Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Ulrich Gumpert + Günter Baby Sommer
Das Donnernde Leben
Intakt CD 169

This is a delightful album, by turns serious and light-hearted, sincere and ironic, serene and tumultuous. Pianist Ulrich Gumpert and drummer Günter BabySommer are long-time duet partners, dating back to FMP releases in the 1970s, and this album takes on added significance as their first recorded duet since then. It covers much of the same territory as the earlier albums, a terrain of free improvisation with outcroppings of folk musics, marches, Tin Pan Alley, and jazz and blues. It is a landscape they have inhabited for decades and they are comfortable wandering through it. They may not barrel around in it as heedlessly as they did in their youth, but with maturity has come the virtues of patience and refinement; they still know how to unearth a surprise or two. It’s virtuosic and highly focused, of course, but it sounds as intimate and casual as if Gumpert turned to Sommer and simply said, “Old friend, let’s play.”

When Gumpert and Sommer first started mixing vernacular references into their improvisations, it was far less commonplace that it is today. They’re old hands at it now and it is second nature to them. The freedom and intense concentration of their genre manipulations make every incongruity seem like a logical outgrowth in the development of the piece. The improvised “Free for Two” opens with Gumpert’s deliberately awkward lines teetering precariously over Sommer’s swinging beat. It sounds as if the piece might fall apart at any moment, but it’s actually carefully balanced. Before long Gumpert is playing stride piano and Sommer is doing tippy-tappy soft-shoe rhythms as if the music had wandered into a tipsy vaudeville rehearsal. “Funk for Two” is a soul jazz tune in which all the elements – blues, gospel, riffs, bop lines – tumble together one over the other. Their arrangement of a Japanese folk song, “Kami-Fusen” lingers over the tune’s sense of nostalgia and loss; it’s quite touching. On the other hand, “Soldat, Soldat” is witheringly ironic. They play the martial theme with corrosive mockery, dismantle it in their improvisation and give it a disdainful reprise. The entire disc brims with witty merry-making, and there’s a lightness to their approach that prevents the more sober moments from sounding ponderous or solemn. “Free of All,” another improvised piece, is the album’s best example of their upbeat seriousness. They play with such brio; their dissection of melody, rhythm, and sound is so thorough; and their ability to play together is so telepathic that the music begins to sound as if it were made by a six-limbed drummer or a four-handed pianist. It’s music that only old friends can make.
– Ed Hazell


Myra Melford's Be Bread
The Whole Tree Gone
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-012

Since her debut as a leader in 1990, pianist Myra Melford's impressive writing has gracefully fused Eastern and Western traditions, revealing a multitude of pan-global influences. The most fully realized manifestation of these concepts is her electro-acoustic ensemble Be Bread, formed in 2002 to perform compositions inspired by her Fulbright-funded harmonium studies in India. The current incarnation features a few minor personnel changes since its 2006 Cryptogramophone debut, The Image of Your Body. Original drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee has been replaced by Matt Wilson, while clarinetist Ben Goldberg joins Melford, trumpeter Cuong Vu, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi - expanding the original quintet to a sextet.

Melford's first release for Firehouse 12 Records and second with Be Bread, The Whole Tree Gone is primarily composed of pieces culled from the ten-part suite The Whole Place Goes Up (commissioned by Chamber Music America in 2004). Inspired in part by North Indian ragas, Dhaki tribal drumming of West Bengal, Afro-Cuban clave, Arabic music and contemporary classical forms, the suite was conceived solely for acoustic instrumentation. Devoid of the electronic instruments and EFX featured on The Image of Your Body, the sextet's all-acoustic palette reveals a wide spectrum of tonalities, from muted pointillism to extroverted expressionism.

Like her mentor, Henry Threadgill, Melford has a talent for effortlessly interweaving seemingly incongruous elements into cohesive multi-layered compositions, yielding a singular aesthetic that blurs the line between the written and improvised. The episodic title track encapsulates an array of such approaches, from tightly coiled group voicings to nimble bouts of solo improvisation. Punctuated by a recurrent motif, Vu's spirited trumpet intro, Goldberg and Melford's thorny duet and Ross' incisive refrains are highlights in a series of inventive, overlapping statements, capped by a frenzied collective fanfare that culminates in a throttling unison coda.

Displaying exemplary control over timbre, volume and dynamics, Melford, Ross and Takeishi's fragmentary three-way interplay navigates the serene center of the opulent "Moon Bird," bookended by the leader's abstract, Taylor-esque opening cadenza and Vu's climactic, increasingly volatile musings. The striking staccato melody of "I See a Horizon" builds to an equally rousing communal finish, led by Melford's probing cadences. Goldberg's subterranean contra-alto clarinet drives "A Generation Comes and Another Goes," which follows a similar compositional arc, gradually growing more passionate as the tune progresses.

Spotlighting Melford's mellifluous writing, the luminous waltz "Through the Same Gate," conjures bucolic vistas that evoke a synthesis of Mediterranean and Mid-Eastern traditions. Her deep-rooted blues sensibility girds the elegant theme of "Night" with a soulful stream of oblique, rippling intervals that raises the bandstand. Vu's expressive ruminations on "On The Lip Of Insanity," and Ross' spidery fretwork on the dramatically funky closer "Knocking from the Inside" are equally direct, following in the same bluesy vein. Ending the date with vivacious brio, Melford savages the finale of the tune with a frenetic volley of cascading filigrees, invoking comparisons to her other mentor, Don Pullen.

As lyrical, adventurous and conceptually expansive as the work of contemporaries like Tim Berne, Dave Douglas and Marty Ehrlich, Melford's compositions are among the most compelling of her generation. Featuring finely tuned arrangements and buoyed by her sympathetic peers, The Whole Tree Gone is a high water mark in Melford's extraordinary oeuvre.
-Troy Collins


Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Forty Fort
Hot Cup 091

A droll re-staging of Roy Haynes' 1962 classic, Out of the Afternoon (Impulse!) adorns the cover of Forty Fort, the fourth album from mercurial bassist Moppa Elliott's self described "terrorist be-bop band." Elliott's satirical liner notes (written under the pseudonym Leonard Featherweight) complete the joke, proving his puckish sense of humor extends beyond the musical and into the conceptual, as it did on their previous Hot Cup releases, This is Our Moosic and Shamokin!!!, which parodied Ornette Coleman's This is Our Music (Atlantic), and Art Blakey's A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note), respectively. All in good fun of course, but also telling, as Elliott's wit informs his catchy writing, lending the band's madcap efforts a wily sense of unpredictability.

Once again (in Moppa's own words) "playing all the jazz all the time all at once as fast as possible," the quartet shifts between styles in every tune, subtly blending them into sophisticated collages, yielding endlessly surprising hybrids. As principle writer, Elliott draws from blues, boogaloo, bop, Dixieland, swing and other Pre-War traditions for inspiration, updating these venerable forms with modernist touches like microtonal minimalism and caustic post-Dixonian textural explorations. Showing signs of conceptual growth, the quartet tones down their usual brusque changes in timbre, texture and volume, and eschew sudden jump-cuts between genres to reveal a more nuanced progression of ideas. Their congenial rapport lends these capricious compositions a cohesive sensibility, weaving divergent threads into unexpectedly logical narratives. The opening "Pen Argyl" is exemplary, as trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon seamlessly thread an acapella horn coda onto the final held notes of the punchy theme, drifting into a discordant vortex of sustained microtones that reverberate like sonar – an unorthodox, but seamless coda.

Young masters on their respective horns, Evans and Irabagon's spirited virtuosity and use of extended techniques is exhilarating, especially during their profuse dialogues, which cover every range of the sonic spectrum, from hushed musings to caterwauling histrionics. Regularly dovetailing into intertwining long tones at dissonant intervals, they generate ad hoc bridges and interludes from spare melodic motifs. Crafting strident lyricism from the most oblique fragments, they demonstrate their interpretive prowess, whether engaged in thorny collective interplay or unaccompanied soloing. Irabagon's circuitous alto cadenza on "Blue Ball" and Evans coruscating microtonal glissandos on "St. Mary's Proctor" are sublime examples of thematic abstraction.

A quartet of equals, the rhythm section parallels the front line's impetuous ingenuity. Their quicksilver interplay and predilection for elastic time signatures generates a roiling undercurrent of syncopated activity that is anything but predictable. The title track's numerous rhythm and tempo changes are representative of their approach, as Shea and Elliott briskly modulate between bop, shuffle, Dixieland, punk and funk rhythms with effortless grace. Shea's ramshackle trap set technique is unconventional by traditional jazz standards, yet provides endless dividends in this line-up, bolstered by Elliott's selfless, unfaltering support. Shea's intermittent use of budget electronics as percussive accents sounds out of place in this acoustic environment however - the only minor downside to an otherwise stellar session.

Infusing the jaunty ebullience of Pre-War jazz with the avant-garde innovations of the Post-War years, Mostly Other People Do the Killing follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as the Microscopic Septet, Lounge Lizards, Jazz Passengers and Sex Mob, bringing exuberant fun back to modern jazz with a vengeance.
-Troy Collins


The New Mellow Edwards
Big Choantza
Skirl 010

The NMEs work an area that might usefully be bounded by Clusone 3 on one side and the Microscopic Septet on the other, a kind of cracked jazz-swing that flirts with abstraction but prefers to follow headlong grooves down oddly familiar streets, before hanging sudden turns into side streets and slamming on the brakes. The first record was still largely credited to trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and all the music is his, though I seem to remember a Pere Ubu sons the earlier disc. This time, it’s a Sonic Youth cover, which nothing to be surprised at these days. It would be more startling if they took on Richard Rodgers. The quibble lies in what the group does with the material.
The other participants are clarinetist Chris Speed, who turns his hand to pretty much anything, bassist Trevor Dunn from Fantomas and others, and drummer John Hollenbeck of the Claudia Quintet (though his Large Ensemble disc was my record of the year last time I looked). “First Loser” begins in a fairly bleak mood, but Speed’s line rises above the incipient gloom and the faux-blues approach is sardonically witty. “Helkakelka, Helkakelka” is a loony blow that suddenly heaves to, as if someone rushed in a gave it a shot of Largactil; like a couple of other tracks, it just about succeeds in not overstaying its welcome by changing direction at the critical moment. “Sacks on the Beach” is a drunken dance. “Large Detective” bustles in on a fade, asking lots of questions, and then lumbers out again, inconsequentially. And here’s where it pretty much lost me. “Annoying Guy” has a pointless, tuning-up feel to it, even if the harmonics are interesting and Hollenbeck’s attempts to invest it with a beat make it sound like something Paul McCartney might have come up with in his Percy Thrillington days. The Sonic Youth cover is “Youth Against Fascism,” not one of their best songs, but a fairly obvious pick. It’s ok, but no more than ok. It’s all momentarily redeemed by “Good Job,” on which Dunn stars and, to be fair, he does throughout.
I’m unavoidably reminded of what someone said when Naked City first came round: “Just musos having fun.” Nothing whatever wrong with that, but there’s nothing here that I would have let out of the club basement.
– Brian Morton


Mike Olson
Henceforth Records 107

This breaks lots of rules, and for better and worse, will break lots of hearts. There’s little of a familiar jazz aesthetic in Mike Olson’s music. He sets out verbal and graphic instructions for the players, with only the strings notated conventionally, and then records each part separately. No player hears any other player at this stage. Instead, Olson compiles a large database of sounds and these become the material for the finished composition, which is an artifact entirely under Olson’s control. As he suggests, the method collapses the different stages of composition, performance and recording into one continuous process. This is music that will appeal to those who introduce words beginning with ‘meta-‘into polite conversation. One can almost hear readers of Jacques Attali draw breath to point out how well or not this squares with the utopian models of Noise.
Utopics might well be the correct discipline here, because Olson’s music does emerge like a series of imaginary spaces, crystal lattices in three dimensions, comprising instantly recognizable sounds – saxophones, brass, strings, a “rhythm section” – but not in familiar performative arrangements. The first and obvious point to make about the music, and for the moment this is description rather than criticism, is that Olson makes no real attempt to overturn the familiar hierarchy of instrumental roles: horns do play ‘lead’, drums do sustain the meter. One immediately wonders why, when Olson has the opportunity to subvert this, he chooses not to. His own Moog and Fender Rhodes parts often don’t seem to take a structural role but to propose a background, rather like the washes of color behind a Manet painting where the foreground subject would otherwise float free in an empty canvas.
His own analogy, puzzlingly, is cinematic. These six pieces are all labeled ‘Incidental’ as if they were cues in the soundtrack to an imaginary film. This is the most pervasive of all musical metaphors now, it seems, and it is a curious one in this context, because almost all of these tracks outlast the narrative atmosphere it might be expected to accompany and illustrate. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Olson’s music is very much better and more interesting than the metaphor he has created for it.
What does it sound like? Jangly, faster than a working band would be able to pull off and with inch-perfect co-ordination of parts. Acoustically, it is strikingly reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier essays on Jazz From Hell, which is a perfectly respectable lineage in this house. It’s vivid music, funky and involving after its fashion, and it interestingly confronts something subjective about jazz records. If it’s a standard objection to recorded jazz that it imposes a kind of fixity on what is defined by flux, then the point is interestingly taken here, because Olson’s music seems fixed in a way that Kind of Blue and Ascension aren’t. I’ve had both of them for decades and they don’t change one iota, one playing to the next. The important thing is that they sound as though they might. Olson’s Incidental offers no such promise. Again, an attempted description rather than a wounding criticism. As should be clear, I was fascinated.
–Brian Morton

New World Records

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