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Reviews of Recent Media

Judson Trio
Light And Dance
Rogue Art ROG0112

The second release by the egalitarian transatlantic Judson Trio, comprising bassist Joëlle Léandre, violist Mat Maneri, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, stands as a worthy follow up to An Air Of Unreality (Rogue Art, 2015). That LP captured the outfit’s inaugural concert at the 2015 Vision Festival in New York and was one of the highlights of the week. Given such a successful coming together, further outings were perhaps inevitable. Happily, a European tour in January 2020 was documented and the double CD Light And Dance presents one disc of live performance along with a subsequent studio session.

Originally convened by the Frenchwoman, the line-up reunited her with Maneri, a colleague in the cooperative Stone Quartet, as well as a sometime duo partner. The inclusion of Cleaver, who shares a deep history with Maneri, was an inspired choice as he supplements a self-professed affinity for chamber music with an unorthodox rhythmic attitude, and is key in elevating proceedings beyond the norm.

Léandre remains a consummate improviser allying unrivalled facility to boundless imagination. What distinguishes her from most other free facing bassists is her peerless arco technique which she tends to favor as a means of expression. Although her earliest recitals were of new music, particularly compositions by two of her major touchstones John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi, encounters with the likes of iconoclastic British guitarist Derek Bailey and the trombonist George Lewis helped solidify a dedication to free improvisation. Though Léandre has long since outgrown explicit influences, they nonetheless still inform her authoritative tone, rich color palette, and unconstrained outlook, all heard to striking effect on this set.

Maneri’s playing feels similarly untethered from any tradition, not least due to his thorough grounding in microtonality, gliding among the pitches between the tempered scale, in a personal conception developed through his work with his late father, reedman, composer, and educator Joe Maneri. But it’s not only that. There’s also a quality to his phrasing and line which set him apart: an intonation which sometimes suggest an indefinable regret, and the oblique way in which he seems to stalk, but never detain, melody.

Cleaver’s backstory though indisputably relates to jazz and the wider black diaspora and takes in longstanding hook-ups with prominent figures such as pianists Matthew Shipp and Craig Taborn. But that’s not to say that he lays down a groove here. Instead, he takes aspects of that language and reimagines them as a composite of timbral motions rather than anything verging on a beat. He outlines his approach in an interview, saying “The best I can do is relate the idea of orbits, as multiple events or sorts of phrases with overlapping completion times. In playing free, I can generate a lot of orbits or initiate ideas that continue to be revisited and are modifiable.” What he brings to this ensemble in addition to this series of self-contained rhythmic gestures is a range of unconventional strategies predicated upon rattles, rustles, and rumbles.

For the live album, Léandre programmed eight selections, drawn from two different dates, to convey the kind of flow they can achieve and reflect diverse facets of their interaction. The program describes an undulating trajectory which can veer from hazy extemporized lyricism to fierce textural exchange in an instant, as they recurrently contrast the emphatic with the understated. The interweaving dash cut by bass and viola proves a markedly strong suit, but it’s not the only one. Just as Cleaver adds to the sonic richness, Maneri and Léandre, in particular, complement the percussive elements, whether through angular staccato or through knocking on wood or strings. Furthermore, while Léandre’s voice is an accepted part of her artistry, in this formation, her comrades join her in wordless exclamations and sighs, even though this grouping perhaps represents one of the bassist’s least theatrical outlets.

For both Léandre and Maneri, slight variations in inflection take on special significance and indeed the micro detail is as rewarding as the macro. That’s readily apparent on the studio disc which opens with Cleaver’s cymbal surf and an insistent tapping noise. Léandre enters with a rippling bow bounce on the strings, which references the tapping, before she slides into a smooth legato. Maneri’s short sawn kernels create an oppositional dialogue, into which he inserts a brief pizzicato stutter, immediately echoed by Cleaver with a metallic clanking. Such small scale give and take can easily pass under the radar, even as it fortifies the enthralling interplay.

While it’s an intensely collaborative unit, Léandre’s provides the dominant voice, with Maneri seemingly reticent, especially on the live disc. While Léandre is the more free-flowing of the two, Maneri gives the sense that perhaps he only contributes when he has something very clear to say. It’s often Cleaver who supplies a unifying thread, anchoring fast changing group forays. The studio setting allows a more deliberate examination of all the constituent permutations, thus the ten tracks encompass three trios, three pairs of duets, and a concluding unaccompanied piece by the drummer. The sparkling discourse of the two conversational couplings between bassist and violist stand tall among the notable moments, of which there are many.
–John Sharpe


Jeff Lederer Sunwatcher
Eightfold Path
Little (i) Music CD 109 / LP 102

Eightfold Path is a reunion of sorts for saxophonist Jeff Lederer’s Sunwatcher Quartet. Invited by long-time collaborator Jamie Saft to record outside his Hudson Valley studio during the pandemic summer, Lederer, who was staying nearby at a family cabin in Vermont with his wife, vocalist Mary LaRose, decided to reconvene his Sunwatcher Quartet (originally a tribute to Albert Ayler), ten years after the group’s self-titled 2011 debut for Jazzheads. Saft (on organ and piano) and drummer Matt Wilson return for this sophomore outing, with iconic bassist Steve Swallow taking the place of the legendary Buster Williams.

Inspired by the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk whose reflections on the eight foundational concepts of conduct expanded Lederer’s interest in spirituality (as heard in his explorations of mystical Shaker teachings with his long-standing Shakers n’ Bakers ensemble), the date consists of eight, short, eight-measure compositions written the day before the session. Explaining the concept, Lederer says “Having been born on the eighth day of the eighth month, the eighth child in my family, at the eighth hour of the day, the number eight has always resonated with me.” Reflecting the spirit of the law of dharma in the album title, the recording, made in first takes without rehearsal, captures the spontaneity of making collective music when the future was unclear. Lederer states, “The summer of 2020 was a unique moment in time for all of us ... We were all in a state of stasis, hunkering down in a time of great uncertainty due to the spreading pandemic.”

The Noble Eightfold Path not only inspired the album title but is represented on the cover by the wheel of dharma, where each ray represents one of the paths leading to nirvana: Right Concentration, Right Speech, Right Effort, Right Action, Right Resolve, Right View, Right Livelihood, and Right Mindfulness – with each path represented by a composition. After a meditative peal of gongs, “Right Concentration” opens the set; Lederer’s soulful tenor tone and ecstatic altissimo flights evoke Ayler’s fierce love cry, with Saft’s sanctified organ swells blending gospel, blues, and jazz into an old-timey New Thing revival, supported by the propulsive pairing of Swallow and Wilson. Wilson’s sense of space and timing is especially apt in this setting and his rapport with the leader is as congenial as Saft’s, having employed Lederer in his own quartet for over a decade. Swallow not only brings a lifetime of experience but a direct historical connection to the revolutionary sounds that inspire this group. The prevailing mood of the program is one of communal celebration, with “Right Action” recalling the jaunty juke joint jams revived by Arthur Blythe and Lester Bowie during the loft jazz era. On the flipside, tunes like “Right Effort” wax and wane with lyrical restraint, tender ballads that provide balance to more animated numbers, like the lurching “Right Livelihood.” The album closes, appropriately, with the introspective “Right Mindfulness,” as Saft’s supple piano guides the leader’s horn gently into the ether.

Released on Lederer’s own Little (i) Music imprint and recalling an accessible variation on the spiritually-minded free jazz of the late ‘60s, Eightfold Path is a compelling statement made by musicians who span generations, collectively expressing a feeling of hope in troubled times.
–Troy Collins


Sonic Drift
SOFA 586

As a master tubist with a keen interest in microtonality, composer/ founder Robin Hayward’s decision to have microtonal tubas constructed may have been inevitable. He has also created a computer composition tool for microtonal music called the Hayward Tuning Vine. Microtonality comes in various forms, but Hayward works with just intonation, the precise intervals of overtones pertaining to an individual key as opposed to the homogenized tempered scale of the piano, a system that limits the appearance of dissonance by rounding out the numbers. On Hayward’s title track, he plays a microtonal tuba in F, while the other members of the trio, Peder Simonsen and Martin Taxt, play microtonal tubas in C. On the collectively composed “Pederson Concerto,” Simonsen plays a modular synth to similar effect.

The effect of those just intervals is heightened by the manner in which they are used. Movement in Mictotub’s music is minimal. It consists of long tones, a near drone, the group eschewing circular breathing, instead creating continuity with a continual overlapping of sound. Writing about music challenges description, and the activity of Microtub is so continuous with the idea of its physical presence (even as sound from a recording) that it’s hard to know where to begin. The “Sonic Drift” on this new CD is very different from the performance of “Chronic Shift” on the previous recording and utterly unlike another piece, “Violet Orange” from Bite of the Orange; but to describe verbally the differences of the pieces is to split the hairs of a bald soprano.

To this listener, the fine distinctions of intervals that happen in the music feel like a form of psychic tuning, somehow antithetical to the easy movement of language. The music seems to have a power to alter mood or, that phantom of identity, consciousness. To listen to Microtub is to become that sound, which has both a resonance and, further, an inclusiveness. Heard live, that sound is the room, heard on headphones, that sound is one’s mind. As I keep learning, the more valuable a music, the less likely one can describe it effectively, but if a 27-minute CD sounds short to you, think of this one as 27 minutes of eternity.
–Stuart Broomer


Matt Mitchell + Kate Gentile
Snark Horse
Pi PI90

This grand 6-CD project from keyboardist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile pushes and pushes a simple premise: players drawn from a pool improvise on intricate one-bar compositions. Often enough the players stretch time and line all sorts of ways, wander away from themes and come back, as improvisers do. But the big-bang energy of those compact musical molecules irradiates and permeates the music: there’s a lot of mutational looping. Which places this music in the 40-year tradition of post-minimal jazz – improvised music indebted to Riley, Reich and Glass, themselves inspired by jazz and the cyclic West African percussion music that is part of African American music’s DNA.

Classic minimalism’s weakness is its pristine harmony, no mud on it. There, improvisers could do better, and nested phrases, looping and layering were all over jazz by the 1980s, easy to hear in, say, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society or Steve Coleman’s bands. Anthony Davis was a key figure, bridging the globally-inflected new music invading concert halls, and the springy pan-African rhythmatism of his sometime accomplice Edward Blackwell. Not that cyclonic energy and minimal themes were new to jazz. Basie’s (band’s) ecstatic riffing, Monk’s four-bar “Friday the 13th,” Shorty Rogers’s empty frame “Martians Go Home,” Tristano’s loopy multitracked “Turkish Mambo,” Ayler’s two-note “Universal Indians,” grunting Steve Lacy riff tunes, and Guus Janssen’s hiccupping faux-monomeasure “One Bar” (among others) point the way. But a more immediate inspiration may be Mitchell’s frequent employer Tim Berne, whose bands might spin long sets from a few written bars. Knowing nothing of this music’s method, you’d recognize his influence.

Given how charged with information those one-bar compositions are – I wish the package had reproduced a couple – the music’s maximal in the execution. (The paradox of minimalism: Einstein on the Beach takes three hours.) It’s typically dense, and the box contains everything the 10 players recorded over three days in the 2019 beforetimes. There is something a little goofy in the audacious concept that plays against the complex material, leavening the results. Rattletrap ratcheting can sound daffy – but textures keep changing, moving along. A rhythmic tattoo might return at another tempo. Ideas pass each other at different speeds in different registers. Someone might stack the mini-melody as a chord, reverse or invert its melodic contour: the folk serialism available to all curious free players.

Proof of concept: the music is fun and addictive, never a chore to get through. Musicians include out-of-the-box/lateral-thinking Jon Irabagon on saxophones (alongside Matt Nelson), violist Mat Maneri who’s good at slowing things down and thinning a texture without letting them go slack, because you need that contrast too. And on guitar, either Brandon Seabrook (also on banjo) whose speed, articulation and ace timing make him an ideal choice, or rock hero Ava Mendoza, upping her improvised cred this season, with this and William Parker’s raucous Mayan Space Station. (The pickers join forces only on the single track by the full Snark Horsekestra, “thumbly,” which for a while sounds like an unbalanced washing machine walking across a cellar floor. Accompanied by banjo.)

The leaders, on every track, help set the tone, signaling when/that it’s OK to step off (and on some long medleys, cuing the next piece), but they aren’t bossy. Gentile’s drums can always call the players back, but she doesn’t hammer at them – listening, they’ll come to her – and she’ll let somebody else’s quirk of rhythm deflect her. Sometimes things are art-rock fast and thorny, slabs of sound thrown around (“dogmacile”). “torpid blather” sounds like jazz (with the pool’s Kim Cass on bass, Danny Lazar on trumpet/cornet, and Ben Gerstein on trombone). Sometimes a themelet’s jumpy majesty suggests Tim Berne (“for teens” – guess the time signature), and there are moments with banjo and fiddle that sound like deconstructed bluegrass (“regular falutin”). The energy and level of engagement stay high, and the creativity (and shifting colors) justify releasing all the music recorded.

They might have stopped there. But in the 2020 aftertimes, Matt Mitchell added almost an hour of additional material – solo pieces for synths and such, dispersed throughout the program, glosses on the previous year’s proceedings, over the course of which he serves up many inviting icy shiny scrapy strawberry-Beatle-mellotron textures. Those pieces can be captivating too, but feel like another project intruding onto the main one: still more when enough was probably enough.
–Kevin Whitehead

ADDENDUM: After this review posted, Matt Mitchell kindly sent along the scores, more intricate than I’d imagined. The time signatures: His “feebleau” is in 63/32 (i.e., the pattern contains a 64th-note hiccup); Gentile’s tumbling “ought gobs” is in 23/16 + 3/20 [sic]. And of course there are more rhythmic subdivisions, eccentric tuplets and passing crossrhythms/undermined tempos within those bars. Odd meters – pieces in 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13 and up – are common. (“for teens” is in a slippery, eighth-notey 3/2.) These one-bar scores usually have double-staffed treble and bass lines, but Gentile writes pieces three, four, five or seven parts deep, and Mitchell’s “thumbly” (in unassuming 4/4) has eight. So a compressed single bar might take much of a page to notate, a wealth of musical information to exploit: a charged molecule. These 21st-century improvisers can really read, but must have done some heavy head-scratching over these scores before assembling in the studio.


Larry Ochs + Donald Robinson
A Civil Right

Larry Ochs, co-founder and tenor and sopranino saxophonist of the legendary ROVA Saxophone Quartet, has also enjoyed a parallel vocation as a solo artist and freelance collaborator. Despite his long and diverse career, Ochs had not released a duo album until somewhat recently – nor had drummer Donald Robinson, who has been working with Ochs in myriad projects over the years. A Civil Right, the duo’s second recording after The Throne (NotTwo, 2013), amends this omission.

Although Ochs and Robinson have collaborated in various line-ups for over two decades, their duo is a more recent phenomenon, developed over the past few years. Ochs and Robinson first performed together from 1991 to 1998 in The Glenn Spearman Double Trio; from 1994 to 2002 they worked with bassist Lisle Ellis in the trio What We Live; and Robinson was part of Ochs’ Sax & Drumming Core from 2000 until 2010. Throughout this time, they practiced and rehearsed in Robinson’s studio, making a duo repertoire inevitable. Ochs says, “Our playing together has evolved to a really special place, I think. We’re definitely coming out of the tradition of horn drum duos from John Coltrane and Rashied Ali to Wadada Leo Smith and Billy Higgins, but we’ve found our own space after a long stretch of shows together.”

Following in the footsteps of such iconic pairings, Ochs and Robinson rejoice with the spirits, reaching heights of expression few can match. Ochs’ full-bodied tenor traces its lineage to the New Thing, transposing old-world religion’s speaking in tongues into vociferous ecstasy, ala Ayler and Coltrane. Robinson has been described as “a percussive dervish,” and is the drummer of choice for ROVA’s touring revival of John Coltrane’s “Ascension.” Eschewing pyrotechnics, Robinson’s playing nonetheless bears heft as he maintains a sense of orderly momentum over meter-less rhythms, transforming abstract pulses into roiling post-bop. He’s a sympathetic match for Ochs, and over the decades they have developed a fine-tuned rapport similar to other high-profile saxophone and drum duos, like Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love or Ellery Eskelin and Gerry Hemingway.

Ochs’ lyrical interactions with Robinson are highly conversational; all their ideas are fully explored and resolved, lending even their most outré excursions a sense of narrative logic. There is a conciseness even in the longest, most episodic numbers, “Arise the Poet” and “The Others Dream.” Their captivating improvisations maintain focus, whether fervent or serene, which imbues each cut with a different character, ranging from the pointillist impressionism of “Yesterday and Tomorrow” to the title track’s bluesy swagger. Ochs’ raw emotionalism and Robinson’s unexpected accents are full of dynamic invention, yet devoid of unnecessary ornamentation. In this spare setting, nothing is obscured, everything is on display. Balancing high energy playing with spatial explorations that reveal new facets with each listen, A Civil Right is one of the best free jazz duo albums released this year.
–Troy Collins


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