Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Kris Davis
Aeriol Piano
Clean Feed CF233CD

Tony Malaby’s Novela
Tony Malaby’s Novela
Clean Feed CF232CD

Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis’ student days intriguingly foreshadow her future endeavors: classical studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music; two summers at the Banff Centre for the Arts’ jazz program, where she met future collaborator Tony Malaby; then, moving to New York City to study composition with Jim McNeely. Her subsequent associations with peers like John Hollenbeck and Ingrid Laubrock, as well as her membership in collectives such as Paradoxical Frog and the RIDD Quartet, have developed in tandem with her own varied projects.

Aeriol Piano is her first unaccompanied outing. The solo recital has long been considered the ultimate proving ground for pianists; encouraging the broadest dynamic range from a performer, it captures every nuance of an artist’s expressive capabilities. From a respectfully abstract linear reading of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” and a handful of fully improvised miniatures to the ambitious “Saturn Return,” Davis explores the full potential of her instrument, both inside and out.

A product of her influences, Davis seamlessly incorporates lessons learned from disparate sources, adapting the dissonant intervals of Cecil Taylor, probing lyricism of Paul Bley and understated minimalism of Morton Feldman into a singular style largely devoid of the clichés of the jazz tradition, such as block chords or left-handed bass lines. Though capable of summoning turbulent salvos for dramatic effect, it is her ability to craft poetic melodies from oblique lyrical fragments – infusing heady abstraction with heartfelt beauty – that is her most impressive talent. The prepared piano opus “Saturn Return” takes this aesthetic a step further, serving as the conceptual centerpiece of the record. An episodic rumination through various stylistic precedents, Davis builds from romantic musings to thunderous drama before embarking on a lyrical exposition that draws equally from aleatoric experimentation and minimalist formalism.

Davis’ growing talent as a composer and improviser is well documented, but her skills as an arranger and conductor have been largely unheard, until now. Tony Malaby’s Novela features Davis’ multifaceted arrangements of six Malaby-penned compositions originally conceived for trio and/or quartet. Davis’ working relationship with Malaby dates back 10 years, to the formation of her longstanding quartet. In the ensuing years Malaby has explored a variety of instrumental line-ups to extend the breadth of his eclectic writing, from bare-bones acoustic trios to electrified quartets. Novela is his most extravagant creation yet, a horn-heavy nonet that combines the unfettered zeal of a riotous street band and the tonal sensitivity of a chamber ensemble.

The session consists entirely of previously recorded compositions; two even date back to Sabino (Arabesque), his 2000 debut as a leader. Although presumably selected for the sake of expediency, these six tunes provide Davis the opportunity to demonstrate her knack for transposing skeletal themes into intricate symphonic tone poems, revealing a previously undocumented talent in the process. Davis’ urbane charts subtly hint at her studies with McNeely, tracing a line back through the innovations of George Schuller and George Russell. They also conjure memories of the loft era, with zany march motifs and manic collective improvisations that owe as much to Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton as they do Raymond Scott.

Opening with brooding intensity, “Floating Head” features contrapuntal horn formations churning like storm clouds gathering in pursuit of the leader’s evasive soprano. “Floral and Herbacious” follows, blossoming into a cornucopia of dynamic ensemble shifts led by Ralph Alessi’s melancholy trumpet and Joachim Badenhorst’s caterwauling bass clarinet. After a dramatic exchange between Dan Peck’s bleating multiphonic tuba (played with a tenor saxophone mouthpiece) and his section mates, the ensemble swells behind Malaby’s rhapsodic tenor, concluding an excursion as quixotic as the surreal sonic travelogue “Mother’s Love.” The influence of Raymond Scott is heard in the quirky “Warblepeck,” which rivals “Remolino” for pure capriciousness. The former tune demonstrates the nonet’s capacity for rhythmic fervor as well as orchestral color, counterbalancing pneumatic horn charts with John Hollenbeck’s kaleidoscopic percussion accents. Davis’ spacious arrangements repeatedly reveal a penchant for such dramatic pairings; she isolates Michael Attias’ diaphanous alto at the outset of “Cosas,” stages a garrulous duet between Peck’s tuba and Ben Gerstein’s trombone during the coda of “Floating Head” and joins Peck and baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro for a riotous trio interlude on the madcap closer, “Remolino.”

While Davis is more than just an arranger here – she also conducts the horns and plays piano – ultimately, the star of the show is Malaby, whose unbound expressionism continues to push further and further beyond conventional tonal extremes with each release. Inspired to lofty heights by Davis’ opulent charts, Tony Malaby's Novela is one of the saxophonist’s most compelling efforts to date.
-Troy Collins


Dead Cat Bounce
Chance Episodes
Cuneiform RUNE 323

It might sound like a dance move, but “dead cat bounce” belongs in the Wall Street bestiary, along with bulls and bears. Stock market freefalls very often have a brief recovery, prompting the thought that even a dead cat bounces if you drop it from high enough. This might suggest that Boston’s Dead Cat Bounce (confusingly, there’s a Dublin comedy troupe of the same name) have in some way invested in the idea that jazz is moribund or heading for some kind of extinction event, but what the heck? We might as well beat the hell out of it while it’s here! There are usually two approaches to death-of-jazz scenarios. One might be described as breakfasting on Vesuvius, the other to organizing deck chairs on the Titanic. I suspect DCB veer to the former, though there’s less of the apocalyptic in this music than one might expect; rather, an attempt to rope the whole history of jazz into one grand, brawling deck- or crater-rim party. They are, I guess, similar in general ethos and conception to follow Bostonians and label mates Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, or to the Microscopic Septet, who’re also in the Cuneiform family. I thought the multi, rasping saxophone sound and polystylistic stew reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, then found with a mixture of reassurance and irritation that someone had beaten me to that particular connection, though he threw in Frank Zappa as a further “influence.”

Does either comparison work? At some level, yes. Saxophonist and main composer Matt Steckler (who’s joined out front by three other reeds, Terry Goss, Charlie Kohlhase and Jared Sims) favors Zappa-like titles like “Hiram Hinckler’s Shrunken Heads” and “I Once Was Inoculated With a Phonograph Needle” from the immediately previous album Home Speaks To The Wandering, or “Friar Tuck’s Railroad Adventure” on the 1998 debut Lucky By Association, and there is, perhaps, an element of FZ’s avant-grooving there and on the rather more latinized Legends of the Nar from 2001. They’re unmistakably a jazz group, though, even if it is jazz from Hades.

The new one prompts all sorts of fresh associations. Some will say that comparison is a lazy way to review, but Uncle Ez Pound says criticism is comparison, so let’s just suck it up for the moment. Chance Episodes (perhaps deliberately) runs through a remarkable spectrum of stylistic associations. I kept hearing Mingus chords and phrase-shapes, striking elements of Steve Coleman’s neo-mythic albums with Five Elements, and township grooves in lopsided meters that are irresistibly reminiscent of groups from the South African/British axis like Blue Notes, Brotherhood of Breath, Zila and Spear. But then you hear a passage where bassist Dave Ambrosio and drummer Bill Carbone drop out of the charts and the baritone sax picks up the pulse and you might well be listening to Hamiet Bluiett carrying the World Saxophone Quartet on his shoulders. Same thing happens on the slow-grind “Tourvan Confessin’,” except there the Kirk connection is too present to miss.

What DCB isn’t is a saxophone quartet with journeyman “rhythm.” Ambrosio and Carbone are integral to the group and often generate excitements of their own, big arco effects that overpower the horns for a while, clattery drum features that are subtler than their rock-god stylings immediately suggest. The unavoidable but lame conclusion is that here is a group for whom no absolutely convincing terms of reference exist other than those they establish for themselves. Either/Orchestra has managed something similar. You might not pick them out of a blindfold test every time, but as soon as you know, no other answer would be possible. Some of this has to do with Steckler’s writing, which is detailed but actually very simple in trajectory. These are Tonka Toy charts, well adapted to the big jobs, but brilliantly miniaturized and with no non-working parts. They’ve been together about 15 years by my count, which is no mean feat in this economy and climate. Sometimes “underground” is where a group wants to be, but “underground” in the Thelonious Monk sense, surreally well-defended, stylish, a little mad. Terrific record.
–Brian Morton


Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble
Pi Recordings PI41

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar was introduced to jazz through his father’s records and to American folk traditions by his mother who taught him how to play ukulele and guitar while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. As a child he sang in his Lutheran school’s choir and studied trumpet at DePaul University. ElSaffar used his prize from the 2002 Carmine Caruso Trumpet Competition to finance a nomadic pilgrimage in search of the musical roots of his Iraqi father. ElSaffar’s debut album, Two Rivers, was very well-received with its synthesis of Arab and jazz musical practices earning praise for its refreshing lack of forced exoticism. Back now with an ensemble that bears the same name as the 2007 release, ElSaffar has furthered this artful integration of African American and Middle Eastern musical systems building on the two traditions shared fealty to improvisation, asymmetric rhythm, and microtonality.

The ancient Sumerians were pioneers in such indispensable accoutrements of civilization as writing and agriculture. They were also smart enough to put both warfare and erotic love under the supervision of the same deity. Inana, is named after this passionate female pre-Ibrahimic god who dominated the land between the Tigris and Euphrates long before it was incorporated into the modern state of Iraq. Inana features the same lineup as the duly heralded 2007 release (Nasheet Waits – drums, Carlo DeRosa – bass, Tareq Abboush – buzuq, Zafer Tawil – oud and percussion) with the exception of saxophonist Ole Mathisen taking the place of Rudresh Mahanthappa who, well, let’s just say he got busy. In addition to trumpet, ElSaffar also sings (quite beautifully) and has mastered a kind of traditional dulcimer.

Jazz changes are all about adroit harmonic interpolations and Arabic music employs vertical structure (harmony) only minimally. It relies for its strong emotional resonance on serpentine lines. These lines are organized according to a tonal system called maqam that has been applied to a number of melodic instruments including the santour (hammered dulcimer), oud (unfretted lute), and buzuq (fretted lute) – all heard on this album. Maqamat (plural of maqam) are vaguely like western modes, subsets of tones and the rules for navigating the intervals or steps between them which specifically constrains the ambit of melody. Unlike modes which are based on the idea of an even-tempered (equally spaced) chromatic scale, named notes in Middle Eastern music may have different pitches depending on which maqam they are heard in. Bringing these two systems of tonal architecture together is not just something you feel out, but a sophisticated and quite technical feat of musical translation. ElSaffar and his comrades on this album are to be commended for the credibility of their effort.

The recording is divided into two sections – a long suite in eight (track-delineated) movements dedicated to the album’s namesake and a single composition entitled “Al-Badia” (which means land of the Bedouins). In Sumerian mythology, as Inana makes her fabled descent into the underworld, she passes through seven gates and is stripped of adornments and apparel as she passes through each gate, until she finally arrives in hell’s basement nude. Within “Inana Suite” this trip to the underworld is revisited in the longest movement, which features perhaps the most balanced synthesis of jazz and Mesopotamian elements. On “Journey to the Underworld” one can hear a stripping of musical materials down to a shimmering energetic ground. Two sections acknowledge the strong association of the goddess with the planet Venus in its visage as both morning and evening star.

ElSaffar has developed unique strategies for pushing the microtonal capabilities of the trumpet and can be heard throughout the nine tracks of this recording either foregrounded as virtuoso or woven into the variegated weft of this interesting product. Drummer Waits is limber enough to swing on top of the strongly accented riffs that frame most of the selections. While Tawil is heard in many places, adding the characteristic brightly colored patterns of the Middle Eastern tabla (often called dumbek). The stringed contributions are strong across all tracks with some especially brilliant passages anointing the suite, although frankly, this listener was not always able to tell when I was hearing oud versus buzuk. ElSaffar has with this recording established himself as a compositional force to be reckoned with. The Two Rivers Ensemble that has grown around his strong ideas would be well-advised to try to remain intact for one or two more similarly inspired outings.
–Thomas Stanley


Alexander Hawkins Ensemble
All There, Ever Out
Babel Label 1196

Just into his 30s, keyboardist Alexander Hawkins has already unleashed his considerable talents on, among other genres, British free improv and Ethiopian jazz/funk; with its emphasis on spontaneous engagement re-defining compositional alignments and collective patterns, this six-piece Ensemble falls somewhere in between those extremes. As primary instigator of seven of the program’s nine compact, diverse pieces, he employs both motivic relationships and conceptual threads to tie together the often contrasting contributions of the individual members. For example, “Tatum Totem III” begins as a rhythmic ballet mechanique; it may take its name, ironically, from the pseudo-classical filigree of Hawkins’ piano, but the cool, disassociated guitar and marimba lines that gradually re-direct the group suggest a dissonant, disjointed MJQ. Another piano predecessor, Elmo Hope, is channeled in the set’s jazziest construction, “Elmoic,” as the piano’s robust, flashing licks and pumping chords, boppish but out of tempo, morph into a swing episode fueled by bright guitar (Otto Fischer) and clattery marimba (Orphy Robinson). And in “Ahab,” following some honky-tonk rhythms stretched out of shape, Hawkins’ alludes to several Monk tunes in an increasingly out-of-sorts environment. But it’s misleading to focus on the intermittent jazz references, when the Ensemble’s true identity results from strategic counterpoint and tonal juxtapositions. Cello (Hannah Marshall) and bass (Dominic Lash) inject textural complexity and classically informed cadenzas, and drums (Javier Carmona) provide as much color as pulse management. “Marta” and “AW/LJ (Differently)” are especially revealing of the group dynamic, where disjunct and fragmented phrases are not distortions of the song form, but become the song form. The ensemble empathy and subtle organization at work here will reward close attention.  
–Art Lange


Fred Ho + The Green Monster Big Band
The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring Of Muhammad Ali
Mutable/Big Red Media 003

Writer Genny Lim once described multi-reed instrumentalist Fred Ho’s earliest recorded music as “a social commentary that seeks to guide the way.” The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring Of Muhammad Ali is a different form of commentary, a reflection on Ho’s bout with the monster known as cancer. Ali has been Ho’s inspirational guide during his 5-year fight of his life. When listening to the album, one can imagine a day laced with chemo followed by a night watching Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” or clips of Ali sparring with Howard Cosell. Ho speaks of being guided by Ali’s defiance and resistance, as well as by his humor and grace, which is reflected by titles such as “Rope-A-Dope,” “Shake Up The World,” and “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like An Afro Asian Bumblebee!”

The music has an immediate, propulsive sense of urgency on the opening track, “Shake Up The World.” A few seconds after the bass and drums set tempo and the keyboards state the through line, the bands massive horn section – 6 reeds, 4 high brass, and 6 low brass – enters with full force. The line soon splinters into two that drape and clinch each other raucously until reuniting to undergird solos by trumpeters Nabate Isles and Winston Byrd, and saxophonist Bobby Zankel.

“Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like An Afro Asian Bumblebee!” is equal parts Rimskey-Korsakov’s “flight of the Bumble Bee” and Billy-May’s theme song from the Green Hornet. Ho arranges it with a late ‘60s/early ‘70’s élan evoking the soundtracks for Mannix, Hawaii Five-O, or any other TV action series of the day. It features Ho’s first unaccompanied baritone saxophone solo.

The majestic “Rope-A-Dope” (subtitled “Revolutionary Ontology and Self-Love”) brings to mind Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and maintains a Ducal elegance throughout the piece’s early sections. “Rope-A-Dope” eventually shifts from Ellingtonia to an earthier rhythmic groove that echoes mid-70s Gary Bartz, before transitioning into an unaccompanied solo built on harmonics and split tones that recall Pharoah Sanders from the same period. Ellingtonia ultimately returns, though this time more insistently and aggressively. The piece’s composer, tenor saxophonist Salim Washington, takes the lone solo. The album’s other Duke-inspired composition is Ho’s “In A Pan-African Mood,” a reworking of “In a Sentimental Mood” that features baritone saxophonist Ben Barson.

The recording closes with “Teaching the Apes to Sing,” based on James Tate’s 1976 poem “Teaching The Apes To Write Poems,” written in a once dubbed “conversational surrealism.” Persian American vocalist Hakeh Abghari operatic delivery remains faithful to Tate’s intended irreverence. The only accompaniment to Abghari voice is Ho’s insistent baritone saxophone.
–Bobby Hill

Toon Dist

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