Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Roland Ramanan Tentet
Leo CD LR 556

Roland Ramanan is the son of legendary West Indian trumpeter Shake Keane, which makes him a kind of Young Pretender on the British jazz/improv scene. Though diffident about his own skills relative to his dad’s, he has a vivid musical vision that has already emerged in two exceptional albums for the Emanem label, Shaken and Caesura, and which seems to have found its fullest focus when Ramanan had a part in saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet some time ago.

The trumpeter’s own large ensemble was born after that and has delivered consistently exciting work that balances big structural ideas – that seem here to involve clashing together opposing masses of sound and listening for what comes off, like an improvising version of the Large Hadron Collider – with very distinctive individual voices. With trumpeter Ian Smith, clarinetist Alex Ward, cellist Marcio Mattos and bassist Dominic Lash all in an ensemble that also owes something to Ramanan’s participation in the London Improvisers Orchestra, the group sound is very distinctive, lighter and more mobile than one might expect, playfully elusive, always a step ahead of the listener in terms of thematic resolution.

It’s hard – and perhaps pointless – to tease out the individual elements. Like so many projects that skirt the debatable lands between composition and improvisation, the exact border line isn’t relative but still becomes an object of almost obsessive enquiry. I tend to resent moments when I stop and think: was that written? or is this “free”?, only to realize that it’s only me who is asking the question.

Ramanan has an intriguing trumpet tone. Everyone seems to think it comes from Leo Smith. I hear it differently, but unfortunately differently every time. There are aspects of Don Ayler, Alan Shorter (though these shadow-sibs are hardly probable influences) and a good deal of Bill Dixon. I suspect that for Ramanan the ensemble is more important than the individual gesture – he sounds almost bored with himself a couple of times, cutting off ideas with a brusque shake – but he is a genuinely interesting player and it’s worth getting up to speed with the Emanems before tackling this one. The title’s well-chosen. This is what the London scene sounds like now: confident, impressively egoless, and creatively eclectic without the dreary “eclecticism” of the marketing men.
–Brian Morton


Rova + Nels Cline Singers
The Celestial Septet
New World Records 80708-2

A veritable West Coast summit meeting, The Celestial Septet is the first recorded encounter between the legendary Rova Saxophone Quartet and The Nels Cline Singers. Though each ensemble is renowned in their own right, together they form a unique aggregation, seamlessly integrating acoustic and electric tonalities. Sharing aesthetic viewpoints, their mutual appreciation of the jazz tradition extends from the New Thing to early fusion and modern composition. Free from stylistic restraints, they fuse elements of primal free jazz, visceral rock conventions, aleatoric meditations and austere classicism into a series of unorthodox compositions that balance formal structure with unfettered improvisation.

The origin of this collaboration can be traced to 1998, when guitarist Nels Cline and Rova first recorded together on Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles! (Shanachie). Cline later played on Rova's Electric Ascension (Atavistic) in 2003, an electro-acoustic re-interpretation of John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse!). By 2006, all three members of the Singers joined Rova in a performance of Electric Ascension at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Regular practices ensued on arrangements of Coltrane tunes like "Living Space," followed by original works written specifically for this line-up. Though not limited by Coltrane's concepts, the master's passionate marathon improvisations and reliance on extended modal forms continues to provide the collective with a surfeit of inspiration.

The septet's debt to Coltrane is most evident on drummer Scott Amendola's atmospheric opener, "Cesar Chavez." Imbued with the same spiritual serenity as many of Coltrane's later works, the piece unfolds glacially, underscored by a plaintive motif. Amendola's spare accents, Devin Hoff's modal bass pedal tones and the saxophones' lush underpinning support a lyrical conversation between Larry Ochs' plangent tenor cries and Cline's delicate filigrees, building to a rousing but controlled finale. Alto saxophonist Steve Adams' jittery "Trouble Ticket" ups the ante of the preceding work, careening through a series of contrapuntal horn charts, fragmented rock rhythms, quicksilver call-and-response dialogues and a climactic focus on Cline's coruscating fretwork. But these pieces are merely prologues to the main event.

The twenty five minute "Whose to Know (for Albert Ayler)" is the album's majestic centerpiece. Devoid of any obvious patterns, the tribute develops episodically, featuring a variety of instrumental configurations and individual solos; Cline's blistering excursion with the Singers and Hoff's sinewy bass cadenza are notable highlights. The cumulative effect of Rova's buzzing saxophones at the work's fervid conclusion attains that rare hypnotic quality reserved for transcendental music like Ayler's. Serving as an epilogue of sorts, Och's brief "Head Count" follows - clocking in at just over two minutes. Arranged as a vehicle for Cline, celebratory fanfares and scattershot downbeats fuel his unrelenting six string assault, spotlighting his more extreme tendencies.

Cline's own offering, "The Buried Quilt" ends the session with high drama. Evolving through a spectral opening to a riotous midsection, the extended work offers a recapitulation of the album's primary themes. Lush horn chorales, scintillating gongs and ethereal electronic washes modulate into altissimo saxophone drones, frenetic percussion and sonorous arco glisses, before the tune suddenly explodes. Och's tenor heads the charge, surging through a thicket of caterwauling horns and manic stop-start tempos, punctuated at intervals by introspective duets between a rotating roster of participants. Cline's pithy interjections spar with Bruce Ackley's probing soprano during an early interlude, while Raskin's gruff baritone sputters alongside Hoff's churning double-stops later, inverting pitch and mood simultaneously. Eventually subsiding in a regal denouement, the album comes to a close, ending as it began.
–Troy Collins


Ralph Towner + Paolo Fresu
ECM 2085

There ought to be moratorium on “chiaroscuro” as a music title until everyone has a catch-up lesson in art history. However, it’s possible to forgive the use this time, for Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu do manage to create a convincing aural equivalent. I was originally sent this, mislabeled, instead of another recent ECM release. Even without a look at the advance schedules it wasn’t too hard to work out who one of the principals was. Towner has been a significant figure on the label for the better part of forty years, and producing some of his best work at the most recent end of that. You have to go back a long way to find anything from him as wholly realized as Anthem and Time-Line from 2006 and 2007.

Guitar with trumpet isn’t a familiar duo setting, and Fresu hasn’t been a significant ECM artist before this, apart from a guest appearance on Carla Bley’s WATT The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu three years ago, but he has some giveaway gestures that speeded identification. There’s an obvious empathy with Towner, who seems to have initiated the association, and on “Wistful Thinking” (another unhappy title that manages to survive itself) they strike a stance that’s very happily sustained right through the set.
Towner keeps away from the piano, but has classical, 12-string and baritone guitars with him. Fresu doubles on flugelhorn, though I couldn’t be certain where and when he switched, possibly even within a couple of tracks. It’s a seamless sound, rounded and richly plaintive, but the kneejerk Miles association (positively invited by a nice version of “Blue In Green”) really doesn’t work. Like Tomasz Stańko, he takes as much from Chet Baker, particularly the untroubled harmonic daring of early Chet, as he does from Old Scratch.
Some of the pieces are improvised, others bear further witness to Towner’s still oddly unappreciated gifts as a composer, but again there’s no real need to make those distinctions. The freer passages often reveal some principle of order and destination while the richest melodies may well have floated up in performance. It’s not a record that will set the world on fire and with “Sacred Place (reprised)” and “Zephyr” it clearly doesn’t have any ambitions to do so, but it’s another impressive chapter in Towner’s long and I guess somewhat solitary progress. He sounds alert and simpatico here, in a partnership that one hopes has some longevity.
–Brian Morton


The Ullmann/Swell 4
News? No News!
Jazzwerkstatt 068

News? No News! Is an accurate measure of how good Gebhard Ullmann and Steve Swell’s quartet with bassist Hillard Greene and master drummer Barry Altschul has become. Even though it’s a studio date, the album has the energy of their gigs. It also shows the band to be more of a co-op unit than implied by the name, by virtue of the truly complementary voices in the front line and in the rhythm section. Whether he is playing bass clarinet or tenor saxophone, Ullmann has a head-on attack that matches the trombonist’s; as writers, they both have an ear for locomotive motives and sauntering, even swaggering swing. Both Greene and Altschul are consummate ensemble players, providing continuous forward motion; even when they are relying primarily on fragmentary phrases and textures in the set’s two collective improvisations, they’re generating an engaging forward motion. Additionally, the quartet knows how to put a set together that has a beginning, middle and end, each with ample portions of robust free bop, keening themes and rigorous improvisations. In short, it’s a working band. It’s also a great venue for Altschul, who lifts this band as well as he did any in the ‘70s – Braxton’s quartets; Rivers’ and Paul Bley’s trios, any of them.
–Bill Shoemaker


Omri Ziegele Where’s Africa Trio
Can Walk on Sand
Intakt CD 167

Swiss alto saxophonist Omri Ziegele and pianist Irene Schweizer began playing as a duo in 1997 emphasizing a shared repertoire of standards and tunes by Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and such South African expatriates as Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor and Johnny Dyani, whom Schweizer had met in Zurich in the ‘60s and Ziegele had encountered in London in the 1980s. The Schweizer/ Ziegele duo recorded Where’s Africa in 2005, a CD emphasizing jazz repertoire from Ellington to Monk and occasional forays into the specifically African material. Four years later the duo has added one of those South African expatriates, drummer Makaya Ntshoko, and re-emerged as a trio with Ziegele as leader. Ziegele is an intensely lyrical and expressive player with roots in Coleman and a certain stylistic resemblance to Dudu Pukwana. A powerful free improviser, Schweizer has also had a continuing penchant for material that is both strongly rhythmic and melodic and that’s the defining quality she shares with Ziegele. The fondness for tunes is evident in the briefest performances: Ornette Coleman’s “Giggin’” flies by in 39 seconds, Oliver Nelson’s “Butch & Butch,” 1’23, neither encumbered by improvisation though the two bracket an extended version of Mal Waldron’s ballad “Soul Eyes,” a fine vehicle for Ziegele’s often fluting sound. He also plays an unaccompanied version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that ends with Ziegele alternately vocal and saxophone parts. As raw as the results might be, they point to Ziegele’s enthusiasm, a passion for song that surmounts an occasional excess. It’s the joyous bounce of the music that links it so strongly to the South African community in European jazz. It’s as apparent in Ziegele’s own compositions, like the bluesy, modal “Rare Bird,” as it is in Ibrahim’s “Tyntiana,” McGregor’s “Andromeda,” and Dyani’s “Ithi Gqi” and “Mbiza,” the last two with saxophonist Jűrg Wickihalder making it a quartet. All in all, it’s a lively, emotive joyous set and an intriguing account of a musician finding unlikely roots.
–Stuart Broomer

Dawn of Midi - Accretions

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