Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Hafez Modirzadeh
Post-Chromodal Out!
Pi Recordings PI44

In any artist movement, there are exponents presumed to be back-benchers of sorts, known better for their team-player contributions to the community rather than for their own work. Then, when they do issue something of special merit, potentially recriminating questions are begged: Where has (s)he been? How did we not see this coming? Etc. The release of saxophonist-composer Hafez Modirzadeh’s Post-Chromodal Out! provides such a moment, one that is particularly tart if the ensuing questions center on how can we be past something about which we were previously unaware. This speaks to Modirzadeh’s profile, as represented by his discography – sideman dates with other Asian American artists outnumber his own; he’s on Fred Ho’s latest Saxophone Liberation Front album, for instance. Additionally, Modirzadeh has long standing as an active academic, replete with extensive field work with Gnawan and Flamenco musicians; the articulation of chromodalism was the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Wesleyan; The Chromodal Approach to Improvised Music published in 1996. His focus on community and research at least partially accounts for why an artist for whom the superlative “pioneer” is not exaggeration has managed to fly under so many radars.

After fifteen years and several, mostly self-produced recordings, Modirzadeh concluded that chromodalism had run its course; it was time to take the integration of Persian and Western tonalities further. Modirzadeh did extensive work to retune the piano to accommodate his use of three-quarters notes in his writing for horns. (It’s noteworthy that George Russell thought in terms of a raised fourth instead of a flatted fifth.) The retuned piano also results in surprisingly vivid ensemble timbres on “Weft Facets,” the nearly 50-minute Modirzadeh composition that comprises the bulk of Post-Chromodal Out!, its occasional clangs and cimbalom-like rings as exactly placed as any other aspect of the scores. Vijay Iyer’s ability to swing odd meters and Indian scales makes him a logical choice for this considerable challenge; bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Royal Hartigan round out what proves to be one of the better rhythm sections of recent seasons.

2007 conversations with Ornette Coleman also galvanized Modirzadeh’s articulation of post-chromodalism as a universalist approach to tonality. Yet, equating Modirzadeh’s work as an analogue to harmolodics within a purely theoretical context, without reference to the respective saxophonist’s sound, doesn’t do justice to chromodalism and its present and future progeny. Granted, Modirzadeh is not primarily an alto player like Coleman; his brawny tenor is well-represented on Post-Chromodal Out! and his soprano gives Ho’s saxophone quartet soulful highlights. Both Modirzadeh and Coleman “cry” persuasively; both bend pitches upwards for maximum effect. Don Cherry’s similar abilities in this regard is one of many reasons why he and Coleman are such an historic front line; there’s a similar compatibility between Modirzadeh and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, one already established on their 2010 collaborative project, Radif Suite (also on Pi). However, Modirzadeh has a thicker, heftier sound on alto with an occasional bray that could be likened to Henry Threadgill’s.

What Modirzadeh and ElSaffar have going for them as a front line is the ability to give microtones, unconventional scales and offsetting phrase shapes a pliant feel that can be reinforced and accentuated by a robust rhythm section. This is an important consideration when you ponder Modirzadeh’s Chromodal Piano Weave, a chart of pitch relationships reprinted on the inside folds of the cover; graphically, it looks like a mutated Periodic Table, representing a seemingly indigestible set of pitch relationships, capable of yielding only impenetrable music. However, the horn players flesh out the material; Modirzadeh’s music does not have the buoyancy, let alone the naïvety of Coleman’s early music, but arguably greater expressive range than Harmolodics. There are episodes of soothing lyricism, portentous drama, and swaggering virtuosity, their cogency in large part dependent on Modiradeh’s subtle shading and ability to turn on a dime – ElSaffar’s too. With “Weft Facets,” Modirzadeh closes the circle between a theory about tonality and the emotional temperament of traditional music, creating vibrant, improvisation-privileging music in the process.

Concepts about tonality usually proliferate at a snail’s pace. “Wolf & Warp” by James Norton constitutes something of an exception, albeit a suite commissioned by Modirzadeh himself. It is a comparably rigorous composition; its most immediate difference from Modirzadeh’s being the emphasis – or lack thereof in Norton’s case – on Persian music. Still, it is a measure of the saxophonist’s leadership and his colleagues’ facility that the two contrasting compositions form a cohesive album, one whose substance and significance can only be touched upon within the context of a record review.
–Bill Shoemaker


Joe Morris Quartet
Graffiti in Two Parts
RogueArt ROG-0039

Joe Morris + William Parker + Gerald Cleaver
AUM Fidelity AUM073

What a generous, big-hearted, inventive trio guitarist Joe Morris, bassist William Parker, and drummer Gerald Cleaver are on Altitude. Right from the start, they establish an equal balance of voices; there’s no grandstanding or ego and ideas flow among them without barriers. There’s never a question of one musician leading or another following, they have a much more elusive and magical connection, in which ideas can have greater or lesser direct relationship to one another, or in which they can travel separately without losing track of the paths of their comrades. The music is intense, with an urgent, no bullshit expressiveness – it’s honest – but the execution is both easeful and companionable.

On “Exosphere” and “Thermosphere,” which each clock in at more that 25 minutes, there’s a feeling that they’re not going to force anything, they’re going to take as much time as the music needs, and they’re going to enjoy every minute of it. Morris and Parker lock instantly, and their lines maintain an orbital relationship to one another throughout. Cleaver has just as strong a sense of narrative as the two string players but he’s not a melodic drummer as much as he is a weaver of skeins of sound that surge through the music in waves. He’s a rhythmically inventive drummer who rarely functions as the timekeeper in this band – he doesn’t need to, since he’s working with two players who carry the drum in the heart of their music anyway. His playing is complex, but not self-absorbed, he’s alert to what’s happening around him and a rim shot or cymbal tick will crop up in the interstitial spaces between the phrases of Morris and Parker just when they need to. Along with the Farmers by Nature trio albums, this is some of his strongest playing on record.

On the shorter “Troposphere” and “Mesosphere,” Parker plays a North African stringed instrument called a zintir, whose riffs and ostinatos lodge in the music with a hollow thump and give the trio a different sort of funk at its core. Morris and Cleaver respond with subtle changes in their playing that accommodate the new feeling. Even if at times the music breaks into sharply defined beats more often than on the longer pieces, ultimately the trio is unbounded by any one idiom, and free to use whatever sounds, melodies, textures, and rhythms it needs.

Recorded 24 years before Altitude, Graffiti in Two Parts on the surface sounds much different from the trio, but the same spirit of freedom animates it. That’s due in part to the presence of one of the freest musical spirits in improvised music, multi-instrumentalist Lowell Davidson. Long a mysterious figure in free jazz, Davidson made one album on piano for ESP in 1965, and then spent the remainder of his life in the Boston area, playing music, but never recording again. This is only the second album he appears on and he’s heard not on piano, but on drums and an acoustic bass made out of aluminum. Joining leader Morris and Davidson are violinist Malcolm Goldstein and cornetist Butch Morris.

The music from both parts is a dense thicket of sound. Morris, heard on banjuke (a banjo-ukulele hybrid) on the first part and guitar on the second) is at his thorniest, picking out spiky phrases and sharp angled lines. Goldstein is similarly bristly, but his lines have a different rhythmic feel, less jazzy than Morris, and when he bows he changes the density and tension in the music. Although Butch Morris gets down into the crackling interplay between Morris and Goldstein with short sputtering phrases and sudden yelps of sound, he is more of a melodic presence in the music, contributing contrasting ideas and a brassy texture to the string-heavy ensemble.

And there’s Davidson. Your correspondent was at this concert and vividly remembers his presence in the room and the way his improvising filled it. He plays drums on “Graffiti – Part I,” using a kit that included burnt and crackled cymbals, handmade clay frame drums, and an oversized bass drum. At times he used knitting needles instead of drum sticks, sometimes holding four or more between his fingers. He edited himself as he played, hovering over the instruments, moving erratically around the kit, sometimes striking a surface, sometimes not. Out of this continuous visual counterpoint of silent movement, sound would emerge: big hollow bass drum booms; brittle knitting needle snickets; unpredictable, seemingly irrational dynamics; stop and start rhythms; and seemingly unrelated patterns overlaid on each other. Noting resemblances to other drummers wouldn’t be instructive, for there was never a more singular approach to the instrument. It was uncanny to watch.

With Davidson on his acoustic aluminum bass on “Graffiti – Part II,” the music takes on a different sonority, but the close interaction among the quartet remains at a high level. Morris had been working with Davidson around this time and their experience shows in the tight mesh of their interactions. Davidson is again utterly original in the approach to his instrument. His bass lines seem to lurk under the stairway like half-seen ghosts; phrases seem mumbled and then scurry away, disappearing like apparitions. There’s something a bit menacing about it. As with Davidson’s drumming, everything sounds a little off center, yet he’s always bringing in something appropriate, even if it is through the side door and not the main entrance.

It’s a little unfair to dwell on Davidson’s contribution to this session because everyone is playing well. But the other three members of the quartet are all well documented on album, and so little is known or documented of Davidson. This album begins to correct that situation.
–Ed Hazell


Natura Morta
Natura Morta
Prom Night Records (no catalogue number)

A British “still life” is likely to be of flowers, often painted by a lady. A European nature morte or natura morta is more likely to feature a dead hare or a side of ox. There’s no art-historical value in the observation. It’s just a way of saying that this unusually convened trio – viola, double bass, drums, from Paris, Dayton, OH, and Rome respectively – offers blood and sinew as well as moments of dewy loveliness. The heart sinks a little at the prospect of an opening improv titled “Entropy,” which is too often a flag-of-convenience for random thrashing. Here, it preserves something of its derivation from the Greek for “turning toward,” and suggests three musicians comfortable enough with each other’s language at a purely functional level (their sound is beautifully balanced, and I can’t believe that is all down to recording engineer Nathaniel Morgan at the wonderful-sounding Buckminster Palace – I picture a mixing suite in a geodesic dome, but doubtless, I’m wrong about that – or Jim Clouse’s mastering) but attentively open to new directions and unexpected preparations in the music itself.

Despite a rich array of sounds, the music is all played acoustically and seemingly in real time. Frantz Loriot’s viola is perhaps the most obviously denatured of the three instruments, played very differently to (say) Ig Henneman’s often bawdy squalls. There are moments on the long “Hive,” which is dark and spacious rather than over-busy, though it does rise to moments of buzzing activity, when it is not clear what his participation might be and one can only find him by abstracting what appears to be percussion and what appears to be bass. But this is to suggest that Natura Morta perform some kind of process music in which the interest lies in non-idiomatic delivery rather than an involving acousmatic whole. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the title promises, form and “composition” are central here. Carlo Costa’s percussion proposes spider web structures for parts of “Hive” (mixed entomological metaphor there) and the longer-still “Glimmer,” while bassist Sean Ali often provides the most tuneful component of the music.

There is a strange and entirely positive folksiness to this music, if one accepts that terms as applying to an eldritch vernacular that might arise out of a post-apocalyptic landscape in which style has been forgotten and only the ability and need to make sound remain. It’s a short album, approximately the length of an LP, which is just fine, not because this music is too dissonant or brain-bleedingly “difficult” for more sustained listening, but because it makes sense as an aesthetic span and increases the likelihood of return. I’ll have no difficulty with that.
–Brian Morton


Ivo Perelman + Sirius Quartet
The Passion According to G.H.
Leo CD LR 642

It’s been a while since Ivo Perelman last recorded with a string quartet, and many listeners will no doubt fondly recall his encounter with the Alexander Quartet. Yet Perelman is anything but a stranger to improvising with strings; hell, the superb tenor saxophonist has played cello on his own records. On The Passion According to G.H., Perelman brings his intense, occasionally bruised lyricism into conversation with the Sirius Quartet (violinists Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Ron Lawrence, and cellist Jeremy Harman) for a gorgeous six-part suite that is completely improvised yet has the logic, space, and development of a finely wrought composition. What makes this such a terrific, bracing listen is not only the generosity and responsiveness of the players but their wide range of sounds and techniques. During the brittle, spare opening section I could have sworn I was listening to saxophone with pipa and wooden crate continuo. But again, no matter how emphatic or suggestive the particular sounds are, the players give maximum space for moments of intense interaction such as the skirling lines Perelman and Harman conjure from nowhere. This sometimes gives the overall effect, as in the rough and scratchy opening to the second section, of the musicians sanding a block of silence, allowing percussive textures – including someone rapping their instrument’s body – to emerge as if grain from wood. There are more “conventional,” elegant moments: some rhapsodic, singing counter lines and a welling up of unexpected lushness from the melancholy landscape of the third section. Throughout, Perelman sounds inspired as he urgently joins the strings in the uppermost register here, coos fulsomely there – and as always, his tone alone is worth the price of a ticket. With such a great, responsive quartet (sometimes consonant, sometimes bitingly acid), the music practically buzzes with intensity throughout.
–Jason Bivins


Paul Plimley + Barry Guy + Lucas Niggli
Intakt CD206

I love the way this begins on a sixpence, with common and confident purpose. It’s an antidote and a reproach to all the hours spent listening to “improvisers” (Is there an improv equivalent of “poetaster?” Can we commission one?) shuffling their feet, getting to know one another, “negotiating” a language, or finding that they speak different and irreconcilable dialects. The trio kicks into “Flo Vi Ru” with the kind of buoyant humanity befitting a Beckett-inspired cut. It breathes and laughs, this music, and seems to enjoy rather than regret its human awkwardness.

There’s a slight change of tack on “Arcdesedo,” one of only a pair of tracks not credited to the trio as a whole. Though it is Barry Guy’s composition, it sounds like a line of Plimley’s, or one the pianist has worked out with the bassist, and it reminds us of the Canadian pianist’s borderless appropriation of styles from bop to Klavierstücke. He first came to wider notice as far back as 1989 on a fine Nine Winds duo set with Lisle Ellis and the same range of languages is evident here: bop, what sounds like a serial row, a funky underpinning. Plimley once cast himself as “Ivory Ganesh” opposite Trichy Sankaran’s “Doctor Drums,” and he has earned the title of “Lord of categories” or “master of elements,” but probably his best-known association is with Ellis again and drummer Donald Robinson on a Music & Arts disc from 1994 called Density of the Lovestruck Demons, which is one of the best piano trio recordings of the age and the most obvious connection with this set, which takes both Plimley’s pianism and the group sensibility on another step.

You’ll get no sense out of me about Barry Guy, who is now beyond category and a grandmaster of elements. What’s perhaps lost behind the superlatives is how playful and puckish he can be, and this set amply demonstrates that side of his nature. Another sign of the group’s confidence is that all but two of these 17 cuts come in at or under five minutes. No need for extended noodling, pushed pawns and conservative retreats. Guy is like one of those old-fashioned comedians like Max Miller who can tell fifteen jokes in a minute, rather than needing fifteen minutes to tell a single joke. He’s very much in charge. The number of references to the Scottish play and the title of the project justify the metaphor of spells and conjurings, and if Niggli sounds as if he has to consult his spell-book on occasions – he’s slightly … deliberate in delivery, his care is justified. He gets it right every time.

But it isn’t just Shakespeare. It’s Beckett, too, and “Come and Go,” apparently worked up just before the gig and sung rather than played, is a brilliant illustration of how quickly and intuitively these men are working. It’s hilarious and compelling Hörspiel, the sort of thing that might have been done thirty years ago under the banner of “radiophonic art,” and it’s by no means a throwaway novelty on this disc, but perhaps the most significant cut of all. There are moments later on that totter slightly in the wake of the magnificent first half. How devastating it might have been as an old-fashioned LP. When shall these three meet again? Soon, I hope.
–Brian Morton

New World Records

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