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Reviews of Recent Media

King Übü Örchestrü 2021
FMR CD653-0822

Initiated by reed player Wolfgang Fuchs in 1983, King Übü Örchestrü was always intended to be a morphing collective that came together periodically to explore large-group spontaneous improvisation. Over the course of 20 years, they released four recordings, with an additional live set from 1989 unearthed a few years back. Over the course of that run, Fuchs, Philipp Wachsmann, Radu Malfatti, Melvyn Poore, and Paul Lytton were regulars along with a rotating cast of European improvisers. The group last played in 2003; with Fuchs’ death in 2016 and Malfatti’s move away from this approach toward group improvisation, it seemed that things had run their course. But in 2021, guitarist Erhard Hirt, who was part of an early line-up, decided to reconvene the ensemble, drawing on musicians who had participated over the years while adding some newer participants. Adding 2021 to the group name to denote a relaunch, Hirt, on guitar and electronics, pulled in Mark Charig and Axel Dörner on cornet and trumpet, Matthias Muche on trombone, Poore on tuba, Stefan Keune on sopranino sax, Alfred Zimmerlin on cello, Wachsmann on violin and electronics, Hans Schneider on bass, Lytton on percussion, and vocalist Phil Minton.

Forty years on, the notion of large ensemble collective improvisation, sans scores, predetermined structures, or spots for soloists has been absorbed into strategies for spontaneous playing. And while this new iteration of Übü is still rooted in those approaches, they’ve moved away from the reductive approaches of quiet dynamics and silence that were core to their initial forays. Still, this is truly collective music, eschewing any notion of featured players or free jazz inflections. Part of that is due to the instrumental balance of brass and strings, with Keune’s sopranino the only reed. But more importantly are the members, all of whom share a sensibility toward cooperative balance and finely-honed discerning listening. This is music of texture and timbre rather than polyphony and line and all of the members are keenly attuned to that approach. Across the two sets, the first at 27 minutes and the second at 35 minutes, the music surges and subsides, mounts density and releases into muted musings.

The first set bursts forth with chattering fillips and growling rumbles, Minton’s shredded vocalizations poking through with acrobatic brio. The timbral breadth of the instrumentation is utilized effectively as strings play off low-end brass and electronic shadings by Wachsmann and Hirt color the accruing sound. The collective ensemble gathers force and then splits things open, letting various sub-groupings emerge and then transform in mercurially shifting layers. Conversational strategies are more at play than with earlier iterations of the group, but those sections never subsume the group voicings. Instead, they become structural kernels in the overall spontaneously evolving form of the piece. Careful listening is evident as the eleven members build intensity and velocity and then subside into pools of transparent interplay, gradually waning into hushed scrims.

The second kicks off with a resonant clang and bursts of activity, with dark voicings of trombone, tuba, bass, and cello anchoring Minton’s vocalizations and the chatter of cornet, trumpet, and sopranino. The improvisation builds with various voices popping out through the churning ensemble ground. Here, electronic textures play a more overt role, with shimmering washes and oscillations intermixing with arco strings, barbed brass stabs, and Lytton’s metallic spatters, pinprick textures, and resounding cracks. One-third of the way through, the improvisation opens into spare, pointillistic interplay with the ensemble splintering off into shifting subgroupings. Masterfully, things ebb and flow with rapt focus by all the players featuring an extended, hushed section two-thirds of the way through. Hissed breath, muted string abrasions, and hushed clatter gradually mount into a final crescendo of burly intensity. Forty years on and this revived version of the group proves that there is still plenty of ground to explore.
–Michael Rosenstein


Ingrid Laubrock
The Last Quiet Place
Pyroclastic PR 24

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock titled her new album The Last Quiet Place after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Under a White Sky, which argue that while we like to imagine that there was a time when we once lived in harmony with nature, it’s unlikely we ever did. Laubrock states “Kolbert explains that there’s very little in nature that is untouched or that actually functions as it’s supposed to function and I realized that the only quiet place you can look for is within yourself.” Laubrock’s “quiet place” has nothing to do with meditative silence, however. The album’s compositions are as challenging as anything she’s written, with bristling tension and barbed angularity conveying the relentless chaos of modernity. Inevitably, in such challenging times, the last quiet place may indeed be within oneself.

Laubrock’s first date as a leader for Pyroclastic features a stellar sextet. Half of the group consists of previous Laubrock collaborators: guitarist Brandon Seabrook (who shares Laubrock’s aesthetic of disrupting and fragmenting musical ideas), veteran bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tom Rainey, who has been Laubrock’s partner for years. They are joined by violinist Mazz Swift and cellist Tomeka Reid – two-thirds of the string trio Hear in Now (with bassist Silvia Bolognesi) – who provide lyrical sensitivity, rhythmic counterpoint, and rich texture.

The album fluctuates between moods, using myriad instrumental combinations to explore a range of textures. The stark opener, “Anticipation,” rotates between different duo and trio combinations, making keen use of Swift and Reid, who help establish a dynamic ebb and flow. Laubrock’s sinuous melodicism reveals itself with a subtle rhythmic energy, while Seabrook tempers his more aggressive inclinations, sustaining momentum with carefully strummed recapitulations. Here and throughout the session, the musicians respond to and finish each other’s phrases, clearly committed to the collaborative sound.

In contrast, the raucous “Grammy Season” alternates dramatic long tones with staccato playing, surging with a confrontational Formanek ostinato that catalyzes the group’s energy; Seabrook is feistier and Laubrock more animated, and the strings join in the collective fervor. The churning title track offers another facet of the group’s sound, featuring the leader’s melancholy soprano soaring over Formanek’s forceful basslines and Seabrook’s more restrained contributions, while “Delusions” is an up-tempo group effort fraught with spiky shifts and personnel changes. Conversely, “Afterglow” boasts taut rhythmic exchanges between Laubrock and Rainey in a chamberesque setting.

The album’s lengthy closer, “Chant II,” one of a series of pieces inspired by speech patterns, was first recorded by Laubrock and Rainey on their 2018 duo outing, Utter (Relative Pitch). Enhanced by additional instrumentation, the composition moves from a sinewy opening dialogue between Reid and Swift to a tenacious Seabrook solo, culminating in a shared ostinato “chant” as the group’s individual voices merge into a stirring, unified whole.

Laubrock is one of today’s most original improvisers, but recently her composing and arranging have proven just as compelling as her soloing. She typically works in smaller groups that spotlight her skills as an improviser, although she has ventured out with larger ensembles on recordings like Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt, 2018) and Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt, 2020), which demonstrate her ambitious compositional vision. The Last Quiet Place is a captivating example of her unbound creativity, and a much-needed respite from the noise of the outside world.
–Troy Collins


Joëlle Léandre
Zurich Concert
Intakt CD 402

Joëlle Léandre + Craig Taborn + Mat Maneri
RogueArt ROG-0127

Now 71, French bassist Joëlle Léandre is a consummate improviser allying unrivalled facility to boundless imagination. Her early performances were in new music, but before long the allure of free improvisation unleashed her passion and creativity, with bassist Peter Kowald and guitarist Derek Bailey her lodestars. But Léandre has transcended genre in a lengthy career garlanded with accolades, the most recent being the receipt of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Vision Festival in New York City. By this juncture she is unmistakable, readily identifiable by her authoritative tone, ecstatic and incantatory phrasing, rich color palette and unconstrained attitude to theatricality and humor.

While Léandre’s discography stretches to over 240 titles, only a handful find her in the sole company of her bass, including of course her memorable debut Contrabassiste -Taxi (Adda, 1982). Zurich Concert provides the latest installment of a long journey, captured at the Taktlos Festival in the titular Swiss city some forty years after her first excursion in the format. Even though she’s on record as expressing a preference for communal music making, Léandre assuredly pulls the listener into her world, one where the absence of partners proves no hindrance to enthralling expression. Having spent many years working with contemporary composers as varied as Boulez, Cage, and Scelsi, she’s picked up one or two things along the way. So even though these five pieces are improvised, her sense of form manifests clearly, maybe even more than usual without the stimulus of others.

The opening number sets out her stall in style. Beginning with dramatic vibrant arco, she extemporizes a brooding theme, which she subjects to variations, modulating volume and the number of strings sounded. Eventually she conjures a beseeching, aching feel, which she supplements by understated vocal sighs and breaths. Then she ascends into a thin upper register before ending on a booming slurred pizzicato. The logic and inspiration is palpable. It is like being led through a natural sequence of interlinked rooms.

She generates a flow to the whole album as if presenting a suite, with contrasts both within and between tracks. The classical vibe of the opener, her legitimate technique prominent, leads to more abstract textures on the next cut, anchored by a tolling note which constitutes a recurring motif. Léandre has stated that she employs her voice like a fifth string, and it’s one she calls on more as the concert progresses. She adds a jubilant line to the folky dance on “3,” and exuberant exhortations on “4” before reverting to a vocal muttering atop her careening bow work later in the same selection. Her voice supplies a direct human dimension, which she uses both to reinforce her instrumental voice, but also on occasion to subvert it, levity undercutting the gravity, resulting in an intriguing ambiguity. Voluble and virtuosic, Léandre melds everything into an outstanding musical experience.

hEARoes documents a first-time meeting many years in the making. Although Léandre’s association with violist Mat Maneri goes back a long way, and her familiarity with pianist Craig Taborn extends almost as far, it was the invitation to put together a group for the 2022 Sons d’hiver festival in Paris which was the catalyst for the realization of a long-held wish, the outcome of which can be heard on this recording. Of course, like Léandre, Maneri and Taborn are spectacular instrumentalists. Even though this isn’t the forum for Taborn to flex his rhythmic muscles, his tightly wound figures and under the bonnet manipulations impart a glinting almost crystalline quality to counter the strings. Taborn also reminds of his mastery of the pedals and consequent overtones in stunning fashion at the contemplative outset of “o,” which resolves into an urgent duet with the bassist.

While Léandre doesn’t impose, she nonetheless establishes the foundation for the absorbing interplay, to which Maneri contributes an immense dolorous emotional heft. Belying their freely improvised origins there’s an almost formal elegance to each of the seven pieces. Perhaps that’s what Stuart Broomer detects in the music which accounts for his reference to Schoenberg in his liner notes. Or perhaps it’s the spontaneous orchestration, in evidence throughout but most obvious in “A,” where a delicately tumbling unaccompanied piano introduction gives way to Léandre’s keening bowing, before all three come together in meditative combination for the finish. It furnishes a satisfying structure which gifts shape to the inspired playing. There’s an arc to the just shy of 40-minute set, from the respectful but not tentative “h,” with its oblique dialogue in taut balance, to the quickfire interchanges of the concluding “s” with hands hurtling across keys and fingerboards. On the way they explore every nook and cranny of the chamber before that final dash for freedom.
–John Sharpe


Samuel Leipold + Jurg Bucher + Luca Lo Bianco
ezz-thetics 1042

Most of the ezz-thetics catalogue these last few years have been archival releases from the golden age of mid-twentieth century jazz. But the imprint hasn’t slept on new music, thankfully, and this trio outing led by guitarist Leipold is a dilly. Even though the instrumentation is that of the old Giuffre/Hall/Swallow trio (and there’s even a Giuffre tune), the music is fresh and innovative.

It’s a concise program, with relatively brief pieces that are long on tone and short on clutter. That sense of space is very much a function of the styles of Leipold, clarinetist Bucher, and bassist Lo Bianco. Collectively they’re interested in resonance, overlapping lines, and dynamics, and it’s all to the music’s benefit. Right from the opening “Zoncolan,” there’s gently lolling bass, patiently unfurling guitar harmonics, and lush-toned B-flat. Leipold in particular kept me gripped with his playing, with a refreshingly unprocessed tone, clean but with plenty of bite (hear this best on the opening to “Brandluft”).

Most of the pieces live in a kind of floating world, with shapes sensed rather than seen. The basic language is lines twisting around, improvisations floating in and out of unisons, with occasional passages that are pulse-driven. It’s in these passages that things occasionally get just a bit gnarled, but for the most part things drift in and out. On “Harmonium,” for example, there’s some judiciously controlled guitar resonance, a soft burr from clarinet, and then arco, the three together sounding like gentle feedback more than a harmonium chord.

If you study closely enough, the basic melodies do reveal a Giuffre influence for sure. But the arrangements are quite distinctive, with compositional shifts announced by changes in dynamics or accents to phrases rather than anything dramatic. On the Giuffre piece “Afternoon,” for example, they manage to wring something very ethereal from the pronounced swing. And oh, those low clarinet tones while Lo Bianco carries the forward motion. It’s a group sound that’s just a pleasure to inhabit, from Lo Bianco’s strangely tranquil “Thanatos” to the comparably muscular “Another Try” all the way to the gutsy take on Stravinsky’s “Three Clarinet Pieces I,” which closes out this rich and satisfying album. Here’s hoping to a follow-up before too long.
–Jason Bivins


James Brandon Lewis
Eye Of I
Anti- 87950

Since his self-released debut, Moments (2010), tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has issued a number of eclectic projects as a bandleader, including 2021’s award-winning Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms), a sophisticated concept album based on George Washington Carver’s life and achievements. Afterwards, Lewis signed to Anti-, a label capable of raising his profile to a wider audience and formed an unconventional trio with Christopher Hoffman on amplified cello and Max Jaffe on drums. His first release for the label, Eye Of I, diverges from the cerebral concepts of his critically acclaimed Jesup Wagon in favor of a more direct approach.

Lewis’ fourth album in four years defies expectations, adopting a genre-less approach to creative improvised music. Veering through a wide range of musical styles and contrasting moods – from raucous, freewheeling inventions to more delicate, bluesy articulations – these skeletal tunes reveal Lewis’ compositional skill across ballads, gospel, blues, post-bop, and modal jazz. These songs are especially notable for their lyrical straightforwardness, having little in common with intricate contemporary jazz composition.

The program begins with “Foreground,” a brief, ear-opening palette cleanser that introduces the album’s bold mixture of amplified strings and electronically augmented beats. Lewis then offers an emotional rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” that teeters on the brink of chaos, transforming a gorgeous ballad into a slow, somber march with an emotionally optimistic tone. Kirk Knuffke guests on cornet, playing counterpoint to Lewis’ horn, which wrings pathos out of Hathaway’s soulful melody, as Hoffman’s electronically distorted cello rumbles and Jaffe’s expressive kit provides propulsive color.

“The Blues Still Blossoms” follows, with Lewis expounding on the thematic development of a short, repetitive melody in call and response with the rhythm section. Although based around a flatted-third blues interval, the song is more invocation than blues. On the title track, Lewis dramatically transposes introspection into catharsis. Distorted, solemn cello drones over thunderous percussion and when Lewis ascends to full wail, one can hear the ghosts of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane as the trio reaches punk-like volume and intensity. But the date also features melodic restraint in the meditative “Within You Are Answers,” a beautiful number that finds Lewis trading abstraction for clarity.

“Womb Water” is a sublime reinterpretation of Cecil Taylor’s “Womb Waters Scent of the Burning Armadillo Shell” from 1984’s Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), followed by the gorgeous “Send Seraphic Beings,” which spotlights the mellifluous lower register of Lewis’ horn swinging over a gentle Latin groove. Knuffke assists Lewis again on “Even the Sparrow,” a mournful funeral march that delves back into darkness, as pedaled cello creates rhapsodic harmonies, the drumming abandoning pulse for high-energy melodic expressionism.

The album closes with “Fear Not,” an anthemic collaboration between Lewis’ trio and Washington, D.C. post-punk trio the Messthetics, featuring former Fugazi members Joe Lally (bass) and Brendan Canty (drums), along with guitarist Anthony Pirog. It’s a canny crossover move, but a natural one, since Pirog is a longtime associate of Lewis. However, as a last-minute addition that happened after the album had already been tracked, the cut’s fuller sound seems to belong on another record.

Eye of I showcases the range of Lewis’ musical imagination as a bandleader, composer, and improviser. He embraces and advances the tradition, balancing a gospel-informed spirituality with free jazz abandon and streetwise funk. Lewis’ early work displayed impressive technical skill, but his subsequent efforts have found him establishing a singularly creative voice. A ceaseless explorer, Lewis investigates new concepts and musical settings at an accelerated pace. An inspired listen, Eye Of I is a compelling snapshot of an artist on the move.
–Troy Collins


Thelonious Monk
Celebrating 75 Years of His First Recordings, Revisited
ezz-thetics 1141

Thelonious Monk Quartet
Live Five Spot 1958, Revisited
ezz-thetics 1147

In October of 1947, Thelonious Monk led his first session as a leader, a sextet date for Blue Note. Over the next five years he’d go on to record five more sessions for the label that yielded a total of thirty-two master takes, twenty-three of which were Monk originals. The totality of those sessions, including some of the alternate takes, have appeared on various versions of the two volumes of Genius of Modern Music, a couple of Milt Jackson’s 10”s, and numerous reissues. ezz-thetics’ Celebrating 75 Years of His First Recordings presents those twenty-three originals sequenced in the order they were released. Often reissues of recordings made before the advent of the LP sequence the tracks in the order they were recorded. This often includes grouping master and alternate takes of the same song together, which for me as a listener is maddening. ezz-thetics’ novel approach lets modern listeners hear what came to be the core of Monk’s canon in the same order as his fans would have as they bought the 78s at their local shop or heard them on the radio.

As such, one doesn’t hear a chronological development of Monk’s playing, writing, and ensembles over the course of five years as so many reissue compilations do, but rather the ways Blue Note decided to release the material. This can create some interesting juxtapositions. The 1947 trio performance of the somewhat understated “Introspection” is the disc’s penultimate track yet is surrounded by more jumping and full-bodied cuts from the 1952 sextet date that featured Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, and Lucky Thompson. A 1947 quintet recording of “In Walked Bud” (track 5) was released with a quartet rendering of “Epistrophy” (track 6) recorded the next year. The shift from a two-horn frontline of trumpeter George Taitt and Sihab Shihab on alto on the former to a more compact sound with Milt Jackson on the latter is fairly jarring. At other times, the sequence presents the tracks just as they were released on the 78, as in “Monk’s Mood” (track 12) and “Who Knows” (track 13).

The earliest 1940s sessions show that the conventions of bebop were still being worked out and that Monk’s tunes were still puzzles for some. The horns on the earliest recorded track “Thelonious,” which is also the disc’s first track, sound like window dressing and Monk’s solo is equal parts stride and bebop. Both alto saxophonist Danny Quebec West and tenor saxophonist Billy Smith barely hang on during “Humph,” struggling to reconcile swing and bebop vocabularies. By the 1948 and 1950s sessions, Monk had things pretty mapped out. The eight sides recorded with Milt Jackson on the 1948 and 1951 sessions are superb and the four tunes included here recorded with Dorham, Donaldson, and Thompson (don’t forget Max Roach on drums) make one wish that the sextet had been booked for another session or two.

The logic behind Blue Note’s decision to release what material at what time makes for a dynamic and somewhat unpredictable listening experience, as sextets move to trios to quintets, etc. For those familiar with Blue Note’s two volumes of Genius of Modern Music, or the other ways these recordings have been packaged over the decades, the ezz-thetics release will shake up that familiarity in ways that may bring new insights. It takes some sleuthing with discographies and sessionographies to see how the pieces all fit together, so perhaps the best approach is to just put the disc on and enjoy these foundational bebop recordings offered in a new and intriguing fashion.

By the summer of 1958 Monk had regained his cabaret card and locked up a second long term gig at the Five Spot. He brought his quartet of Johnny Griffin, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and Roy Haynes to the Five Spot on August 7 to record what would be two live albums for Riverside: Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. Live Five Spot 1958, Revisited combines all the music from that evening save for three tracks, two one-minute-long performances of the theme and Monk’s solo rendition of “Just a Gigolo.” The first five tracks of the new ezz-thetics edition are from Thelonious in Action and the second five are from Misterioso. Simply put, the set is a barnburner, which is largely due to the blistering fingers and imagination of Johnny Griffin, who Monk brought into the band only after Rollins and Coltrane were unavailable.

The disc opens with “Light Blue” and “Coming on the Hudson,” on which Griffin was just dipping his toe in the water. By the third piece, “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Griffin was clearly comfortable and mashed his foot to the floor, blowing a solo so inspired that it took Monk a moment or two before he felt comfortable beginning his own rather brief solo. Griffin’s energy on the cut clearly lifts up the band – Haynes comes alive with snare hits and kick drum bombs. Griffin is off to the races on “Evidence,” mixing his own version of sheets of sound with a nursery rhyme quote or two while chewing up as much territory as he can before his tank runs dry. He hews closer to “Nutty”’s melody a bit during his solo, although he can’t help himself from inserting a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” quote. On “Blues Five Spot” and “Let’s Cool One” Griffin instructs the rhythm section “I got it, I got it.” His mates drop out, and he finishes each solo with a dizzying cadenza. The first time listening to this disc I repeated “In Walked Bud” three or four times before I even got to the closing track “Misterio.” On the former the band seems to levitate as Griffin digs deep. Curiously, Monk laid out during Griffin’s solo. Was he dancing? Staying out of Griffin’s way? In the bathroom? In many ways, the Five Spot date might seem like it’s a Johnny Griffin showcase – Monk’s solos are all relatively brief and the quartet seems less like a Monk quartet in that his tunes seem less present throughout, probably because Griffin used them as a launching pad rather than as the main ingredients. In any case, the music is captivating. This disc is a must-have for all of those who need more Johnny Griffin in their lives and a most welcome remastered addition to the Monk catalog. If this recording was just now surfacing for the first time, I’m sure it would be met with hype and fanfare, which it would surely deserve.

Considering the Blue Note sides together with the Five Spot hit, one hears not only the difference between the limitations of the 78 and the benefits of the LP format (if only the Dorham, Donaldson, Thompson unit could stretch out like Griffin, et al), but the development and solidification of Monk as a composer, pianist, and leader. While the music on these discs is well known and long since canonized, for some reason, Monk never gets old. Every time he shows up in a slightly new context as he does here, there’s something new to find and ponder.
–Chris Robinson


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