Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed


Mei Han + Paul Plimley
Za Discs N-14

The meeting of musical traditions in a freely improvised context rarely results in finely meshed music. More often than not, there are collisions, near misses and misfires that are interesting as such, but should in no way be heard as a synthesis, the articulation of a median between the two traditions. If their traditions are steeped in improvisation to any discernable degree, the musicians have to negotiate their respective practices to arrive at this halfway point. Musicians from traditions that do not include improvisation must dive in headfirst into the deep of spontaneous music making, sometimes proving themselves to be innately gifted improvisers.

At their best, these cross-cultural exchanges reveal idiom not to be a limitation or a barrier, but a conduit to collaborative music. That’s the case with this album of improvisations by zheng virtuoso Mei Han and pianist Paul Plimley. This is largely due to Han’s ability to use the pentatonic tuning of the long zither to create other types of scales and to employ various plucking and strumming techniques to broaden the instrument’s expressive range. Han responds sensitively to the spaciousness and blues tinge in much of Plimley’s playing, but without relegating herself to a secondary role. Conversely, Han’s ability to shape a phrase by bending or dampening a string is something Plimley unfailingly keys into, often impressively mirroring Han’s touch. Their fluid rapport keeps all options open, leaving the listener with the idea that the music can go anywhere at any moment. What’s remarkable about the album is how frequently Plimley delves into harmonies and rhythms mainly, if not exclusively associated with jazz, while Han digs deep into Chinese materials, and the results leapfrog over both traditions.


Buck Hill
Severn CD 0039

Usually, when a list of jazz legends are mentioned as being from the same neighborhood or high school, the city in question is usually an acknowledged wellspring, like Chicago and Philadelphia. But, Washington, DC’s Armstrong High School has its own honor roll, including Jimmy Cobb, Leo Parker and Charlie Rouse. Were it not for his decision to stick close to home and raise his family, Buck Hill would certainly have gained equal notoriety. For years, the tenor saxophonist was known outside DC largely by word of mouth and a famous photograph of him playing for the neighborhood kids in his Postal Service gear, earning him the moniker, The Wailin’ Mailman. It was only in the late 1970s that a series of Steeplechase albums, followed by a string of equally solid dates for Muse, elevated Hill to his rightful place as one of his generation’s more personable stylists. Hill has the type of soul and swing that just can’t be taught; it has to be lived. It’s the type that instantly recognizable from hearing merely a pick-up note. It’s a sound that permeates Relax.

With the exception of a burnished, wistful turn on “Old Folks,” the album is comprised of Hill originals, which span hard-hitting blues, a lithe bossa nova, and the soulful closing ballad, “Sad Ones,” and a trio of vintage Miles Davis tunes. The minor-keyed impressionistic “Flamenco Sketches,” the bluesy “Prancing,” a theme Hill milks with sly long tones, and the urbane “Milestones” mirror qualities Hill brings to his own writing, as well as being tunes that play to his strengths as an improviser. Hill’s playing is placed in bolder relief than usual on this date by virtue of his long-time pianist Jon Ozment’s inspired switch to organ, and the addition of guitarist Paul Pieper (Jerry Jones, Hill’s regular drummer, rounds out the quartet). This gives the album an occasional flavor of a Gene Ammons and/or Sonny Stitt organ date; but, in the end, it simply underscores Buck Hill’s individuality.


The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble
Drumdance to the Motherland
Eremite MTE-050

One of only three releases on the Philadelphia-based Dogtown imprint, Drumdance to the Motherland is one of those recordings that makes one realize that a lot of what’s currently touted as new had already been done a long time ago. This 1972 club recording by vibraphonist Khan Jamal’s Creative Arts Ensemble is an early case where live signal processing played a crucial role in shaping a bracing new sound. Khan and engineer Mario Falana were not the sole African American experimentalists in this area; Muhal Richard Abrams daringly used echo on his first Delmark LP and Bugs Hunter employed reverb-rich mixes in his recordings for Sun Ra. Still, Falana’s processing on Drumdance yielded unique results that transformed Jamal’s mix of traditional African music, ecstatic free playing and post-Coltrane jazz into a distinctive psychedelic sound. Without the processing, “Cosmic Echoes” would have sounded much closer to an Art Ensemble-like percussion-driven collage. Jamal and drummer Dwight James’ screaming clarinets on the title piece would be far less harrowing. Guitarist Monnette Sudler’s bluesy solo on “Inner Peace” is given a surreal, liquid tone heard nowhere else on her recordings. And, there is a shimmer enveloping the grooves on “Breath of Life” which melds vibes, guitar, Bill Mills’ bass and the rhythms of James and percussionist Alex Ellison. This would have been a much different recording without Falana, and probably less legendary, as well. As it is, Drumdance to the Motherland is a truly unique album. However, don’t check it out as a novelty, but as a window to a vibrant, creative period in Philly jazz.


Terry Jenoure + Helios String Quartet + Sebastian Gramss
Looks Like Me
Free Elephant 009

“Frontier-crossing as the art of unleashing” is how Stefan Hentz describes Terry Jenoure’s playing in his booklet notes for Looks Like Me, the violinist’s collaboration with bassist Sebastian Gramss and Helios String Quartet (violinist Ulrike Stortz, violists Gareth Lubbe and Axel Porath, and cellist Scott Roller). It takes a while to understand the insight, as much of the music does not have a corresponding intensity. Some of the nine improvisations move gradually, amassing materials from silence, while others hover gracefully like fog. The early foreshadowing of Hentz’s realization is largely vocal – Lubbe’s churning throat singing and Jenoure’s dirge-like melody on the title piece. Soon, it becomes apparent that strings are appropriating vocal qualities, and vice versa, and that this is a primary vent for the unleashing. Nothing generically supernatural, let alone demonic, is loosed through the music, only an unfiltered humanity. There is enough of the African-American spiritual and field holler in Jenoure’s playing to lend emotional focus, but not so much to impose idiomatic strictures. Her cohorts respond with such fluidity and scope that even when she scats and plays a faintly boppish unison it does not register as the designated jazz passage of the set. In short, there is an easy exchange of ideas and impulses among the improvisers, and therein lies the power unleashed in frontier-crossing music.


Achim Kaufmann + Michael Moore + Dylan van der Schyff
Red Toucan RT 9329

Pianist Achim Kaufmann is the titular leader of this trio album with saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff; but, if you don’t read the sleeve notes, it’s difficult to hear how and when overt leadership is asserted. Though Kaufmann contributes some idiomatic compositions, this is largely an album of impeccable improvised music. Granted, impeccability is a word not normally bandied about improvised music, mainly due to its privileging of a design sensibility. But, there is a sustained balance of input from each of the musicians that supports its use. This quality stems from their previous encounters in a string of closely related settings involving musicians based in Amsterdam and Vancouver. Kaufmann, Moore and van der Schyff have worked together in ensembles as large as a quintet, and as small as a duo. As a trio, they have enough space to maximize the effect of small details of dynamics and timbre; yet, in the more robust passages, they have a satisfyingly full sound. Additionally, their respective sensibilities as improvisers coalesce very well. Kaufmann’s playing has an underlying cool lucidity, whether he is playing soft fragmentary phrases or fast runs supported by strong, underpinning chords. Much the same can be said of Moore, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of tunes and styles which he can tap and reconfigure at any moment. van der Schyff’s playing is kaleidoscopic to the degree that one small shift in attack can produce a markedly different set of colors and rhythmic relationships. Referencing Moore’s co-op trio with Fred Hersch and Gerry Hemingway, it is tempting to call this trio 13 Additional Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. But, the truth is that they have far more than 13.

Jazz Away Records

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