Moment's Notice

Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed


Quincy Jones
The ABC/Mercury Big Band Jazz Sessions
(Mosaic MD5-237)

Quincy Jones Quincy Jones reminds me in unexpected ways of Philip Glass. Both studied with Nadia Boulanger, both helped to invent or reinvent a style, but both seem like colossal underachievers in creative terms, fierce intellects all too readily turned to populist ends. Quincy worked with Lionel Hampton and later with Miles Davis; he also arranged Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”. The CV also includes a spell at Schillinger House (which later turned into Berklee) and as the first African-American v-p in the music business (for Mercury). His arranging career got a substantial lift from the US State Department when he became MD and straw-boss for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. He made his masterpiece in 1956 as a 23 year old, and has never again done anything quite as effective under his own name.

Jones turns 75 in March, so a good time for a retrospective. Brian Priestley’s liner essay and notes fill in a lot of biographical and musical detail, as is always the way with Mosaic sets, even down to the detail of Urbie Green’s trombone slide catching a stand and consequently playing off-mic on the first note of his “Walkin’” solo. That extended performance, with its slurring reeds and trombones shifting around in the background like a movie crowd scene, set the scene for a record whose flip side picked up Jones the composer with “Stockholm Sweetnin’”. He’d consolidated his arranging skills in Sweden with Harry Arnold’s group, and while the session that made up This Is What I Feel About Jazz (what an effortlessly confident and ultimately ironic title for an LP!) is dominated by things like the Carpenter tune and the Adderleys’ “Sermonette”, also from that September 1956 date, it’s the effortless glide of the originals that catches the ear: almost too easy in the making and execution.

Disc one then jumps forward to 1961 – Boulanger and staff writing for Barclay in Paris came in between, as well as further recording – and a one-off date for Impulse! released as The Quintessence. It included stuff like “Straight, No Chaser”, but also Billy Byers’ “The Twitch”; Jones’s musical facility was already running ahead of his, we can’t say taste, so let’s fall back on “purer musical vision”. This was shortly before he became a staff producer at Mercury. If that changed the ethnic profile of the company, Jones had already shown himself to be both color-blind and doggedly affirmative in his own recruitments. When he came to record The Birth of a Band and The Great Wide World Of Quincy Jones between February and November 1959, he’d managed to put together some of the most effective sections you’ll hear from the period, with Phil Woods among the reeds. This was also the orchestra that started out with both Osie Johnson and Jimmy Crawford on drums, brilliantly deployed either on kit or additional percussion. Disc two has eleven bonus tracks from the Birth sessions, none of them with quite the punch of the released tracks and including material like “The Hucklebuck” and “Syncopated Clock” (the latter with Johnson and Crawford doing woodblock effects).

Disc three takes in The Great Wide World, never for me a compelling Jones record, and the somewhat later I Dig Dancers, recorded in Paris in February 1960 with essentially the same orchestra (though some material was recorded in New York that autumn with a different trumpet section; “Pleasingly Plump” is the only Jones original, so pleased with itself it almost falls over. Mosaic includes an abandoned first version as well as a short version of Patti Bown’s “G’wan Train” and a nice “Parisian Thoroughfare”, but it’s starting to sound formulaic, like a high-wire act pulled off too many times to impress any longer.

The Jones marquee was established. The Birth of A Band: Volume 2 was followed by The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones Live, which was recorded at the Zurich concert of March 10 1961, a mixture of watchmaker accuracy and fondue-like harmony. A version of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” plus a trio of bebop themes were recorded in the empty hall (apparently after the gig rather than at band call) and subsequently released under Curtis Fuller’s name. Four months later, a similar band, with another tweak to the trumpets, appeared at Newport, but there was to be no defining moment like Gonsalves’s 27-chorus rescue job for Duke half a decade earlier. This was a band of what Robert Lowell once called (in another context) “savage servility”, sliding by on machine-tooled arrangements, and sounding under constraint even when ostensibly given permission to cut loose.

It would be bathetic to suggest that from here on there was nothing to look forward to but Michael Jackson, Back on the Block, Miles at Montreux and industry adulation. But you do wonder where those early fires went, what happened to that brilliantly intuitive leadership of men twice his age and more that delivered the first album. Nadia Boulanger apparently told Philip Glass he’d never be a composer, which made him determined to be one and prove her wrong. She apparently told Quincy to forget about writing symphonies and concentrate on his jazz; a pity he didn’t take her quite at her word.
–Brian Morton


Carla Kihlstedt/ Satoko Fujii
Henceforth Records 105

Carla Kihlstedt This 51-minute CD represents the complete recorded works of the duo of violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist Satoako Fujii: three tracks totaling 24 minutes from the kick-off concert of ROVA’s silver anniversary season and a 27 minute piece from the Larry Ochs-curated 2005 Wels Music Unlimited festival. Both performances were improvised introductions to the saxophone quartet, and the brevity of these sets may be a key to the success of the music, which has the concentration and focus of the most intense modernist chamber music. It’s not just the instrumentation that will suggest a classical sonata. Kihlstedt and Fujii are clearly steeped in genre and in the repertoire, with the strongest affinities being to Bartok and Prokofiev (with a nod to the special impressionism of Takemitsu). It’s tense and tensile stuff, with a steely formal intelligence just beneath the surface.

The playing is absolutely beautiful, and oddly enough it’s beautiful in that classical way in which you might separate an individual’s performance from the music that he or she is playing. There are moments here, as in the spontaneous melody of “One Hundred and Sixty Billion Spray,” that are executed so well it wouldn’t matter what the notes are (if such a distinction could be made, and it often is). But the two are actually making this up from the material of their interaction. Fujii is especially adept at elaborating form, sometimes creating a complex dialogue between left and right hands that follows, frames and amplifies Kihlstedt’s lines. That expressive richness here (the Bartok/ Prokofiev lineage) springs from Kihlstedt’s profound sound and attack, as rich and dynamic as any violinist who has entered the improvising community.

The way the two will choose pure sound to frame one another is also noteworthy. Kihlstedt’s use of harmonics is forceful enough to suggest electronics while Fujii finds tremendous resources on the piano strings, creating sustained atmospherics like sea and rain shower and gravel. The later “Remainder of One, Reminder of Two” has the evanescence of Crumb’s “Night Music.” It’s all delivered with the special intensity of people who didn’t have a long time to get acquainted. Not so much a triumph of improvised music over the composed, rather it’s improvised music that’s acting like a special kind of through composition.
–Stuart Broomer


The League of Automatic Music Composers
The League of Automatic Music Composers 1978 – 1983
New World Records 80671-2

The League of Automatic Music Composers Computer Music: it’s a term that’s stretched thin, currently less prone to rupture than using Guitar Music to encompass, say, Isaac Albéniz and Buckethead. But, give it time; it’s merely thirty years since the inception of The League of Automatic Music Composers, the first band – their term – to not just employ microcomputers, but, more importantly, improvise with them in a network environment. The League was a collective that included co-founder Rich Gold, David Behrman and Paul DeMarinis during the first two years of its existence; but beginning in 1980, the League solidified as a trio with newcomer Tim Perkis and co-founders John Bischoff and Jim Horton until Horton’s debilitating arthritis caused the group to disband in ’83. Their presence on the fertile Bay Area experimental music scene was propitiously timed, as they used the emergent technology to help shift electronic music away from a realm of practice where the circuitry and components were often, for all intents and purposes, the composition itself, and towards ideas about real-time interactivity and programming that have become central to the endeavor. Their music required large tables crowded with computer keyboards, conventional audio gear like mixers and tape machines, and sundry homemade boxes, all connected by an kudzu-like sprawl of cables; but, nevertheless, it was portable, crucial to the transformation of computer music from a cloistered activity realized through mainframes into a performance-based art form.

There were two other contrarian aspects of their work. First, there was their attitude towards control; instead of trying to perfect systems that performed with thorough predictability, the League sought to create music that threw them a curve in the midst of a performance, which sharpened their instincts as improvisers. And, there was their practice of regularly convening what were essentially open rehearsals on the UC Berkeley campus, creating a new audience dynamic for the presentation of computer music. Is it any surprise, then, that the League did not release a recording during their lifetime, and that it took so long for their work to be anthologized? Of course not; but, what’s truly remarkable about this compilation is how many of the performances took place at home gatherings, and how many were recorded only on cassettes. The tenuous survival of this music is a cautionary tale for those who think that the legacy of any form of experimental music is currently secure.

As for the music itself: it is a beguiling mix of emphatically dated sounds whose evocations of touch-tone phones run amok, kazoos on steroids and a slew of
American banalities would tend to prompt a blindfolded listener to guess Frank Zappa instead of Milton Babbitt. Given the current determination of many electronicists and laptoppers to create the equivalent of sonic wallpaper, there’s a refreshing commitment to pitch relationships and phrase shapes in the League’s music. Additionally, there are few pieces with an arch sense of construction, and far greater instances when the trajectory of a piece is suddenly and radically altered, reflecting the League’s use of programming and execution strategies that removed substantial degrees of real-time control. As a result, the League’s music engenders a quality of engagement from the listener that current practitioners achieve less consistently.
–Bill Shoemaker


Pascal Marzan + Roger Smith
Two Spanish Guitars
Emanem 4145

Pascal Marzan There’s something fundamentally good (the word intended morally as well as aesthetically) about all of Roger Smith’s recordings, beginning with their apparent naturalness. Usually made in the kitchen of his London home, often late at night, they’re models of improvisatory intimacy, made with a minimum of distractions and no particular sense of audience, among the purest gifts the listener of improvised music might find. They’re as close to process and as far from product as possible. It’s music, too, that seems to spring from an almost unconscious muse, random in the manner of Derek Bailey but quieter, gentler (Smith plays a nylon string, finger-plucked, classical guitar) and less pointedly flamboyant. I think you get as much of Smith as you get of any musician in a recording (there’s a disarmingly honest e-mail interview with Théo Jarrier on the online Paris Transatlantic Magazine).

For all his qualities as a soloist (his concept of the guitar is particularly orchestral), Smith is a fine collaborator (the most durable of John Stevens’ partners in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble) and it’s evidenced in these duets with fellow guitarist Pascal Marzan. The two first played together at a Paris tribute to Bailey and a series of meetings in Smith’s kitchen ensued. There’s clearly a high degree of empathy here. The two share roots that stretch from the techniques of flamenco guitar to the early prepared piano music of John Cage. Approaches range from sounds that give the impression they just hatched on the spot – boinks and plunks and sudden shifts in volume, smeared sounds that reside near articulation, even the near-miss – to very fast arpeggios and sliding scalar patterns, a dense hive of perfectly even percussive sounds that blur into thoughts of waves and water. The result is a walk in the woods where wildflower and nettle, path and sudden bog vie for our attention and interest.

What’s particularly pleasurable here is the way the two construct a universe, whether complementary or seemingly indifferent to one another’s devices. Foreground and background are constantly shifting, but the two never do this in an obvious way. It’s particularly open to the listener, who is virtually at the table, participating in the unfolding. The centerpiece of the disc is the extended three-part “Holiday in my Head,” a performance of sustained empathy that achieves a special vulnerability in “part 3” as it courses sweetly around the idea of tonality.
–Stuart Broomer


Steve Nelson
HighNote HCD 7175

Steve Nelson There’s something wrong with this picture. One of the preeminent exponents of an instrument with a rich history in jazz leads a recording only about once a decade. But, that’s the case with Steve Nelson. Even though he is one of the very few vibraphonists who have created a thoughtful and exciting synthesis of the deep swing of Milt Jackson and the harmonic adventurousness of Bobby Hutcherson, most jazz consumers know him primarily, if not exclusively as a sideman in Dave Holland’s quintet. Leading the blue-chip rhythm section of pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash in a well-sequenced mix of flinty originals and ripe chestnuts, Nelson does more than reiterate his finesse and inventiveness with time-honored materials and forms (How many musicians, generally, can weave a quote into a solo with the ease and stealth with which Nelson threads “Hi Fly” into his airy ballad, “Sound Essence”?). He conveys a savvy persona with a pretty wide romantic streak, whether he is creating glowing warmth with “Desafinado” or turning up the heat with “You and the Night and the Music.” Give a good amount of the credit for this to the rapport within the quartet; Miller and Washington were on board for Nelson’s 1997 TCB album, New Beginnings, a title that’s grown ironic over the years. Nelson and his cohorts have countless gears they effortlessly shift through during the course of a tune, be it “One Thin Dime,” Nelson’s hard bop stroll, or Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jump Spring.” Their ability to spot each other’s gymnastics one moment and trade barbs the next is thoroughly engaging. Sound-Effect is consummate mainstream jazz.
–Bill Shoemaker

Vancouver Creative Music Institute

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