Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Empty Cage Quartet + Soletti Besnard
Take Care of Floating
Rude Awakening Presente RA2016

Developing along parallel lines since the Post-War years, the shared antecedents of American free jazz and European free improvisation have born a longstanding trans-Atlantic dialogue that continues to this day. Take Care of Floating is an excellent recent example of this phenomenon. A collaborative project between the vibrant, West Coast-based Empty Cage Quartet and two renowned French free improvisers, clarinetist Aurélien Besnard and guitarist Patrice Solette, the album was funded in part by a Chamber Music America French-American Cultural Exchange grant. After two weeks of rehearsal in Besnard and Soletti's hometown of Montpellier, the sextet spent the final three days recording, transcending a language barrier to produce a session that exudes the "universal language" mantra espoused by their forbearers.

Less compositionally rigid than their previous session, the conceptually foreboding Gravity (Clean Feed), this date finds the Empty Cage Quartet balancing their esoteric sensibilities with a more freewheeling approach. Fueled by a crisp, driving backbeat, "Cheese and Shoes" showcases Kris Tiner's lyrical trumpet cadences soaring above oblique horn charts and the rhythm section's stirring tempo – an album highlight that is as accessible as it is compelling. At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, Jason Mears' multiphonic alto splays broad strokes around bassist Ivan Johnson and drummer Paul Kikuchi's free rubato discourse on "Smoke Point," yielding a series of pitch-bending glissandos that transcend conventional tonality. The sextet relaxes the reins on "Ele(jg)y," offering a passive meditation brimming with timbral detail, overlapping silvery tones with patient reserve.

A true meeting of like minds, the cooperative spirit of the date is reflected in the Americans' enthusiastic support of their French counterparts. They provide an understated, modulating funk groove for Besnard's caterwauling bass clarinet and Soletti's brittle fretwork on the dark, Milesian "Carry the Beautiful," setting up a subtle interlocking undercurrent for Besnard's probing ruminations on the loping title track. Eschewing conventional notions of soloist and accompanist, Kikuchi's tribal tom-toms take center stage in a tuneful duet with Tiner on "Where it was if it is," while Johnson's acerbic arco bowing is featured prominently on "Only As Evidence."

Now in their eighth year, Take Care of Floating demonstrates the Empty Cage Quartet's enviable skills, establishing them as part of a venerable tradition of international collaborators.
-Troy Collins


Lukas Foss
Curriculum Vitae
New World 80703-2

The late 1970s were pivotal years for Lukas Foss. The composer had already accomplished much. In ’53, he replaced Arnold Schoenberg on the UCLA faculty, an astounding appointment given that Foss did not even have a high school diploma, let alone a conservatory degree. By the early ‘60s, he had responded to the evolving discourse about the role of the composer by founding the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble and publishing an influential essay, “The Changing Composer-Performer Relationship: A Monologue and a Dialogue,” in Perspectives of New Music. While Foss encouraged a seditious approach to his scores, he diverged from Cage and others in his embrace of traditional forms, best represented by the collage-like use of materials by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti in “Baroque Variations” of ’67. Throughout the ‘70s, Foss seemed to be soaking it all in, particularly the advent of Minimalism; at the same time, however, he felt the tug of older vernaculars. This dynamic fueled Foss’ experimentalism, which reached an apex beginning in ’76 with “String Quartet No, 3,” the earliest of the four works culled from CRI Lps for inclusion on Curriculum Vitae.  Both the quartet and “Music for Six” (which is scored for unspecified treble-range instruments, and performed here by four mallet percussionists and two keyboardists), exemplify Foss’ knack for creating “In C”-like procedures that yield performances that, on the one hand, convincingly seem top-down and through-notated; but, on the other, exude an organic freshness. Similarly, the title piece for solo accordion provides alternative left hand parts, depending if the instrument is Stradella chord-based or not, and allows the performer – in the case, the amazing Guy Klucevsek – to organize materials from the score to create the cadenza. Still, the piece highlights the nostalgic component of Foss’ sensibility, incorporating materials from Brahms and Mozart – Foss also quotes the Nazi anthem, a reminder of his refugee roots. The program ends with “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird;” while it is noteworthy for flutist Robert Dick’s luminosity and Foss’ ability to capture the plain-spoken cadence of Wallace Stevens’ great poem, it is arguably the least engaging piece on the album. Nevertheless, it signals a return to an overt approach to American neoclassicism, which brought this particularly fertile experimental period to a close. As such, it is a fitting conclusion to this illuminating collection.
–Bill Shoemaker


Tomas Fujiwara + Taylor Ho Bynum
Not Two MW828-2

Less introspective than a solo recital, yet more intimate than a trio excursion, the duet has long been a proving ground for the intrepid jazz artist. More than any other performing situation, the improvising duo requires attentive listening skills and a congenial sensibility, even if the discourse between parties is more combative than conciliatory. The nuanced rapport between cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Tomas Fujiwara is informed by almost two decades worth of shared experiences, which makes Stepwise such a compelling listen.

The follow-up to their first duo album, True Events (482 Music), this studio session captures two old friends working through a variety of composed and improvised pieces. Bynum's encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history is implicit throughout the session as he embraces an array of brass techniques, from avant-gutbucket expressionism (smears, growls, raspberries, half-valve effects, etc.) to supple muted refrains. Fujiwara's impeccable sense of timing and rich use of timbre complements Bynum's expansive cadences, serving as supportive partner and spry instigator.

Approximately the same length as a vinyl LP, the session never overstays its welcome, with a handful of miniatures serving as transitions between longer tunes. The brief fanfare "3D" opens the set, quickly leading into Fujiwara's ebullient free-bop number "Keys No Address" which showcases the duo's mercurial approach towards the tradition – swinging all the while with unfettered glee. The polyrhythmic title track offers an array of vocalized acrobatics from Bynum's horn while the lengthy "Splits" encompasses ten minutes of pithy discourse, veering from pointillist accents and vociferous call-and-response dialogues to a rousing, anthem-like coda. Dynamically demonstrating the duo's expressive capabilities, the low-key lyricism of "Comfort" and the kaleidoscopic variations of "B.C." sit comfortably alongside the record's more unstructured fare, like "Detritus."

Incorporating innovations culled from an array of past and present masters – Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, Lester Bowie and Phillip Wilson, Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley – Bynum and Fujiwara offer their own variation on a tried and true tradition, infusing Stepwise with the sort of deep-rooted intimacy that characterizes the best duo recordings.
-Troy Collins


Keefe Jackson Quartet
Seeing You See
Clean Feed 176

Previously found at the head of a sextet, Fast Citizens, and the double-that-size Project Project (both have discs on Delmark) – bands which demonstrate his burgeoning compositional chops while serving as outlet for some of Chicago’s most potent soloists – Arkansas-native and Windy City-transplant Jackson here ups the ante by downsizing the manpower. With his name on the marquee and having provided all ten of the program’s diverse tunes and/or strategies for improvisation (from the buoyant “Put My Finger On It” to the airy textural exploration “Since Then,” the fanfare of “Word Made Fresh” to the dirge-like “Close”), there’s no doubt who’s in charge; nevertheless, there are contrasting aspects within his own musical nature that result in a yin/yang coexistence of tensions in the group dynamic. For example, the quartet format ensures plenty of solo space, and one attractive source of tension is the way in which Jackson’s tenor saxophone improvisations balance ardor with control, spontaneity with thoughtfulness, such as the momentum created by his asymmetrical phrases and surprising accents in “If You Were,” or his eruption of notes in “Eff-time.” With trombonist Jeb Bishop as ebullient frontline foil, contributing racy escapades and a mastery of buzzing, growling, snarling mutes, the intensity level soars; their relationship is frequently reminiscent of the Archie Shepp/Roswell Rudd ‘60s partnership, especially their tart harmonization of themes, episodes of counterpoint and overlapping comments (heard on “Maker” and “Turns to Everything”), and the seemingly spontaneous riffs that twist the music off on unexpected tangents. By working in so many similar, small but effectively arranged details, Jackson escalates the tension between the expressive solos and their structural settings. The rhythm section, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Noritaka Tanaka, offers its own layer of tension – subtle rather than rambunctious, they rumble rather than roar, and occasionally evaporate completely. There’s nothing particularly new here; it’s an uncommon mixture of the familiar and the distinctive that sets this music apart from the crowd.
-Art Lange


Lee Konitz New Quartet
Live at the Village Vanguard
Enja EJAR 9542

Returning home to New York City after living in Cologne, Germany for almost two decades, Live at the Village Vanguard documents Lee Konitz's first appearance at the fabled jazz club since 1983. The legendary saxophonist is joined by the multi-national trio Minsarah for this date, whose members Konitz originally met in Cologne. Since their 2007 studio debut, Deep Lee (Enja), Konitz and Minsarah have formed a strong bond, with Konitz even christening the ensemble his New Quartet – a telling detail, as the notoriously free-spirited saxophonist has rarely maintained a longstanding working band. German pianist Florian Weber, American bassist Jeff Denson and Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz have a flair for creatively deconstructing standard song forms that finds accord in Konitz's approach; their empathetic interplay provides congenial support and a few surprises.

At 82 when this concert recording was made, Konitz's singular timbre and idiosyncratic phrasing remains utterly distinctive. Although sounding a bit frail at lower volumes, his tone is full-bodied on the set's more visceral, up-tempo tunes, and his articulation as mercurial as ever. Waxing poetic on a mix of altered standards, he also includes a few originals, such as "Kary's Trance," "Thingin'" and Weber's "Color."

Using standards as springboards for expansive improvisations, Minsarah's enthusiastic fervor keeps pace with Konitz's impetuous changes, occasionally invoking a rarely heard, funky side of the leader's understated lyricism. Minsarah's predilection for pneumatic downbeats and frenetic tempos finds Konitz sporadically complying with bluesy shout choruses, but he just as often sits out these climactic interludes. The trio feature "Color" is emblematic, starting with an introspective three way conversation before Weber's staccato attack builds to a gospelized ostinato fueled by a pulsating backbeat.

Minsarah's street smart inflections color "Cherokee" in much the same way, as Weber's left hand figures resound with a steely percussiveness – an intriguing, but unusual contrast to the leader's fleetingly abstract cadences. A vigorously labyrinthine post-bop extrapolation of "Subconscious-Lee" fares better, with the quartet finding solidarity at their most reserved, such as the opening of "I Remember You." Konitz's wistful musings and Weber's probing filigrees are gracefully prodded by Denson and Ravitz's supple accents, cohering into an impressionistic exploration of melody, harmony and rhythm. Culminating in a mélange of angular variations, their kaleidoscopic interpretation of this venerable chestnut transcends convention. Weber's understated interplay with Konitz on a nostalgic but unsentimental duo rendition of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" is equally impressive.

The date ends with an epic version of Konitz's "Thingin'" (a re-harmonized "All The Things You Are"), that congeals from a convolution of fragmentary discourse, pensive rubato rhythms and abrupt tempo shifts into a more conventional blues vamp. Denon and Weber's concise, spare solos provide ruminative detail, while a serene post-vamp coda serves as a pleasant alternative to a predictable finale – a poignant summation of the album and Kontiz's career in general.
-Troy Collins

Henceforth Records

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