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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade
Stomping Off From Greenwood
Greenleaf GRE-CD-1069

Greg Ward’s latest offering, Stomping Off From Greenwood, is as eclectic as it is electric – a far cry from his previous acoustic endeavor. The alto saxophonist’s prior effort for Greenleaf Records, 2016’s Touch My Beloved’s Thought, was based on Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (Impulse! Records, 1963). Ward’s reinterpretation was widely acclaimed, not least for its incorporation of a ballet company, as Mingus originally intended. This recording spotlights a new band, Rogue Parade, featuring guitarists Matt Gold and Dave Miller, along with Chicago regulars Matt Ulery on contrabass and Quin Kirchner on drums. Reinforcing the album’s local flavor, the cover art depicts the gritty graffiti of urban bohemia, establishing a direct connection to Greenwood Street on the south side of Chicago, where Ward lived when he returned home from a stint in New York.

Rogue Parade is the outgrowth of a jamming fellowship that Ward founded for “those who don’t hate, but appreciate.” The ensemble’s mélange of funk, r&b, hip hop, and jazz embodies all the hallmarks of new music from the Windy City, bolstered by the captivating flow of Ward’s tuneful writing. Plangent melodies, contrapuntal harmonies and propulsive polyrhythms all conspire to make a unified statement, but it’s the rhythm section that truly drives this music; Kirchner’s shimmering cymbals and roiling snare exhilarate, while Ulery holds down the bottom end. Ward’s tone can be sweet or sour as the need arises, although there’s no doubting the authority of his lyrical phrasing; simple and direct are assets in Ward’s capable hands. He also arranges Gold and Miller’s parts into extensions of his own. The guitarists’ use of effects is subtle but apt, adding soaring sustain to Ward’s euphonious themes while contributing washes of color, melodic support, and individual solos.

Ward makes a languid entrance on the rousing “Metropolis,” as the band shifts from a fleet opening gambit into a dynamic, tension-filled breakdown. The twin guitars ebb and flow in cool contrast to Kirchner’s whiplash drumming, providing harmonious counterpoint. The quintet also swings hard on “The Contender,” with punchy bass, nimble fretwork and Ward’s nervy alto reaching a bristling climax. A sonic portrait of his favorite boxing combinations, Ward’s opening improvisation is phrased in quick jabs, with Gold’s subsequent solo adopting the leader’s spry technique. Conversely, Ulery introduces “Black Woods” unaccompanied until the theme materializes, with Ward and Miller initiating an enthralling dialogue that culminates in bustling group interplay. Diverging even further, “The Fourth Reverie” takes on an experimental sheen as a pointillist tone poem composed of ruminative ensemble interjections.

Nuanced performances by the group on a handful of ballads demonstrate restraint and versatility, illustrating Ward’s inclusive take on the genre as the band moves between tradition and innovation. On the darkly melodious “Pitch Black Promenade,” the gentleness of alto and rhythm guitar rises above the clatter of percussion and bass, maintaining euphony even as the piece grows in intensity. A lilting cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” finds Ward at his most romantic, despite Kirchner’s propulsive beat, while the guitarists shadow the leader’s free-ranging improvisation with heartrending results. In the end, trilling guitars and muffled drums accompany Ward on “Sundown” as the closing tune rises to a fevered pitch.

Accessible but adventurous, Stomping Off From Greenwood is the latest indication of Ward’s growth as a bandleader, composer, and improviser. Imbued with the exploratory fervor of Chicago’s finest, Rogue Parade gracefully negotiates the tenuous divide between progressive jazz and the city’s current avant-rock scene. The band’s deportment – tight yet free-ranging, melodious but expressively dissonant, with punchy rhythms and ecstatic harmonies – is par for the course in this town. It’s Ward’s magnanimous contributions to the whole that elevate this date above the rest.
–Troy Collins


Mars Williams
An Ayler Xmas
Soul What 0003

Mars Williams
An Ayler Xmas Volume 2
Soul What 0004

How would those glorious Albert Ayler-Donald Ayler combos of 1965-67 have played Christmas carols? Surely a lot like tenorist-arranger Mars Williams and Chicago’s Witches And Devils and his Vienna band play on these two beauties, recorded in 2017. Especially as one who usually dreads December, I find his medleys of many carols mingling with themes like “Bells,” “Spirits,” “Truth Is Marching In,” and “Love Cry” thoroughly exhilarating. The music is more than the deadly earnest of Ayler’s musical messages. That’s because Witches and Devils includes all of Hal Russell’s last NRG Ensemble except the beloved Hal himself, plus among others, Hal’s piano-trio pal Jim Baker, who has also become a very creative synthesizer player – hear the synthesizer-led collective improvisation that grows into an unearthly “O Come Emanuel” (Volume 2). The point is, Hal Russell aimed to create excitement, disruption, merriment, and the other NRG guys – bassists Kent Kessler and Brian Sandstrom (who plays a bit of guitar and trumpet here too) and drummer Steve Hunt – sure do share that radical spirit with Williams.

Both CDs include the “O Tannenbaum” medley. The version on Volume 2 finds the Austrian Christof Kurzmann singing stirring, possibly original lyrics to “O” (“The banners rise, the cymbals play / Of human rights and human gains,” and so on. Now, that’s Christmas spirit.) I like the big-brass, ripe-vibrato sound of Thomas Berghammer’s trumpet; the other Austrians are Hermann Stangassinger, bass, and Didi Kern, drums. The Viennese just play two songs, both on Volume 2. Also on that album, the first track is a long string of carols behind soloists including trombonist Jeb Bishop. Volume 1 has several reflective, rubato piano solos to alter the prevailing extrovert mood. That version of “O” includes an especially lovely cornet solo by Josh Berman over marvelously dense cello backing by Fred Lonberg-Holm; there’s more powerful cello in the “Ma’oz Tzur” medley, followed by engrossing, rubato cornet – these two are inspirational wherever they go – and concluding ensemble madness.

Williams’ tenor sax is central to both discs. His sound is big, heavy with sentimental vibrato in long tones, and he likes Ayler’s way of beginning solos with theme variations. A high point of both discs is his “five golden rings” solo climax in both versions of “The 12 Days of Christmases.” Williams was surely influenced by Hal Russell’s portrait suites of Artie Shaw, Fred Astaire, “The Surreal Sound of Music,” and others that never got onto CDs (I’m crying). That’s a special reason to appreciate what Williams and his cohorts have done. And if Williams’ An Ayler Christmas comes to your town, don’t miss it – the concerts are better than these delightful recordings.
–John Litweiler


Gabriel Zucker

Weighting, the fourth studio album by pianist Gabriel Zucker, was inspired by The Flamethrowers, a 2013 novel by Rachel Kushner in which the narrative alternates between the 1970s New York art world and Italy’s revolutionary politics. The session is composed of an expansive three-part suite divided into eight movements, titled after passages from the book, which surge and recede through a wide range of dynamics. A Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, Zucker’s urbane compositions balance pre-written, clearly delineated themes with ample space allotted for unfettered improvisation that is often both spacious and intimate, but occasionally disrupted by raucous interludes or dramatic passages.

Zucker is best known for leading a progressive big band, The Delegation, which was documented on his first ESP-Disk’ release, 2016’s Evergreen (Canceled World). The music on Weighting is performed by a much smaller ensemble, a bass-less quartet featuring a two-horn frontline composed of Delegation members Eric Trudel on tenor saxophone and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet. Rounding out the group is award winning drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who offers far more than mere time keeping to Zucker’s percussive themes, imbuing a sense of density that sounds far greater than four voices. The quartet’s rapport is captured by an exceptional studio recording; O’Farrill and Trudel play in tandem unaccompanied for long stretches, harmonizing in unison while wandering away from the microphones, drifting into the ether bathed in reverb and echo. Drums and piano are well-balanced in the stereo field, never overwhelming the horns, even though Sorey and Zucker are both capable of explosive playing.

Setting the tone for this wide-ranging session, “Would It Come Back To You” leads off with a probing acapella duet between O’Farrill and Trudel, where polyphonic lines resolve in parallel movement, motivic call-response, and bold timbral variations. The main theme materializes half-way, when Zucker and Sorey join with a dramatic flourish of triumphant piano harmonies and exuberant percussive drive. “The Uselessness of Truth / Not To Be Anything More” inverts the opening dynamic with spiraling piano and spectral percussion, but Trudel eventually takes the spotlight with an array of extended techniques, ranging from breathy multiphonics to percussive slap tongue. For “The Stream of New York / and art, of course,” Zucker morphs a piercing one-note pedal tone and fractured chords into a series of overlapping motifs, leading the group to a fervent crescendo, stoked by Sorey’s shifting groove and Trudel’s expressive vocalizations. Providing introspective respite, O’Farrill launches “Missing Our Appointments With Each Other” alone before Trudel joins, providing lyrical accompaniment. The chamber-like atmosphere carries over to the beginning of the enthralling “What’s Left / The Future Was A Place,” where the line between the written score and improvisation is blurred by the quartet’s ecstatic elegance – ragged, but beautiful. The remainder of the program continues in equally dynamic fashion, culminating in the episodic “the stones in my pockets.”

Unimpeded by traditional notions of Western harmonic theory, Weighting expertly balances avant-garde abstraction with neoclassical formalism, reflecting a committed artistry of tempestuous romanticism. Zucker’s writing is knotty and unconventional, symbolically acknowledging the loft jazz of the ‘70s without directly emulating it. Although drawing upon the classical tradition, Zucker defies convention, stating “I don’t really love big, defined, resolved endings ... It seems to me that if things were that neatly resolved, that doesn’t really map to any life experience I’ve had. Most of my music ... adds a bit of a question mark ... at the end.” Zucker’s summation may be most apt, “Like most of my work, “Weighting” is long and not exactly a light listening experience. But at its best, it should draw you in to move at the same speed it does.”
–Troy Collins


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