Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Anthony Braxton
Quartet (Willisau) 1991, Studio
hatOLOGY 7351-7352

Anthony Braxton is renowned for his cerebral methodology, and the outfit he led between 1985 and 1993 was one of his most productive and fully-realized endeavors. His quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway is widely considered to be his finest ensemble and is perhaps the best vehicle to appreciate his urbane concepts as they relate to the jazz tradition. That period was also a turning point for Braxton; he secured steady employment as a professor at Mills College in 1985 (Wesleyan University in 1990), and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1994, which allowed him the economic freedom to greatly expand his concepts.

Originally issued as a four-disc set (now long out-of-print), Willisau (Quartet) 1991 Studio/Live (hatART, 1992) contained both the quartet’s studio and live performances from the Hotel Mohren in Willisau, Switzerland. This remastered reissue separates those two sessions. Quartet (Willisau) 1991, Studio documents the unit’s final phase, demonstrating the creative peak reached by the four as a long-running touring group. Surprisingly, this marathon date was the band’s first studio recording, even though the members had already worked together for 7 years. The players’ longstanding familiarity with the material reveals a seasoned ensemble able to execute the most intricate charts on a virtually intuitive level. Together, they play with vim and vigor, challenging each other to the breaking point, repeatedly venturing forth into new territory, where the process begins anew.

The music covers a lot of stylistic ground, from atmospheric tone poems and aleatoric meditations to dense sound collages and angular post-bop, like the swinging “No. 40B.” In addition to a handful of new pieces, the quartet plays a few from the ‘70s, including an epic rendition of the elastic “No. 23C,” and a pithy version of “No. 40A.” Interactions are even more elaborate in newer pieces where players draw elements from other numbers to insert as pulse tracks, thereby extending the current composition’s intertextuality. Phrases are often repeated until subtle variations appear; on the tumultuous composition “No. 159,” Braxton returns to a cyclical phrase, repeating it like a keening minimalist hook. As each player drifts apart, swirling reeds, cascading piano lines, thrumming bass harmonics, and kaleidoscopic percussion conspire towards outer regions before another pulse track redirects the music’s flow. Too much emphasis on the intellectual aspect of Braxton’s music tends to overlook its raw soulfulness, an aspect that is readily on display here, especially from the leader’s myriad horns – which include alto and sopranino sax, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and flute.

This quartet was Braxton’s longest running group, and arguably, the most creative in his vast oeuvre. Graham Lock even wrote a travelogue book of interviews about their beginnings, adventures, and methods, called Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music: Interviews and Tour Notes, England 1985 (Dover, 2018). But Braxton disbanded the quartet to compose for larger ensembles, subsequently developing his Ghost Trance and Falling Water Music systems. While the music he’s writing now is every bit as quixotic as his prior work, the concepts at play in these pivotal recordings influenced multiple generations of composers and improvisers (including Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson) who have been inspired by the members of this quartet, all of whom have gone on to become elder statesmen in creative improvised music. Quartet (Willisau) 1991, Studio is an essential reissue, and a key recording in Braxton’s discography.
–Troy Collins


Marty Ehrlich
Trio Exaltation
Clean Feed CF475CD

Unlike his previous release, 2013’s ambitious big band recording A Trumpet in the Morning (New World Records), Trio Exaltation finds multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich returning to the smaller format he’s employed for most of his recording career. His last stripped-down trio effort was 2000’s C/D/E (Jazz Magnet), which featured Andrew Cyrille and Mark Dresser. Here Ehrlich’s working with bassist John Hébert and drummer Nasheet Waits, and the album title is entirely apt considering the exalting nature of the music. Although Hébert and Waits have plenty of shared history between them, it was at the turn of the millennium that all three worked together as members of Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure sextet, which brought much deserved exposure to Hill’s music during his final decade.

The date features eight new original compositions, with the one exception being Hill’s “Dusk”, the title of the first Andrew Hill Sextet record. It is appropriate then that “Dusk” opens this album, as the tune’s sinuous melody and controlled freedom are the foundation for the trio’s methodology. Hébert’s loping ostinato and Waits’ roiling toms lock into an infectious groove, while Ehrlich’s soaring alto yearns to break free. Other tracks highlight Ehrlich’s technical facility on an array of woodwinds, including bass clarinet, which drives the sing-song melody of “Dance No. 5”; and the wooden flutes that spar with Wait’s Caribbean-infused rhythms on the exotic “Spirit of Jah No. 2.” The three also delve into vanguard territory on “Senhor P.C.” (dedicated to Clean Feed label founder Pedro Costa), fomenting a dramatic tone poem from Hébert’s sinewy arco, Ehrlich’s acerbic alto, and Waits’ rollicking kit-work. Even more impressive is the album’s centerpiece, “June 11th, 2015 – In Memoriam: Ornette Coleman,” a fervent tribute of controlled pathos that traces a cathartic emotional arc. The album swings to a close with Ehrlich’s woody clarinet ebbing and flowing through the churning rhythms of “Reading the River.”

Ehrlich’s melodious compositions have the same “simple complexity” as Hill’s, which makes them resilient enough to warrant arrangements on any scale. It’s most welcome however, to hear these new pieces first performed in an intimate setting – one which spotlight’s the author’s improvisational skills in collusion with a talented rhythm section. Trio Exaltation, indeed.
–Troy Collins


Beaver Harris + Don Pullen 360 Degree Experience
A Well Kept Secret
Corbett vs Dempsey CD046

This is a very welcome reissue of one of the best jazz albums of the 1980s. Drummer Beaver Harris and his 360 Degree Ensemble, first with Dave Burrell co-leading from the piano chair, then with Don Pullen, made only a handful of albums between their debut in 1975 and Harris’ untimely death at 55 in 1991, but each one was potent and ranged easily through the entire history of jazz with an ebullience and disregard for labels that few bands have ever equaled. A Well Kept Secret may have been their best.

The opening “Goree” might just as well have been subtitled “Concerto for Don Pullen.” Each section of the 17-minute suite showcases a different aspect of Pullen’s art: his swinging jazzy side, the blues, his feel for African rhythms, and his knuckle-rolling runs and clusters that seem to burst so naturally out of his hurtling post-bop lines. There’s something dark and cathartic in the music – attributable in part to Sharon Freeman’s arrangement employing four French horns – and there are few more powerful evocations of the dignity and sorrow of those who survived the Middle Passage.

Saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett and Ricky Ford lead the charge on “Land of the Pharaohs,” an up-tempo cousin of Mingus’ furious “Haitian Fight Song,” tangling in a wild duet while Pullen’s piano weaves like a dancer and punches like a boxer. Dissonance is used to evoke powerful feelings, usually dark ones like anger or sorrow, but on “Double Arc Jake” Pullen’s crashing chords and Ford’s pure-sound wails have a childlike exuberance that seems more like sheer excess of joy.

All these disparate elements are ultimately held together by Harris’ drumming. On the title track, he shapes the free interplay of the band by floating on a web of cymbals. His strong, not overly aggressive swing moves “Newcomer” along over a lilting 6/8 beat. When the music grows fierce, his cymbals and toms are the very soul of fury. Then he can bounce along to the Caribbean rhythms of “Double Arc Jake” like he hasn’t a care in the world.

The album sports a fabulous cover by illustrator Ralph Steadman and crystal-clear production by Hal Wilner, adding further luster to this classic album.
–Ed Hazell


Dave Holland = Evan Parker + Craig Taborn + Ches Smith
Uncharted Territories
Dare 2 Recordings DARE2-010

Dave Holland and Evan Parker started playing together in the late ‘60s in Spontaneous Music Ensemble and various ad hoc projects. But the two hadn’t had the opportunity to play together in recent years. They began talking about getting together to record a duo session, which quickly grew to a quartet with pianist Craig Taborn and Ches Smith. There were various connections between all the players, but they had never played together before they joined up to record this session. The plan was quickly hatched to record as a quartet and in various trios and duos, using a combination of composed frameworks and collective improvisation. Over the course of two discs and 23 pieces, most clocking in at 5 to 10 minutes, Parker’s tenor, Holland’s bass, Taborn’s piano, organ, electric keyboard, and electronics, and Smith’s drums, orchestral percussion, and vibes combine with free-ranging, spontaneous collective melodicism.

Parker and Holland’s three tenor/bass duets are particular highlights of the set. Holland has always been a lyrical player and his lush tone and melodic sense of phrasing provides the perfect foil for Parker’s warm, angular musings (think the exploratory modalities he brought to his collaborations with Stan Tracey or Paul Bley and Barre Phillips). The two duos featuring Holland’s arco playing edge out the percussive pizzicato encounter, but only by a shade. With Smith added in to the bass/tenor mix the improvisations become more restive, each member pushing the trio along with potent collective jabs and parries. Parker’s labyrinthine tenor flights stand out in this trio context. With Taborn in, Parker and Holland are adeptly pushed by the pianist’s spider-like traversing free harmonies. In the one piano/tenor/drums piece the three explode meter, charging the improvisation with a free, propulsive thrust featuring a solo section for Smith’s tautly tuned kit.

The trios with piano, bass, and percussion favor more of a sense of free impressionism, with Taborn’s electric keyboard playing becoming a bit overly ornate at times. And while the organ/vibes duo has intriguing colors, the improvisation often drags over the course of 6 minutes. In a few of the improvised quartet pieces, it is interesting to hear Parker unleash his torrential command in this jazz-informed setting. On the more introspective pieces, his circuitous lines loop heady webs with the other ensemble members. Smith provides two compositions, the opening “Thought on Earth,” and “Unsteady As She Goes,” and in both cases, the group makes effective use of the melodious themes. Holland contributes “Q&A” a tune performed by the group Circle as well the quartet he convened for Conference of the Birds. While this group doesn’t quite rise to the contrapuntal free intensity of the version on the Holland-led classic, they navigate the precipitous polyphony with assured conviction.
–Michael Rosenstein


William Parker
Voices Fall from the Sky
Centering 1015/1016/1017

It might not be immediately obvious how consistently William Parker has employed vocals in his many groups. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, Parker is democratic in his approach to instrumentation, and there are loads of possibilities in the human voice. On the other hand, given Parker’s interest in spirituality and ritual, the particular associations and resonances of the voice bring together a lot of his ideas and contexts. On this rich 3CD set, listeners are treated to the full range of those ideas.

The first disc focuses on small group settings, with largely open-ended materials. There’s an opening invocation by the Olmec Group (2 saxes, vocals, and accordion) before the program begins in earnest. Pianist and vocalist Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez has a kind of searching, melancholy quality to her vocals on “Airlift” (where Parker joins on donso ngoni) and “Small Lobby.” The same can be said of Morley Shanti Kamen’s noteworthy performance on “A Tree Called Poem,” one of this disc’s highlights. Parker assembles varied programs throughout this release. On each disc, he returns regularly to some of his oldest collaborators. The first disc includes Andrea Wolper paying tribute to the late pianist Borah Bergmann on the loping “Bouquet for Borah,” backed by a tasty quintet: Rob Brown and Dave Sewelson on alto, Eri Yamamoto on piano, Parker, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The music is buoyant and rousing as they dig into collective improvising around the somewhat Ornette-ish theme. Wolper also excels on the melancholy “City of Flowers” with bassoonist Karen Borca and Masahiko Kono on trombone and electronics. There’s also an excellent small group for Fay Victor on “We Often Danced,” including Sewelson, Yamamoto, Parker, trumpeter Heru Shabaka-Ra, and violinists Jean Cook and Jason Kao Hwang. But it’s a treat to hear the alternating tracks with (at least to me) less familiar players. Vocalists Bernardo Palombo and Jean Carla Rodea shine on the folkish “Despues de la Guerra.” Amirtha Kidambi mixes it up with Steve Swell, Hwang, and Parker on the title track. And there’s even a bit of Tropicalia on Timna Comedi’s “Revolution,” with Parker and guitarist Dario Acosta Teich.

The second CD focuses explicitly on songs. The balance of pieces here tilts slightly further towards longtime colleagues. Ernie Odoom and the AMR Ensemble open “All I Want” with simple, folkish lines that build into a rousing group shout. Several pieces are for the duo of Lisa Sokolov and pianist Yuko Fujiyama. They play it soulful and reflective on “For Julius Eastman” and “Aborigine Song.” “Band in the Sky” alternates between punchier stuff and quiet asides, before heating up towards its conclusion. “Morning Moon” is their best piece, a touching ballad that has some deceptively quirky harmony and rhythm. Sokolov also has a single duet with Cooper-Moore on piano, the quasi-lullaby “Autumn Song.” But the best stuff on this disc comes courtesy of Ellen Christi and Leena Conquest. The long history Parker has with each singer pays off in subtle but expansive music. The duos with Christi are open and spacious for the most part. Especially effective is “A Thought for Silence,” with floating vocals and sensitive arco. Christi is awesome here, employing her full range and technique but always in the service of the music. Conquest duets with Yamamoto, imparting some earthy soul on “Sweet Breeze” and the affecting “Poem for June Jordan.”

The third disc features large ensemble pieces, most of them excerpts from previous Parker releases on AUM Fidelity and Centering. Odoom’s rhapsody for the Duke on The William Parker Orchestra’s “The Essence of Ellington” is polytonal and rousing, fittingly so. Odoom also contributes to a more abstract, ruminative piece by the AMR Ensemble (from Creation/Wood Flute Songs). I wish “Lights of Lake George” was a bit longer because Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s vocals are wonderful (here from Double Sunrise Over Neptune), quavering and qawwali-like in the righteous company of Parker’s Orchestra. The well-loved Leena Conquest hymn “For Fannie Lou Hamer” receives a 12-minute excerpt here. It’s teeming with lovely strings, harp, and more, and the open tone field sets the space for her stirring deep vocals (from For Those Who Are, Still, by the Kitchen House Blend Ensemble). At the center is the 4-part “The Blinking of an Ear” suite with AnnMarie Sandy on vocals, Yamamoto on piano, and Leonid Galaganov on drums. Nice free stuff opens “Meditation on Freedom” though there are times when Sandy’s somewhat Irene Aebi-ish vocals don’t quite fit the context. Things sound far better, though, when the music shifts to the sparse “Dark Remembrance” and the ruminative, rhythmic throb of “Heavenly Home Meditation on Peace.” Everything closes out with Conquest’s brief “Natasha’s Theme” (from the Parker Double Quartet’s Alphaville Suite). It’s all a lot to take in, but it both makes sense and works as a release. Not everything rises to the same level, of course. But especially when sampled a disc at a time, this is a fine deep dive into Parker’s vision.
–Jason Bivins

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