judiciously applies his powerful sound and abundant chops. If there’s one constant, if minor deficit shared by the two Whammies albums, it’s that neither have enough of the ever-impressive Oliver, whose searing solo and interplay with an equally fiery Dijkstra on the album-opening “Skirts” is a highlight.

Still, several seemingly disparate aspects of The Whammies approach have fully ripened, sometimes simultaneously on the same track. “Pregnant Virgin” is particularly noteworthy in this regard for accommodating both Dijkstra’s subtle, atmospheric use of the lyricon, and a Karayorgis solo that points up his ability to swing a molasses-slow tempo with bluesy phrases and jabbing clusters. Overall, the album is a reminder of how many facets comprise Lacy’s legacy, which The Whammies seek not just to preserve, but to renew through well-versed but doggedly investigatory interpretations. For this alone, they deserve the exclamation point Lacy used in the composition title that gave the group its name. The Whammies! Indeed.
–Bill Shoemaker

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