Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed

Muhal Richard Abrams
Vision Towards Essence
Pi 123

Muhal Richard Abrams - Vision Towards EssenceThis is Muhal Richard Abrams’ first solo album in almost thirty years, a damning stat on its face. But, when considered within the context of his discography as a whole, there is a simple explanation for this incredible gap: ensemble music has been the pianist’s primary focus. For about 20 years after the recording of Spiral, the 1978 Montreux festival performance issued by Arista-Novus, Abrams’ music was steadily documented on Black Saint, but he chose not to release a solo album. Certainly, the last decade has seen his recorded output slow to a trickle, a further impetus for Abrams to work with distinctively configured ensembles when presented with recording opportunities. This hypothesis about Abrams’ preferences is supported by what is arguably the more salient factoid associated with this stunning Guelph Jazz Festival performance: it’s almost ten years old.

Still, the release of Vision Towards Essence is very timely. The Streaming trio with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell continues to make an impact with recent festival performances in the US and Europe. Additionally, the imminent release of Lewis’ much-anticipated book on the AACM will reiterate Abrams’ central role in this revolutionary organization. Yet, these factors are mere atmospherics without a compelling performance by Abrams. Abrams puts that issue to rest in short order. The 3-part piece has the lucid exposition of earlier solos; but the use of idiomatic materials stands in sharp contrast. Abrams does not pave the way into his more idiosyncratic materials with the pristine, Powell-informed single note lines as he did on Spiral, nor does he surveys the jazz piano tradition like he did on the side-long solo on the 1969 Delmark classic, Young at Heart/Wise in Time. Towards the end of the piece, the jazz vernacular seeps into the material – including the few diaphanous Ellington-like arpeggios that literally end the piece – but it does not trigger a jazzy positivist resolution by any stretch. Abrams’ idea of Essence may be comparable to George Russell’s view of Nature; that it is not necessarily comforting or nurturing, just order-giving. However, Abrams’ passing use of time-honored jazz methods – such as countering a walking bass with filigreed lines – does contribute a crucial segment of the panoramic perspective Abrams expresses with the piece.
-Bill Shoemaker


Albert Ayler Quartet
The Hilversum Sessions
ESP 4035

Albert Ayler - The Hilversum Sessions 1964 was such a watershed year for Albert Ayler that his legacy was secure by the time The Hilvesum Sessions was recorded on November 9. Made at the end of the end of a lengthy European tour that yielded other important studio and concert recordings, this session for Dutch radio has a more reflective feel than the brimstone and fire spewing stereotypes surrounding the tenor saxophonist’s quartet with cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray would indicate. Though it is stretched almost beyond recognition, “Angels” is essentially a lullaby, and the quartet exerts discernable care to maintain a sub-text of murmuring calm. Certainly, the energy spikes on flag wavers like “Ghosts” and “Spirits;” but, by this time, the quartet has burnished the folkish quality of Ayler’s thematic materials, dampening their pugilistic impact. Cherry’s ebullient edge is also a distinguishing factor between this recording (first produced by George Coppens for Osmosis in the early 1980s) and the rawer, epochal trio date, Spiritual Unity, recorded four months earlier. In this regard, the inclusion of Cherry’s “Infant Happiness” is noteworthy, as it is more boisterous than roiling, with Cherry contributing a solo built upon loping, lyrical lines. The Cherry tune is also a fine vehicle for the often furious Peacock, whose solo receives incisive commentary from the irregular bounce of Murray’s drumming. Though it can’t be placed among crowning achievements like Spiritual Unity and Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse! Recordings, The Hilversum Sessions should at least be upgraded from its current position deep in the pack of Ayler’s recordings.
-Bill Shoemaker


Carla Bley
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Frescu
Watt 34

Carla Bley - The Lost Chords Find Paolo Frescu For all of their considerable depth and wit, Carla Bley’s albums with small groups over the past twenty years have tended to register as respites from more time-consuming, logistically demanding big band projects. However, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Frescu not only shreds that trend, but actually challenges the ossified conventional wisdom that her writing needs a large ensemble to be fully realized. It only took the relatively simple addition of a second horn to the front line of The Lost Chords, her quartet with drummer Billy Drummond, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, to open up a wealth of voicings, counterpoint and embellishments that give these charts all of the subtle emotional shadings for which Bley is renowned.

The choice of Paolo Frescu, who can provide everything from Milesian atmospherics to bel canto grandeur, makes eminent sense. More importantly, he proves that he gets Bley’s penchant for a satiric edge and her underlying romanticism, and delivers the required nuanced performances. He is sure-footed and limber in his rapport with Sheppard, whether they are lobbing breathy lines to each other at the outset of the pensive opener, nailing the bluesy, woozy last-set ambiance of "Two Banana," or blithely gliding through "Five Banana." And, as a soloist, Frescu’s temperament is a snug fit with the quartet – he summons spunk, swing and lyricism at will, applying just the right amount of each to further the aims of the material.

The initial impact of hearing Frescu with The Lost Chords is sufficiently pronounced to indicate a revisiting of their prior CD. Yeah, it’s not really disproportionate, after all: on the earlier album, Sheppard’s tenor simmered similarly; the interplay between Drummond and Swallow was just as exact and measured; and Bley’s piano slipped through from time to time with spot-on subtlety. It was a useful exercise, however, because it pointed up a difference in the strategy of Bley’s writing for the respective albums. The quintet date has a suite-like seamlessness that goes beyond the bunch of front-loaded "Banana" pieces, which distinguishes it from many Bley dates. She tends to write complete works, usually within such a specific idiomatic framework that deters attempts at overt linkage within an album-length program. Here, she reworks rhythmic feels and phrases to create an album that flows from beginning to end, sometimes so stealthily that the listener is only semi-aware at times that the band may be onto the next track.
-Bill Shoemaker


Convergence Quartet
Live in Oxford
FMR CD223-307

Convergence Quartet - Live in Oxford The Convergence Quartet consists of two North Americans (cornet and flugelhornist Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Harris Eisenstadt) and two Brits (Alexander Hawkins on piano and small instruments and bassist Dominic Lash). The musicians seem to be taking the band name seriously, as the music is clearly informed by the intersections of methodologies; even though the pieces are shaped by free improvisation, each of the five tracks credits a single composer.

The first piece, Bynum’s “Miscellaneous,” nicely recapitulates the textural history of jazz, whether it wants to or not, beginning with the cornetist’s fine averaging of Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton with the big beat, Sonny Greer-style orchestral drumming of Eisenstadt. Before the theme is recapitulated, Hawkins’ solo has some of the animation of Cecil Taylor: it’s a short and circular history. Lash’s “Goad” is then the sonic inverse, initially a collection of wisps and stutters that maintains that level until a piano solo creates strong linear continuity and animation, triggering a rhythmic figure from the cornet that might be a composed bridge to another passage of improvisation, dynamic sostenuto piano scurry leading to a final angular trumpet part consisting of sturdy and pointed blasts. A bass solo introduces Eisenstadt’s “Convergence,” gradually gaining in rhythmic specificity to introduce something that Henry Mancini would recognize as a theme, with bass and drums working in close tandem. While Hawkins gradually takes it out with Tippett-ing flurries, segments might be described as “in the pocket,” by those who actually use that phrase. There’s a wonderful moment here in which Bynum plays call and response with himself at the same time that he’s interacting closely with Eisenstadt. Hawkins’ “Goodbye, Sir” is more obscure in its underpinnings, beginning with sound-play solos from Bynum and Eisenstadt before thematic materials emerge with a group passage that leads to free (jazz) improvisation that’s a highlight of the performance. The final and brief Bynum piece, “mm(pf),” reasserts a pattern here, strong tonal agreement arising out of apparently random activity.

What this music means in relationship to how it’s assembled will be determined in each individual listening, but its ambiguities of construction form a particular invitation to inquire into the time and manner of its making. One of its characteristic gestures is a movement from improvisation to pre-structured material, thus structuring material in advance of our hearing, changing our temporal relationship to its construction while suggesting a fundamental reassertion of composition within improvised music. It also thematizes the idea of free improvisation as a prelude to something else that has already conditioned it, turning improvisation into something the music is about rather than a method of making it. The liner essay by Simon H. Fell is a useful inquiry into the issues posed by this music. For anyone interested in pursuing this work, Fell’s note is also available as a PDF file on the record company site:
-Stuart Broomer


Nick Didkovsky
Ice Cream Time
New World 80667-2

Nick Didkovsky - Ice Cream Time “New music” and “avant rock” are almost as ill-fitting on Nick Didkovsky as “jazz” is on many other artists discussed on these web pages. The composer-guitarist-laptopper’s music certainly has enough formal properties to support the former label and is frequently riotous enough for the latter; but, even though the algorithmic complexities that have pegged his music to both genres remain in force on the album-length composition Ice Cream Time, the feel of the music suggests they don’t play quite the determinative role as in the past. Part of this derives from the instrumentation – Didkovsky’s sextet is rounded out by signal processor Thomas and the ARTE Quartett, comprised of saxophonists Beat Hofstetter, Sascha Armbruster, Andrea Formenti and Beat Kappeler – which is conducive for creating shimmering auroras and iridescent drones that have stand-alone integrity and don’t necessary have to be heard within the context of an overarching intricate structure. Additionally, the spaces allotted to the saxophonists give them the ability to improvise or at least sufficiently bend the materials to create a convincing semblance of improvisation. However, it is mistake to think that Didkovsky is leaving much, if anything to chance, particularly after experiencing “Rise,” the 14-minute finale, a phased-shifting soundtrack for taking the scenic route through a worm hole. With Ice Cream Time, Didkovsky has created a work that is brashly label-resistant.
-Bill Shoemaker

Black Saint Records

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