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Reviews of Recent Media

Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio + Alexander von Schlippenbach
The Field
NoBusiness NBCD141

Tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado is one of a number of unique voices to have emerged from the vibrant Portuguese scene to stake their claim in the wider international arena. The Field forms the latest in a series of collaborations he has undertaken with his longstanding Motion Trio comprising compatriots, cellist Miguel Mira and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini. But where previous recorded encounters have featured a garrulous second horn in either trombonist Jeb Bishop or trumpeter Peter Evans, which furnishes a potent contrast to Amado’s burly probings, here he hooks up with veteran German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach whose approach is more complementary. By so doing he demonstrates that it’s not only opposites that attract.

Both show a predilection for manipulating motivic figures, cell-like phrases which they repeat, mutate, and evolve. And when they do so in tandem, their lines on related but separate trajectories which converge and diverge unexpectedly, generating an almost continual state of tension, the effect is intoxicating. Schlippenbach of course is well versed in sharing the bandstand with strong-willed saxophonists, not least through his 50-year odyssey with Evan Parker as part of his Trio. But in addition, he supplies a certain formal quality derived from a composer’s ear of such focus that he is able to introduce structural principles from New Music into his improvisations, as he did on the two volumes of his solo Twelve Tone Tales.

Certainly what Schlippenbach plays when Amado catapults into full flight is far too substantial to be termed comping. As did Cecil Taylor in his ensembles, he constantly both feeds potential new material and reflects back what he hears. Right from the off Schlippenbach paraphrases Amado’s initial cries, as if responding to the saxophonist’s call, before both snag on a repeated note, en route to the first of many dramatic peaks.

Also shaping the unfolding narrative, which encompasses meditative interludes as well as spirited interplay, Ferrandini and Mira combine to create a rhythmic mesh which variously supports or accentuates. The drummer reminds that he’s still one of the premier exponents of the school of pulsation founded by Paul Lovens and Tony Oxley, even if his own leadership outings indicate interests which lie in a different direction. As is his custom in this outfit, the quick-fingered Mira proceeds almost entirely pizzicato, a light and nimble presence, but one not best served by the otherwise exemplary recording during the more hectic moments.

A feat of dare-devil invention, the single 56-minute piece traverses multiple moods, but remains tautly and winningly argued throughout.
–John Sharpe


...and then there’s this
Astral Spirits AS 139

Flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed have all been recognized as key innovators in Chicago’s fertile jazz scene. In addition to being established bandleaders and regular collaborators, these musicians are also civic-minded educators and organizers; as longtime members of the AACM, they all served on the association’s executive board. Working together as Artifacts, the trio’s 2015 self-titled debut for 482 Music celebrated the legacy of the AACM, featuring compositions by some of the organization’s visionary elders, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Amina Claudie Meyers, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill, among others. The trio’s sophomore effort, …and then there’s this, carries that legacy forward by contributing to the canon with new compositions written by each member of the trio, plus a pair of covers by Abrams and Mitchell.

Mitchell has been widely praised as the leading flutist of her generation. Gracefully balancing inside and outside aesthetics, she employs extended techniques like harmonics, multiphonics, and vocalized distortions sparingly, extemporizing on these melodious tunes with soul. Additionally, in this setting, Mitchell occasionally uses guitar pedals, expanding her palette with electronic effects like reverb and delay, as on “In Response To.” Equally expressive, Reid bows with a rich legato, but also provides a resonant, bass-like fullness to the group when playing pizzicato. A masterful improviser, she employs a plethora of string techniques, from crystalline harmonics and ghostly glissandos to sinewy double stops. Reed’s protean kit work provides unwavering forward momentum, whether staying in-the-pocket or engaged in pithy call-and-response with his bandmates.

Explaining the importance of the group, Mitchell says, “This project has been a way to celebrate our mutual inspiration from the AACM, while also learning more about how to support each other’s musical aesthetic.” Contributing to each other’s arrangements, they reveal an almost clairvoyant connection in the record’s two free improvisations, both tributes to late AACM members: “Dedicated to Alvin Fielder” and “Song for Joseph Jarman.” Despite the uncanny rapport heard in these impressionistic tone poems, the majority of the session is focused on groove. Avoiding conventional reference points, the trio instills each piece with its own unique rhythmic and sonic character, whether it’s Reed’s anthemic opener “Pleasure Palace,” the slinky funk of Reid’s “In Response To,” or the martial cadences of Mitchell’s “Reflections.” Regarding the album’s two covers, Abrams’ “Soprano Song” features a circuitous melody and loping backbeat that befits the group’s rhythmic synergy, while Mitchell’s earthy “No Side Effects” (which each member has previously performed with the author), is given a novel, reggae-inspired arrangement.

The group’s previous album honored the seminal efforts of vanguard AACM composers; this largely original session adds to that tradition, continuing along the same adventurous path, but with a more cohesive, collaborative sensibility. According to Mitchell, “Musically, the spirit of the AACM is so rich – it’s about originality, experimentation, Blackness. It’s about mentorship and intergenerational inspiration.” A definitive statement from the third generation of the AACM, and a tribute to the organization’s continued relevance, …and then there’s this presents an engaging program that balances tradition and innovation, exemplifying the association’s motto “Ancient to the Future.”
–Troy Collins


Borderlands Trio
Intakt CD 370

Wandersphere is the follow-up to Asteroida, the 2017 Intakt debut from the New York-based Borderlands Trio. Recorded at Samurai Hotel during the pandemic in December 2020, bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson decided to release the session as performed, unedited. On the group’s debut, shorter pieces were edited from longer improvisations, but this time the trio agreed to share the music uncut. Issued as a double CD comprised of four long improvisations that range in length from just under twenty minutes to over forty, this intimate music contrasts the then prevailing mood of pandemic isolation with untapped passion.

Despite the length of the tracks, the trio sounds focused; the members found their voice in the last three years playing together. Working without pre-arranged materials, they create a three-way dialog free of stylistic constraints. Each extended exploration progresses with an inevitable logic that reveals itself slowly, transitioning between extremes that range from impressionistic lyricism to expressionistic swing. Thinking compositionally, rather than simply following one another, they avoid familiar tropes to build a unified sonic architecture.

“Super-Organism” opens the date quietly, with the rustling of McPherson’s brushes, Crump’s creaking arco, and Davis’ atmospheric pianism. The tune’s free-flowing musical ideas slowly gather momentum over a half hour, recalling the life cycle of the mycorrhizae fungi that Crump was researching prior to the recording. The piece gradually segues into ostinato-driven passages where mutable grooves support cascading piano filigrees. Davis occasionally employs a prepared piano; assuming bass duties during the concluding vamp, the kaleidoscopic sounds of her augmented instrument add a cinematic flair to the proceedings.

“An Invitation To Disappear” follows, containing slow moving passages that provide subtle rewards for listeners with long attention spans. And like the prior excursion, it intensifies over the course of its twenty-minute duration, morphing into a series of hyperkinetic grooves. “Old Growth,” the forty-plus minute work that opens the second half of the set, vacillates between moods, from lyrical to swinging to introspective and back again. “Possible Futures” closes the date with a headlong rush of prismatic tonalities and oblique vamps, as Davis transforms the inside of her prepared piano into a gamelan orchestra.

Crump states, “Everyone’s thinking very compositionally, thinking sonically, and thinking about orchestrating the music.” McPherson, best known for his association with pianist Fred Hersch, proves the most revelatory, exploring his kit in a way that wouldn’t fit in more traditional contexts. “That’s what’s very exciting to me about it because it allows you to access your entire musicality,” he says. Davis also revels in the opportunity “to give yourself the freedom to just really be in the moment ... Who knows what tomorrow will bring; we are here for each other now and we will heal and find a way forward through the music we make together.” On Wandersphere that journey is long, but worthwhile.
–Troy Collins


Rüdiger Carl + Joel Grip + Sven-Åke Johansson
In Early November
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 078

Reed player Rüdiger Carl and drummer Sven-Åke Johansson have, singularly and together, been part of the European free music scene since the late 1960s. While the two didn’t work together frequently, they released a few duo recordings and participated in a variety of projects over the years, from large ensembles to the Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartett with Hans Reichel and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky to the ultra-quirky Night and Day, the skewed standards project by Carl, Johansson, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Jay Oliver. The drummer has maintained an active release schedule, mostly on his own bandcamp site, but Carl has been relatively quiet as of late, making this release all the more noteworthy. Though younger than his partners, bassist Joel Grip has been busy making a mark both as a member of a plethora of groups including Ahmed, ISM, and trios with Johansson and tenor player Bertrand Denzler or guitarist Niklas Fite, as well as his efforts as organizer/producer with the fantastic Umlaut Records label and his series at Au Topsi Pohl in Berlin (where this session was recorded.) In Early November on the Corbett vs. Dempsey label captures an evening in November 2019 of expansive free improvisation by the trio of Carl, here exclusively on clarinet, Grip, and Johansson. The three improvisations, each around 25 minutes long, are models of collective interplay.

While often thought of for his fiery tenor playing, Carl’s clarinet has long accentuated an abstract lyricism to his playing, favoring the warm chalumeau registers of the horn. Grip is the consummate ensemble player, fully integrating his full-bodied tone into collective settings. And Johansson, of course, has been honing his approach to these sort of outings with an expansive list of collaborators for years. “First Movement Inflow” kicks things off with the drummer’s spare open snare, joined by the percussive vibration of bass strings and then sinuously lyrical clarinet. The three quickly lock in with soaring clarinet lines and arco bass freely loping over the chatter of snare and cymbal splashes. Two minutes in and the three are in full flight with Carl obtusely touching on melodic phrases, Grip’s dark-toned bass roiling with energy, and Johansson goading things along with unfettered angularity. The balance in dynamics is always at the fore, with each instrument inhabiting equal footing in the cooperative give-and-take. Listen to the way that Carl snakes in a thread of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” amongst his dulcet musings. Catch the way that Grip effortlessly floats from walking lines to timbral explorations to free, plucked invention. And Johansson’s striking command of the entirety of jazz drum tradition from Baby Dodds to Sunny Murray and beyond while always sounding distinctively like himself is omnipresent.

“Second Movement Inflect” picks right up with three-way interplay with Grip’s tawny bubbling line in particularly strong form. The prodigious elastic interchange between the three opens up for solo sections which then get woven back into astute group discourse. There’s a section where Carl’s teeming lines sync right in with Johansson’s shuffle and another where Grip’s rich arco chords lay a ground for zigzagging clarinet. The tension created as the trio accelerates and then brings things back down to a hushed murmur displays remarkable collective control. “Third Movement Inflict” closes things out, starting with an insistent motif voiced by the drummer, picked up by the clarinetist, and then morphing to a ruminative trio improvisation. Here, in particular, the way that the three voices work independently across each other with sympathetic consideration is remarkable. This is music that simmers with unreserved freedom, launching off on flights of spontaneous invention without ever raising to the blistering energy these musicians have often engaged in. The recording quality is superb, catching all three in even, close detail. It’s a welcome return to recording for Carl and a worthy addition to Johansson and Grip’s trio collaboration. One hopes to hear more from this group.
–Michael Rosenstein


John Coltrane
A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
Impulse B0034291-01

Recorded by saxophonist Joe Brazil, this document of Coltrane’s week-long residency at the Penthouse Club in Seattle has been greeted with much fanfare for being only the second recorded instance of Coltrane playing the “A Love Supreme” suite live. Yet while A Love Supreme is often cited as the pinnacle of Coltrane’s music, it was arguably never the most representative of Coltrane’s works. To be sure, there’s a rarely-matched majesty to its rubato prelude, and a reverential charge to Coltrane’s chanting of the title, or the vocalised prayer on “Psalm” – its cadences, like those of the earlier “Alabama,” matching the timbre of Martin Luther King and tapping into Coltrane’s Philadelphia church roots. But the music itself was already, a few months after its recording, emblematic of an approach Coltrane had moved away from. 1965 was a flurry of activity for Coltrane, marking a quantum leap in his music, as the influence of Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, and the young lions of the new music made itself ever-more felt. Having recorded A Love Supreme in December 1964, he went into the studio with what he termed a “big band” for Ascension less than six months later. And, having toured Europe with the Classic Quartet in the summer, he immediately began to expand his working band on return to the States, playing with Archie Shepp at the Down Beat Jazz Festival in Chicago to both cheers and audience walk-outs.

This flurry of historic activity has not been well-documented. Ascension understandably dwarfed anything around it, but sessions like Om, Transition, Sun Ship, and live recordings from Seattle and from the Half Note in New York received only posthumous release, in some cases decades after they were recorded. The Seattle dates mark some of Pharoah Sanders’ earliest appearances in Coltrane’s group, forming part of a West Coast tour that October in which he and bassist/clarinettist Donald Rafael Garrett were added to the basic quartet. While the group still played standards and Coltrane staples like “Afro Blue,” the playing was invariably out, pushing the forms to their limits: given that Ascension wouldn’t appear until February the following year, audiences might well have been taken aback. And it’s this experimentation, both with group size and instrumentation and with the form of the pieces themselves, that makes this music still so exciting, wrenching, so filled with crackling tension. Live in Seattle has long been one of my favorite of Coltrane’s recordings from this transitional period. There’s a particular thickness to McCoy Tyner’s sound that would develop in his later work into a buoyant, majestic serenity. In Seattle, though, his left hand sounds like the tolling of a gigantic bell, or a clock ticking to a climax that never arrives, his lower register explorations placing him in a lineage of piano playing ranging from Mal Waldron – adding density and shade to virtually any piece through ominous low note figurations – to Cecil Taylor’s deep dives into the keyboard’s “abyssal” realms. Meanwhile, Elvin Jones’ polyrhythms became ever more urgent and prominent, often in duet with Coltrane.

So what does this newly-discovered recording of the Quartet’s final night at the Penthouse add to the story set out in Live in Seattle? For one, it provides a chance to hear just how much Coltrane’s approach to form had altered since he recorded A Love Supreme. Notably, the totemic, Latin-inflected riff to “Acknowledgment” is rendered less the opening movement’s centerpiece than just one element among many, with the music dominated by Donald Rafael Garrett’s arco bass. Tyner’s chordal patterns are already darker and thicker than they had been in winter the previous year, Coltrane and Sanders emphasizing both steely lower end and altissimo registers, Sanders’ sound stretched and thin yet enormous, a yawning chasm. While Coltrane repeatedly invokes the riff towards the end of the piece, the music’s collective force insists on following another direction: Garrett and Jimmy Garrison creating a polyrhythmic, overlayered thicket, Garrett’s movement higher and higher into piccolo scrabble offset by Garrison’s sternly warm explorations. Like Coltrane’s insistent movement up and down the keys, the band as a whole constantly rearranges basic material in a fashion at once hesitant and authoritative: a first step towards the unknown.

Coltrane returns with the urgent theme to “Resolution,” rising to a lilting cry and ending with a descending honk. The basses shift to a fast clip as Carlos Ward takes his alto spot (I believe his earliest recorded performance). Recently returned to Seattle following military service in Germany, where he’d been encouraged by Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry, Ward plucked up the nerve to ask Coltrane to sit in on the Penthouse gig, before following him to New York later that year. A.B. Spellman called him “neither a screamer nor a singer, but a talker”: in this early appearance, there’s something of Sanders’ wavering bite, albeit with more of a tendency to Coltrane-ian runs of notes. As soon as one run’s finished, the next begins. Ward passes the baton lightning-quick to Coltrane, the latter alternating between a held-upper register – anxious, unsustainable, transcendent peak – and scrabbling flurries grounded in the deep honks that perform a kind of Cubist transformation of R&B roots. Coltrane’s altissimo prompts whoops from other musicians – or perhaps audience members – the theme’s return leading to the Elvin Jones drum feature. Jones swims in and parts troubled waters, an unstoppable force. “Don’t start me talking, or I’ll tell everything I know.” The solo has a focused, joyous intensity: booming, boiling, buoyant, brilliant.

Coltrane gives the briefest of nods to the “Pursuance” theme and Sanders is off: saxophone chasing its own tail, biting off its phrases, riffs put through the mangler and coming out the other sides as overblown cries. At times, Sanders is left alone with Jones in an abbreviated version of the marathon Coltrane-Jones saxophone-drum duets, a fascinating contrast. If Sanders refuses to play changes at all, Tyner’s ensuing solo evinces a dogged adherence to a harmonic cycle forms a kind of obsessive looping, a peculiarly expansive minimalism. Garrison’s solo – labelled as an “interlude” on this release – swings, strums, develops a pleasurable tension in its repeated phrases and targeted pauses. This is perhaps a jauntier version of the kinds of solo he would play as Coltrane increasingly spotlighted his work in performance (a good sample can be heard on recordings from the band’s European tour that summer). But at its heart is a hushed, meditative quality, beyond any one particular emotion, touching on whatever feelings it sparks in the behearer: ritual rather than rote sideman feature. It’s index of the appreciative audience – apparently as many as 300 people, over the venue’s full capacity – that not a pin can be heard to drop.

The suite concludes with “Psalm:” of all the movements, this is the closest to the studio rendition. In the studio, Coltrane vocalized the syllables to his own poem on the horn: as much spoken as sung, preached as played. Live, without the poem to hand, he improvises on its feels rather than its precise content, but at certain points can be heard playing particular phrases – “Amen,” “thank you God” – which in turn get pulled into smears, multiphonics, double-time, and keening upper-register fermatas. In essence an extension of the rubato opening to “Spiritual” and of “Alabama,” Jones’ rolling mallets and cymbal crashes and Tyner’s tolling left hand sustain a pulse rather than building a tempo. Despite the affirmatory quality of Coltrane’s poem, the tone is one of mourning as much as celebration. The ringing sound that can be heard in the background – perhaps Sanders’ bells – sounds at once like accoutrements in a church service and the insistent ringing of a fire alarm almost out of earshot, while Garrett’s bowed bass picking up and crossing over Coltrane’s timbre in eerie out-of-time synchronicity. The basses carry on for a few seconds after Coltrane’s final declaration and the track fades out on chatter and scattered applause, falling apart and into the relaxed sociality which is both the music’s contrast and its extension.

For those already familiar with all the official releases and bootlegs, this new release won’t come as a revelation. The sound quality, like that of other late live reissues, such as the Olatunji Concert or the Temple University recordings – is not perfect: a little muffled, with some hiss, but the individual instruments are rendered with great clarity and there’s little distortion – often a recurrent problem, especially with larger and louder ensembles – with the sound balance generally favouring the two basses. The obsessive focus over every nook and cranny of an artist’s legacy has pitfalls we all know of. That’s exacerbated here because A Love Supreme, the most commercially successful of Coltrane’s recordings, has such a totemic status. We might further worry that, in revealing aspects of the collective nature of the music – the chance to hear Carlos Ward, for example – they are obscured in plain sight (Coltrane is the only musician whose image appears in the otherwise copious liner notes and packaging). Rather than a transitional stage in the growth of free music – one which expands well beyond Coltrane himself – it’s seen as another icon to be treated apart from the social and musical context which produced it. Better, however, to take it for what it is: an in-progress document of a working band, its imperfections as important as the achievements emphasized by an elevated, holy grail discourse: a social music, one night among many, no less resplendent for what in it is held in common than for what in it is sui generis.
–David Grundy


Hat Hut Records

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