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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Double Demon
Delmark DE 2011 (CD); DF 2011 (LP)

Starlicker is leader Rob Mazurek, cornet; the very popular Jason Adasiewicz, vibes; and the limited drummer John Herndon. Mazurek, well-known since the late ‘90s for his Chicago Underground Duo, Trio, and Quartet, has also lived in Brazil since the mid-‘00s. His most important work is his Exploding Star Orchestra, especially his collaborations with Bill Dixon. Mazurek’s recurring experiments with electronics and his composing and leading converge with and may have been influenced by Dixon’s work. In Point of Departure 35 Ed Hazell wrote, “A Dixon composition frequently provided a still surface that teemed with events – swirling colors, patches of contrasting textures, and unforeseen lyrical vistas.” That’s not far from Mazurek’s ideals in Double Demon, too, though the results are quite different.

This album offers six Mazurek pieces with a dark, abstract sound and heavy resonance. Adasiewicz’s full-blooded, four-mallet chords and his heavy sustain pedal, rich with hanging chords and overtones, are the massive center of this trio’s sound. Beneath him, Herndon’s drumming, though he includes some fast-march intros and rockish accompaniments, is a fast, almost-constant barrage, an undifferentiated weight. Mazurek, open-horn and muted, darts like a swallow above them – that is, his lines curve here, suddenly zip down there with a run, even more suddenly fly up and then away. His disassociation is quite odd; it’s as if he’s determined to thwart his own lyrical notions. So his cornet playing is hardly like Dixon’s large trumpet designs.

In fact, is Mazurek’s discontinuity a result of willing himself and his mates into an improvising trio, rather than two soloists and a drummer? Because often Adasiewicz begins to develop more flowing and varied ideas while the cornetist riffs and relentless drummer pounds around him. The vibist’s nascent statements don’t conclude – instead, after a minute or so, new themes intervene or he invents simpler ideas to accompany Mazurek’s flights. The main effect of Double Demon is that abstract-noir trio sound, the “still surface.” But Adasiewicz plays with most everybody in Chicago these days, and his sound is important to several more colorful groups, for instance his own trio in his recent Sun Rooms (Delmark) CD or Aram Shelton’s quartet Arrive in the new, excellent “There Was...” (Clean Feed).
–John Litweiler


Trio 3 + Geri Allen
Celebrating Mary Lou Williams
Intakt CD 187

Mary Lou Williams’ music was documented for more than half a century, which is a millennium in jazz time. She has been made a beacon for women in jazz, becoming the namesake of the planet’s most prestigious festival dedicated to women jazz artists. Still, most enthusiasts of either gender – even those who are aware of the influence she had on Thelonious Monk and others – would be hard pressed to name even a few of Williams’ works, and even fewer could ID her music blindfolded. This makes a project dedicated to her music trickier than, say, Monk’s, in that it is harder for most listeners to parse out the subtle licenses in interpretation. Additionally, while the approach to swing and the blues in her compositions and characteristics of her piano style are distinctive in a nuts and bolts sense, there’s a grace about Williams’ music, regardless of the secular or sacred intent of a given piece, that defies analysis – it’s there, and that’s about all you can say about it. Unless the interpreter of her music understands how to promote that grace, the results will be empty at its core.

Although Williams’ music has been revisited by various artists with appreciable degrees of success, pianist Geri Allen conveys an innate sense of Williams’ grace on Celebrating Mary Lou Williams, a collaboration with Trio 3 recorded at Birdland. She is also extremely well-equipped to synthesize Williams’ music with present-day piano lexicons. Subsequently, Allen’s interpretations are fresh and entail substantial risks at times; but, unfailingly, the aura of Allen’s connection with Williams remains bright. Certainly, the presence of drummer Andrew Cyrille, who played in Williams’ trio and worked with her artist-assisting Bel Canto Foundation, is fortifying to this end; but so too are the contributions of alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and bassist Reggie Workman. Having already logged sufficient hours on the bandstand and in the studio to yield At This Time, their substantial 2009 album for Intakt, this was an ensemble ready for what is a more daunting task than perceived at first glance, as any interpretation of Williams’ music in the main has to consider her majestic metamoraphsis from one of the guys to the mother of them all.

Few composer retrospectives span 40 years; fewer reveal the composer to have the continuity of temperament demonstrated by Williams. Mid-‘30s swing vehicles like “Roll ‘Em,” penned for Benny Goodman’s big band, convey a well-grounded verve instead of the delirium that was in vogue; conversely, “Libra” from her watershed 1945 Zodiac Suite has more human than cosmic connotations. The pieces collected on this recording span the boppish “New Musical Express” to the sultry blues of “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”; yet, the grace factor coheres them. It is particularly impressive that the focal lens for this aspect of Williams’ music is Lake’s alto, the piquancy and bite of which is in the league of Eric Dolphy, Dudu Pukwana and few others. Lake’s trademarked cries and abrupt, thickly textured flourishes, would seem to be at odds with Williams’ temperament; yet, his foreground presence in the ensembles and his mercurial solos are galvanizing, whether the issue at hand is the loping “Blues for Peter,” “Ghost of Love,” a late ‘30s ballad whose contours are both ethereal and sensuous, or “Intermission,” a simmering, vamp-driven piece in 11/4 that would fit snugly in an early McCoy Tyner Milestone.

Still, Allen is the heart of the album and not simply because of her formative close club encounter with Williams while Allen was still a student at Howard University. Rather, it is Allen’s compatibility with the elastic interplay that the trio has refined over its quarter-century run that allows her to all but bypass an emulative approach to Williams – the appropriate exception being her evocative solo reading of “Libra.” Allen tenaciously stretches the blues form of the rollicking “Roll ‘Em” and the sultry “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?,” and then snaps it back into its original shape at the turnaround or other key points in a given chorus. Like Lake, Allen also has a keen sense for how much off-center post-bop phrasing to mix into a solo, and how to make the strongest bond between the roots and the branches of jazz lexicons. Her work in tandem with Cyrille and Workman argue for a future trio date; the drummer’s patented brand of swing keeps Allen moving apace while the bassist’s space-soaking sound and incisive phrasing alternately cradles and jostles her playing (and is there another drummer that can so artfully build a solo with just cymbals?).

Celebrating Mary Lou Williams is one of the better recordings of 2011 and is among the very best tribute albums of the past several years. Expect it to place fairly high on year-end best-of lists.
–Bill Shoemaker

Pi Recordings

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