Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Alex Hendriksen + Fabian Gisler
The Song Is You
Hat Hut ezz-thetics 1003

The Song Is You is a delight and a comfort. It’s natural (and wise) to place this Swiss pair – tenor saxophonist Alex Hendriksen and bassist Fabian Gisler – in the correct lineage of duos, from Don Byas and Slam Stewart to Houston Person and Ron Carter; Derek Taylor’s detailed notes provide proper context. But, really, this record from Werner X. Uehlinger’s new series feels immune to time. Hendriksen and Gisler’s gift is in how they pull this material out of the here and now, the sometimes cruel tyranny of chronology and tradition, and make it evergreen. This is a world where sheet music lives forever – using, as they do, Victor Young (x 2), Thelonious Monk (x 2), Michel Legrand, Harry Warren, and Richard A. Whiting to create rich miniatures. But it’s the four Billy Strayhorn pieces that stay with you most of all. “Blood Count,” Strayhorn’s last completed composition, is where Hendriksen and Gisler begin. There’s nothing elaborate, nothing fraught. It’s a tune played straight: haunting, lonesome, unforgettable.
–Greg Buium


Heroes Are Gang Leaders
The Amiri Baraka Sessions
Flat Langston’s Ark Eyes (no number)

The Last Poets
Transcending Toxic Times
Ropeadope RAD-476

Many recordings are welcomed; these two are needed. In representing successive generations of African American poets who use their musical heritage to celebrate and rage, Heroes Are Gang Leaders and The Last Poets throw brilliant unyielding light on what too many Americans believe is a uniquely abhorrent moment in US history. Fortunately, the poets driving these potent statements know better; for them, the current regime of rabid, piss-spraying jackals is more of the same. These artists know what they’re fighting against and what they’re fighting for; and they know very well how to frame their work with invigorating music. Even though there is a significant overlap in the messages of the respective albums, there are substantial musical contrasts; both approaches are appropriate to the texts and satisfying on their own terms.

Transcending Toxic Times is a thoroughly collaborative effort between The Last Poets and producer Jamaaladeen Tacuma; fronting a core quartet and sundry guest artists, the bassist’s searing grooves and sweet Philly settings give Baba Donn Babatunde, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole, the latitude to lace their texts with exhilarating refrains (“For the Millions”) and soulful hooks (“Love”). Unlike their prior recordings, the poets are repeatedly on the verge of being swamped by the music, the sting of their words and the urgency of their delivery notwithstanding. A host of funk albums start out at Mach speed, but quickly downshift to more sustainable tempi and attack; not this 2-CD set, as redlining intensity prevails well into the second disc. The Last Poets and Tacuma achieve a potent synergy, which propels Transcending Toxic Times with unrelenting fervor.

With three poets, a rapper, and women singers – as well as a sextet – Heroes are Gang Leaders is a troupe in a full sense, as members take turns coming to the foreground to play off the others, creating a teeming interplay between spoken word, song, and music throughout The Amiri Baraka Sessions. Co-founded by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, HaGL creates sweeping metaphors from grits and other staples of everyday life. In doing so, Ellis, poets Randall Horton and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, and rapper Da Frontline, extend the trajectory of the album’s namesake, who was syntactically graceful while being blunt, and molded phosphorescent nuggets with seeming effortlessness. The well-considered blending of musical sub-genres is also essential to HaGL’s work; to this end, the contributions of the gifted Lewis and his colleagues – vocalist Margaret Norris, bassist Luke Stewart, pianist/vocalist Janice Lowe, trumpeter Heru Shabaka-ra, drummer Warren Crudup, and guitarist Brandon Moses – are precisely dolloped throughout the proceedings. Heroes are Gang Leaders is beyond category.
–Bill Shoemaker


Eric Hofbauer
Book of Water
Creative Nation 035

Those of us in the reviewing biz tend to obsess about artists we feel are underappreciated. It’s a noble impulse, we hope, and a necessary one, too, given the over-saturation of recordings out there. Since I first heard his music many years ago, I’ve been perplexed as to why the ace guitarist and composer Eric Hofbauer isn’t a household name.

Aside from his wonderful playing itself – he generally favors a clean tone, and eschews excess – he’s drawn to conceptualism in his composing. I’m a sucker for that, and Book of Water is one of Hofbauer’s finest in recent years. For this entry in Hofbauer’s focus on the elements, his combo Five Agents (which is actually a sextet) delivers a bracing live set of postmodern mainstream jazz. Backed by the ace Boston rhythm section of bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton, Hofbauer and the tasty three-horn front line (trombonist Jeb Bishop, tenorist Seth Meicht, and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini) cavort through a complex, protean suite.

The opening “Water Understands Civilization Well” is filled with fascinating, organic shifts. Hofbauer comps incisively, one of many seemingly independent voices, from pinwheeling brass exchanges to scalar tenor, all flowing together inexorably. Like many of Hofbauer’s pieces, this one balances melody, asides for modest noise, layered pulses, and more. There’s a lot going on, but the music isn’t designed to overwhelm you so much as get you listening to the collectivity of ideas in play. This is true even in very soft pieces like “It Wets, It Chills,” whose guitar and drum interplay is like a trickle, an eddy, set against subtle horn voicings and a gentle pulse that sets up some ace playing from Sabatini.

“It Is Not Disconcerted” feels almost like an extension of the preceding piece, with some similar techniques opening up into further expression. Its slow, deliberate pace (McBride and Newton impress, as ever) gives it a slightly free feel, which Meicht and Hofbauer emphasize in their somewhat abstract playing. Bishop deals out an absolutely killer solo, with choice overtones, followed by some of Hofbauer’s strongest playing here: wide open, spiky chords contrasted with glissing and crystalline shapes that he uses in conversation with the horns.

“Well Used, Adorning Joy” opens with solo guitar, where Hofbauer displays a range of techniques, from expressive chords to soft noise. Spacious and patient as ever, the ensemble weaves in the thematic material gently, navigating different ideas until eventually merging them in the juiciest swing. The most intense piece is “Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy.” It opens with a brisk section for guitar, drums, and outrageously good trombone. The hugely buoyant head that follows is purely joyous, and as the ensemble solos exuberantly, Newton and McBride simply surge. It’s a smart, inventive, bracing record.
–Jason Bivins


Matt Mitchell
Phalanx Ambassadors
Pi Recordings 81

Pianist Matt Mitchell brings a sophisticated sensibility to every project, whether as composer, sideman, or leader. His recent work with Tim Berne, Anna Webber, and Dan Weiss offers key examples of his many talents. Currently a member of Berne’s Snake Oil, Jonathan Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, and Webber’s Simple Trio, he has also recorded with Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls, and the Dave Douglas Quintet, among others. As a composer, Mitchell’s writing is cerebral, yet compelling; he claims that the music on Phalanx Ambassadors, his fourth album for Pi Recordings, is “pretty definitively the most challenging music I’ve ever written for a band, ever.”

Mitchell’s prior Pi release, 2017’s A Pouting Grimace, was a large-ensemble effort that utilized multiple percussionists and unusual instrumentation to emphasize texture and sonority alongside structural complexity. Employing an eponymously named quintet, Phalanx Ambassadors features similar intricacies, including multi-layered rhythms, polyphonic harmonies, and urbane melodies. Though rigorously structured, the music leaves ample room for improvisation, and despite the group’s smaller size, Mitchell conjures an unusually dense and rich sound.

Mitchell’s idiosyncratic charts required the keyboardist, Miles Okazaki (acoustic and electric guitars), Patricia Brennan (vibraphone and marimba), Kim Cass (acoustic and electric basses), and Kate Gentile (drums and percussion), to rehearse for eight months before their first performance in 2016. At the time, Cass and Gentile had been working with Mitchell as Phalanx Trio. Cass, Gentile, and Brennan also played on A Pouting Grimace; their familiarity with the demands of Mitchell’s writing is central to the current record’s success.

“Stretch Goal” opens the date with a frenetic drum solo. Fueled by a labyrinthine theme introduced by Mitchell and Okazaki, the music has a recursive quality, culminating in brief improvisations from each member in reverse order from normal expectations: Cass gives his bass a visceral workout; Mitchell follows with a rhythmically and harmonically complex piano solo; Brennan plays iridescent vibraphone variations; and the usually reserved Okazaki ends his statement with skronky fretwork. “Taut Pry” and “Zoom Romp” continue this thread, developing brash, distorted textures with unconventional rhythmic displacements. These two miniatures run less than two minutes each but exhibit Mitchell’s affinity for groove, an under-sung aspect of his artistry.

As the album progresses, tracks get longer, and tempos and intensity quell into spacious moments resonating with hypnotic power. The longest, “Phasic Haze Romps,” is the session’s centerpiece. Opening slowly, cascading guitar notes accompany effervescent vibes and sparkling piano, Gentile holds down the bottom, Cass upholds the harmonic foundation, and Mitchell and Brennan play counterpoint with Okazaki, revealing a luminous motif. A languid meditation, “ssgg” similarly takes several unexpected turns, developing a beguiling theme and a haunting denouement. The penultimate track, “Be Irreparable,” gradually assumes form, its fractured melody and insistent groove channeling the band’s energy into a kaleidoscopic display. The closing number, “Mind Aortal Cicatrix,” features a latticework of gleaming guitar, crisp piano, and shimmering vibes. Shifting tempo and mood, the tune gains speed and complexity, ending the set with a masterful demonstration of ensemble unity.

The shifting meters, unorthodox harmonies, and unconventional textures of these compositions evoke a neo-classical feel as well as progressive tendencies, recalling Stravinsky as readily as Zappa. Mitchell writes virtuosic parts for each member; his formidable partners are also given room for individual expression. In this light, Mitchell’s gifts as a bandleader, improviser, and composer are all equally on display. Phalanx Ambassadors may indeed be the most challenging music Mitchell has created, ever.
–Troy Collins


Evan Parker Matthew Wright Trance Map+
Crepuscule In Nickelsdorf
Intakt CD 329

Trance Map+ began as an extended studio project. Evan Parker collaborated with Matthew Wright over the course of several years, spending time in the studio and in postproduction mixing and editing. On the release of Trance Map on the psi label, the two are credited as “co-composers.” Parker played soprano and wove in samples mined from his record collection which were in turn processed by Wright. Wright is credited with live sampling and turntables. This was hardly Parker’s first encounter with electronics, but the extended utilization of the studio as a tool was an unusual step. Though an outgrowth of that project, Trance Map+ is an altogether different affair. First off, this is a live set recorded at Konfrontationen 2017, Nickelsdorf, Austria. Add to that, the expansion of the ensemble with Adam Linson on bass and electronics (a veteran of Parker’s Electro Acoustic Ensemble) along with John Coxon and Ashley Wales on turntables and electronics (the duo behind Springheel Jack who provided “soundscapes” for Parker’s release Evan Parker With Birds.)

Trading the introspective studio constructions of the original project for an expanded live setting, the group draws on many of the same paradigms, with morphed, inverted, and transformed processing and electronics shot through with Parker’s labyrinthine soprano playing. Electronic oscillations, glitched and fractured samples, and dizzying skeins of hums, buzzes, and crackles wrap around themselves with constantly shifting focus of field and ground. Linson’s bass playing and the processing of it add an anchoring lower register as well. All of this is pulled off with masterful technique and polish. But while that can make for mesmerizing listening, the sheen of those layers starts to overwhelm as things continually pile on top of each other with phantasmagoric overkill. There are many sections that flash through, but one longs for a bit more moderation, a surer hand at leaving space and letting ideas sit and develop rather than the roiling streams of restless digressions.
–Michael Rosenstein


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