Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Barry Altschul
The 3Dom Factor
Tum CD 032

A pop band recently advertised its greatest hits package with the tag-line “You know more of these songs than you think you do.” As it turned out, they were surprisingly right. The same might be said of Barry Altschul. For much of the last two decades the master drummer has been playing a long residency in that strange, shuttered, upriver resort called Away-from-the-Scene but a recent bustle of live and studio activity has prompted something of a rediscovery, or in the case of most listeners under the age of 45, I suspect, new discovery.

In the past decade, Altschul has been active with bassist Adam Lane, Gebhard Ullmann and Steve Swell’s quartet, and as part of the superb FAB Trio, with the late Billy Bang and bassist Joe Fonda, who also plays here on The 3Dom Factor. There have been other groups and reunion projects, too, including one with Sam Rivers, which now serves as further poignant reminder that making a “comeback” at the age of 70 does mean that many of your peers, to say nothing of former employers, have already or are set to hang up their spurs finally. The Reunion: Live In New York encounter with Rivers and Dave Holland was a slightly curious affair, a demonstration of how much all three had changed since their first meeting rather than a reconstruction of the well-named Sizzle from 1975. There was, though, a small critical rush to the back catalogues and record guides to see just how many sessions this somewhat forgotten figure had clocked in for. There were key recordings with the seminal Paul Bley Trio (the anti-matter of Bill Evans pianism), with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland – and with all three under the Circle marquee – Julius Hemphill, Andrew Hill, Dave Liebman. The list grows but while there has been belatedly renewed awareness of Altschul’s contribution to The Song of Singing, A.R.C., The Conference of the Birds, Coon Bid’ness, Roswell Rudd’s great Flexible Flyer, and while there’s been respectful attention for his latest recordings, there isn’t much sense of what the former led and the latter build on, namely Altschul’s own distinguished body of work as a leader/composer. It properly begins in 1977 with You Can’t Name Your Own Tune, a hugely underrated meeting between Altschul, Rivers, Holland, Muhal Richard Abrams and George E. Lewis in one of the trombonist’s best jazz performances. The set was, like the present one, all Altschul compositions with the exception of one Carla Bley tune, “King Korn” then, “Ictus” now. At the end of the decade, Barry made a string of records for Soul Note, of which the best are For Stu (dedicated to fellow drummer Stu Martin) and the lovely Irina, whose title track is a modern classic on a par with Rivers’ much-played “Beatrice.” And then, after That’s Nice, made in 1986 with Glenn Ferris, Sean Bergin Mike Melillo and Andy McKee, it gets fuzzy. Ask someone about Barry Altschul in the later ‘90s and you got “He’s teaching,” “He’s in Europe,”  “He’s dead” (which for some observers amounts to the same thing) or just “Who?.” No one’s saying that now.

In a sense, you don’t need this review. You just need to read our editor’s excellent liner note to The 3Dom Factor. If some of its detail is simply repeated in the biographical note that follows, that doesn’t pull the teeth of Bill’s argument. Listening to these powerful trio tracks, with Fonda and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who might be characterized as a surrealist-romantic or a Dada version of Don Byas), it’s already pretty clear that the Altschul of 2012 is a different fellow to the Altschul of 1972 or 1982. Reviews of comeback artists tend to lapse into great-for-his-age clichés – kudos to Mo Tucker, who’s hitting the skins as hard as guys a quarter of her age – or false continuities. The exciting thing about this recording and some of its predecessors is how much Altschul has changed. He works on a custom set-up with Turkish cymbals and it sounds way different to the kit of yore. Bill’s ears, which must be the size of the Very Large Array, picked up at once on the difference between Altschul’s “dampened drum sound and pingy cymbals” of the 1970s, the warmer splash and tizz of the Soul Note albums and the bold, fronted, leader-in-charge sound you get on the recent Tum recordings. My guess is that some of this is stylistic and creative, and some of it is the result of more responsive micing of the kit and its surround, but the point holds and one very obvious point of continuity is the unmistakable formal logic of Altschul’s play – for which sample his beautifully constructed solo coda “A Drummer’s Song” and then compare it to “Drum Role” on For Stu  – and his ability to integrate cymbals and drums like no one else in recent times except perhaps Sunny Murray, who he doesn’t resemble in any other way.

Where The 3Dom Factor does somewhat resemble a lifetime achievement award is in the choice of material from across Barry’s career. “Irina” properly gets pride of place, as it has throughout his career, but there’s stuff like “Papa’s Funkish Dance,” a reworking of a more elaborately titled great-drummers thing on That’s Nice. That last piece is an interesting one, since Altschul seems to take a wry, even sardonic tack on “the tradition,” an affectionate but pleasingly subversive approach that isn’t so very different from what Irabagon does with his colleagues in Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The Soul Note Irina included a version of “Jitterbug Waltz” that actually stands rather distantly from the versions by Dolphy, Braxton and Arthur Blythe which Shoemaker identifies as “central to the avant-garde retrofitting of the jazz canon.” How one defines or measures that distance is a bit like trying to define what, or where, one means by Away. On the strength once again of these remarkable tracks, as well as via an utterly pleasurable revisiting of the drummer’s back catalogue, it’s possible to argue that Altschul is the great outsider of modern jazz; but he’s just outside, he’s in the courtyard or listening through the wall rather than off in some howling waste, crying over his marginalization. It’s very affectionate music, this. Very clever and sly. Even though he’s substantially revisiting his own past – only “Oops,” which is based on a lift and drag rhythm you’ll hear all over the Sahel but discovered by Altschul in Mali, and the title track are new pieces, “Just A Simple Song” (ha!) was written in 2008 for the FAB Trio – he’s moving forward, too. The other great example of how comfortably he takes the past with him as rearview mirror rather than nostalgic, or bitter, backward glance is the tellingly titled “Be Out S’cool,” which is meant to suggest “B. Altschul” but quickly reveals itself as a cut-and-paste of Monk’s “Misterioso.” He shares with Joe Fonda, who always brings a smile to the most pointy-headed of sessions, an ability to have fun, but serious fun.
–Brian Morton


Miles Davis Quintet
Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Tapes Vol. 2
Columbia/Legacy 88725418532

This 4-disc set picks up where the three tracks from Miles’ 1969 Newport Jazz Festival set included on Bitches Brew Live left off. The first two CDs document two sets by the trumpeter’s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette recorded on successive nights in Antibes just three weeks later; the third CD and the DVD capture the band still flying four months later, respectively in Stockholm and Berlin.

These often riveting concerts reinforce the much-repeated trope that Miles was always in transition in somewhat the same manner as did the Plugged Nickel recordings; while they document Miles surging ahead with a new line-up, they also reveal him to be mindful of his older fans (which presumably included those who booked him), as he regularly referenced earlier phases of his music, if only briefly during his non-stop sets. Hence, there’s the occasional abeyance of the DeJohnette-stoked blazes to let chestnuts like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” to seep through for a few minutes. Otherwise, the Quintet is at full throttle for most of these concerts, particularly on the versions of “Directions,” tunes from Bitches Brew, and a rare revisiting of “Paraphernalia.”

Unfortunately, Holland is largely inaudible throughout the Berlin performance and is occasionally submerged in the others. When he does surface, Holland’s sprinting lines and rumbling vamps act as an accelerant for DeJohnette, and his then blossoming arco technique is one of the more forward-leaning elements in the band, evidenced by an engaging, freely improvised duet with Corea during the second Antibes concert. Corea is the other paradigm-shifter, particularly on electric piano, where his jabbing attack and almost frenzied manipulation of the tremolo knob mirrors the urgency in Davis’ playing. Shorter is also constantly spurred on by the back line; except for the give-away of the electric piano, his most blistering tenor solos could be mistaken for Sam Rivers.

Arguably, the most valuable of his bandmates’ assets was their ability to seamlessly build intensity in tandem, let it boil over and let the steam create new atmospherics to repeat the process. This is vividly documented on this collection. Leave aside the issues of where this quintet stacked among Davis’ others and how it fulfilled its synoptic role, of bridging his past and future. It was too short-lived and anomalous for such speculation – and therein is its true value.
–Bill Shoemaker


John Edwards + Okkyung Lee
White Cable, Black Wires
Fataka 3

There has always been a fundamental gap between the experience of abstract expressionism and the critical discourse surrounding it. It’s too pure a physical expression (of being, spirit, gesture), a fundamental mysticism interposed between the creative agent and the ultimate residue of the product. The same seems to hold true of the best improvised music. Passages that have only the most superficial resemblances of sound, texture, line, and rhythm tend to be described in the most impoverished terms. There are many passages throughout bassist John Edwards and cellist Okkyung Lee’s White Cable Black Wire that are brimming with wondrous slashing, splashing sounds of the lower strings, fast glissandi and sudden, overlapping plucking; they are all challenging to convey. Somewhere in “WCBW II,” I hear in the rapid slithering glissandi the echo of an echo of the natural world, something that recalls an old Lyrichord recording of music for the erhu (a Chinese violin) that included an ancient piece that imitated birds. This is an adventure in consciousness in which two musicians of the very first order explore the resemblance in their instrumental voices, a resemblance that they explore by attacking it. There’s a marvellous sawing in “WCBW III” in which the two musicians seem to be measuring the volume of their instruments with playful pitch movements – bass above cello pitch – that reveal a fundamental difference in the scale of the resonating chambers. It’s a great listen and one that ultimately proves larger than the instruments of the dialogue, the illusion of an orchestra beyond personalities.
–Stuart Broomer


The Group
No Business 50

Sudo Quartet
Live at Banlieue Bleue
No Business 51

Straight outta 1986 (the very year sarcastically identified as jazz’s heyday in the latest Mostly Other People Do the Killing liners), the live album from The Group is a vintage slice of heady, emotional jazz from something of an “all-star” combo: Ahmed Abdullah (trumpet and flugelhorn), altoist Marion Brown, violinist Billy Bang, twin bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and drummer Andrew Cyrille (alas, all are gone except Cyrille and Abdullah). Rescued from cassette recordings that sat in Abdullah’s shoebox for 25 years, it’s not fair to call this music free jazz or free improvisation, since each of the five tracks here is compositional in the robust sense, trading not so much in heavy structure as rich thematic material. A seriously killer Bang fantasy opens up Butch Morris’ “Joann’s Green Satin Dress,” with different instrumental pairings taking the unison bridge throughout, until the piece culminates in a sheerly glorious Brown solo. The twin basses are so clutch on the lengthy arrangement of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” whipping up a pizzicato churn that sustains a mood of intensity beneath the familiar line. Bang’s ghostly sawing gives the piece an almost spooky feel, against which Abdullah’s stunning, growling trumpet solo (where he talks and perambulates like Ted Curson at Antibes) sounds positively jarring. From there they take in a buoyant, joyous reading of Marion Brown’s “La Placita,” where the composer sounds so good in his pert, inventive, extended solo; and the following Cyrille and Bang duo with beautifully tuned drums is simply awesome. Darkness hovers briefly during Bang’s “Shift Below” (the shortest and most abstract tune here) but this is dissipated by a glorious, affirming, 25-minute romp through Miriam Makeba’s “Amanpondo” (Sirone and Hopkins are so key to the groove, and it’s great that they get a spacious duo section together). Marvelous stuff.

You can’t really beat the Sudo Quartet in terms of lineup: Joelle Leandre on bass, Carlos Zingaro on violin, the too seldom heard Sebi Tramontana on trombone, and percussionist Paul Lovens. A 2011 live shot, this release is stuffed with music that’s both emphatic and spacious. Lovens has such a distinctive sound and unique sense of momentum – the language seems to capture the form, somehow – and it works marvelously to stitch together the at-times eldritch strings playing along with Tramontana’s buoyant tromboneliness (with special mention going to his mute work). There are moments where shifts in register appear as if from nowhere, or when Leandre’s deep groans catalyze moments of gathering intensity (with hand patter on snare, or that blocky tumble in Lovens’ sound). But equally compelling are those moments where Leandre and Zingaro explore an impressive range of details: timbre, register, counter lines, percussion, and emotional projection. There’s an extended vocal section for Leandre and Tramontana, during which Zingaro and Lovens (on saw) pull things skyward, with occasional crashing punctuations. And there is a fine balance of detail struck throughout: percussive, almost jagged funk; skittering pizzicato and overtones against the smallest of percussion clacks; trombone and glossolalia; or wafting, textural drift. Because of the empathy and communication among the particulars, this music is aces regardless of where it goes.
–Jason Bivins

Cuneiform Records

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