Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Daniel Levin
Inner Landscape
Clean Feed CF224

Don’t Go It Alone exhorted Daniel Levin’s debut CD, but now he’s done just that. The main challenge in making a set of solo cello improvisations is to avoid channeling J.S. Bach, or that celebrated Irish composer K. O’Daly. This Levin does with the absolute confidence that comes from certitude in technique and from having enough experience in the studio – this must be the eighth or ninth disc under his name – to know that making records isn’t, or isn’t any longer, about strewing the landscape with monoliths but rather with documenting a particular moment in creative and personal evolution.

Levin’s previous recordings are dotted across a variety of labels: Joe Morris’s Riti put out the splendid debut; there’s a good duo with Rob Brown on the Polish Not Two; but the bulk of recording has been in a quartet setting, with the unusual combination of cello, trumpet, vibraphone and bass. That’s the format on two excellent hatOLOGY recordings and on Bacalhau for Clean Feed. It’s quite a big and particular sound to leave behind, but this time Levin has eschewed composition and musical companionship in favor of a more exploratory and what might appear to be a more personal approach.

The qualifier in the title reinforces a received notion that solo improvisation, and particularly on the strings, is definitively introspective. The qualifier is dropped for the six separate pieces here and that makes better sense of the music, for there is nothing musing or self-absorbed about it. It moves, sometimes confidently, sometimes more tentatively. It inhabits different areas of sound and shade. Sometimes it hesitates and stares, or listens. But throughout one has a sense of an artist in motion, engaging with an environment or simply passing through it.

In a short sleeve note, Ed Hazell states that Levin likened the process of making the album to his childhood passion for playing with Lego bricks, the sheer ludic delight of putting shapes and colors together with no insistence on utility or form. It’s an interesting analogy and because it is personal, it has an undeniable validity, but for me listening to this music was far more like watching a youngster negotiate a bigger physical environment, as my son does on our bit of hillside, seeing him get into trouble, but because he was unaware that he was in trouble getting out of it again with a kind of insouciant grace; or simply stopping and staring hard at something the remote watcher couldn’t see. There are moments on Inner Landscape when Levin seems to have lost his line but because there was no set line in the first place, the music simply continues and with utter logic. He resists temptation to indulge every aspect of his technique: heavy bow-weight here, a little pizz. there, perhaps some col legno a little down the way. This isn’t a test piece. It is genuine improvisation, intelligent, physical, ambulatory. Money down, I’d still prefer to listen to the quartet records, where trumpeter/cornetists Dave Ballou or Nate Wooley and vibist Matt Moran provide shinier, more metallic tones, and bassists Joe Morris or Peter Bitenc reinforce the string element with bottom-weight and pulse, but Inner Landscape does earn its title in the end in that it delivers an important and still-emerging artist at his most direct, not soliloquizing but simply living and playing in three dimensions, and creating the fourth as he goes along.
–Brian Morton


John Lindberg’s Tripolar
[A] Live at Roulette, NYC
Jazzwerkstatt JW114

Bassist John Lindberg’s Tripolar may only be a trio, but Don Davis’ facility on bass clarinet and soprano and alto saxophones, and Kevin Norton’s ability to effortlessly move between drums and vibraphone gives them a varied palette. Additionally, a wildly diverse set of compositions spanning the leader’s shuffling “Skip,” Davis’ idiom-fluent “One for Ayler,” and Norton’s “MC5,” its initial kick-out-the-jams frenzy exacerbated by Lindberg’s use of fuzz and wah-wah, backs up the leader’s proffer that the band “mood swings its collective ass off.”

Lindberg and Norton’s interplay confirms a close rapport developed over a decade of working together in a number of projects; subsequently, the crucible is Davis’ ability to adapt to the shifting polarities of pieces like “Skip,” in which a roiling workout is launched midway through the piece, or the sheer, sudden drop into space-soaking abstraction on “MC5.” He soars over that bar. Understatement is also one of Davis’ strong suits; his wafting alto on “Ways” makes a winsome set-closer of Lindberg’s melding of ballad-like contours and an ambling groove.

For all the collectivity that went into the album, however, Lindberg’s name is on the top line, and he takes full advantage of the privilege with his mid-set solo, “Send Off.” Again, the temperamental contrasts between materials is central to the piece, as Lindberg brackets a swinging pizzicato section with elegiac arco lines that are churned to fevered intensity.

In short, [A] Live at Roulette, NYC is a wild, boomeranging ride well worth taking.
–Bill Shoemaker


Adam Linson Systems Quartet
figures and grounds
psi 11.05

“Figure and ground” is a term usually encountered in fine art where certain rules apply (and are there to be broken!) about the relationship between foregrounded figures and their immediate visual environment. The most shocking thing about Manet’s Olympia wasn’t so much the air of business-like dissolution but the fact that certain conventions about lighting and color fields were violated. “Figure and ground” also appear in the language of Gestalt psychology, in which the ability to make swift determinations about meaningful form against background chaos is taken to be a measure of good psychological health.

Does any of this apply here? Clearly, one of Adam Linson’s intentions is to blur the figuration of “acoustic” instruments as against the “background” of processed signals, and to create an aural field in which flesh in different skin tones functions quite differently than in jazz and jazz-related music. So are the sounds we’re hearing coming from Axel Dörner’s trumpet, pushed up into batsqueak range, or are they coming from Linson’s bass strings, or from some high overtone range normally inaccessible to Rudi Mahall’s bass clarinet, or do they come from Paul Lytton’s kit: a scraped cymbal or skin? There is a standard critical stance on questions like this, which is to say that they “don’t matter,” or that after a while we simply accept the sounds as music, listen to them acousmatically and without reference to any possible source. It’s a fair position, but scarcely non-obvious and bordering on truism. In practice, we do continue to consider the specific language components of any creative music and without very direct reference to what makes what sound.

Linson is rapidly emerging as one of the most thoughtful younger improvisers/co-composers on the European circuit, basing himself in Berlin, which is itself an interesting piece of self-positioning. He is also one of the more articulate and heuristic contemporary improvisers and PoD regulars will be aware of his Roundtable comments on his main instrument. Linson has struggled to free the bass not just from the timbral and articulatory restrictions imposed on it by classical practice, but also, more unexpectedly, by jazz, whose non-canonical status and acceptance of “extended technique” is actually very much exaggerated. Linson isn’t a musical liberationist and doesn’t propose a generalized inclusiveness in sound-production. What he seems to be after – and it’s an interest he shares with the other three musicians in this remarkable group – is an expansion of sound effected in such a way that the infra and ultra realms are subject to exactly the same discipline and control as the more familiar articulations and timbres.

Anyone who baulks at the mere sight of a name like “Systems Quartet” can be reassured that figures and grounds isn’t merely a set of laboratory algorithms and has no whiff of demonstration-bench technics. It offers plenty of “good Gestalts,” where one instrument and its spectral companions rise out of the mix, in something like what we used to call a “solo.” It’s what happens then that is truly interesting. The “solo” doesn’t either end in a set number of measures or choruses, nor does it merely continue indefinitely. Instead, it blends back into the shimmer and in such a way (this is perhaps most obvious with Dörner’s contributions, perhaps because he is the most experienced with electronics) that one can still intuit its outline even after it has aurally disappeared. The interactions are still those of the classic jazz quintet, with brass, woodwind, contrabass, percussion and combinations of all of these feeding into a kind of Döppelganger “piano” part. Its excitement doesn’t come from that reassuring familiarity, though, for this is radical music in the best sense, taken back to basics but to basics that are relational in essence. No record of the last ten years – except possibly some of the things Mary Halvorson has been doing – has made me think as hard about the nature of group playing and musical interaction. If that still sounds like hard work, figures and grounds is a beautiful and sensuous record. It is just possibly our musical Olympia.
–Brian Morton


Nicole Mitchell
Delmark DE 599

Widely regarded as the preeminent flutist of her generation, Nicole Mitchell was awarded both “Top Jazz Flutist” and “#1 Rising Star Flutist” in Downbeat Magazine’s 2010 critics’ poll, as well as “Flutist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalist Association that same year. Despite the acclaim, Mitchell has devoted most of her time to her Black Earth Ensemble, which highlights her abilities as a composer and arranger more than her skills as a soloist. On a smaller scale, the cooperative ensemble Indigo Trio and collective quartet Sonic Projections have presented ample proof of Mitchell’s instrumental prowess in spare avant-garde settings. But neither of the aforementioned projects spotlights her phenomenal technique and singular creativity as readily as Awakening, a stripped-down quartet recording with some of Chicago’s finest improvisers, including guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra.

Boasting effervescent melodies, sophisticated harmonies and supple grooves, this engaging studio session presents a far more traditional facet of Mitchell’s artistry than previously documented. In comparison to the leaderless cooperative Indigo Trio, Mitchell’s accessible writing dominates here, using Parker’s unorthodox chord progressions as a harmonic axis on which to base the ensemble’s freewheeling improvisations. As she states in the liner notes, “I think this quartet is moodier, more contemplative in its sound than Indigo, which is bright and resilient.” Stepping into the foreground, Mitchell’s vocalized flute ruminations synchronize with Parker’s shimmering chord voicings, producing otherworldly harmonic overtones; Bankhead’s throbbing bass lines and Ra’s rumbling percussion accents underscore her evocative musings, lending the proceedings an air of mysterious intrigue.

The modal “Center of the Earth” and “Momentum” set the tone of the record with colorful themes and hypnotic ostinatos that subtly recall African traditions. The former spotlights one of Mitchell’s most expressive excursions, as she incorporates a range of throaty growls, fluttery trills and diaphanous cries into her serpentine cadences, pitching her embouchure between timbral extremes with breathtaking dexterity. Providing dynamic contrast, Parker follows her sinuous variations with brief shards of ring-modulated fretwork that defy conventional tonality. The angular “Momentum” follows suit, trading a punchy, tortuous opening for an introspective coda that resounds with sumptuous lyricism.

Balancing austerity with emotional candor, Mitchell waxes romantic on “More Than I Can Say,” a regal epic dedicated to her fiancée, funky on the backbeat-heavy “There” and euphoric on the ebullient swinger “Curly Top,” a sprightly ode to her teenage daughter. Despite the predominance of basic song structures intended as platforms for extended improvisation, Mitchell’s compositional abilities are well represented by the gorgeous through-composed miniature “Snowflakes” and the episodic “Journey on a Thread.” The later runs through a gamut of solo, duo and trio interludes, highlighted by a ghostly aleatoric exchange between Mitchell and Parker that extols the virtues of pure sound. The title track closes the date with a mid-tempo groove subtly inspired by M-Base pioneer Steve Coleman, elevated by a series of impressive harmonic variations from Mitchell – as  she does throughout this vibrant set.

Following in the footsteps of iconoclasts like Robert Dick and James Newton, Mitchell expands upon the expressive technical innovations of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with peerless originality. More than any of her previous endeavors, Awakening focuses on Mitchell’s virtuosic interpretive abilities, rightfully earning her the acclaim she has received.
-Troy Collins


Louis Moholo-Moholo + Dudu Pukwana + Johnny Dyani + Rev. Frank Wright
Spiritual Knowledge and Grace
Ogun 035

This was supposed to be a Blue Notes concert in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in June, 1979. Pianist Chris McGregor wasn’t there for the first set, but the American Rev. Frank Wright did show up, eager to play with the three South African exiles. What ensued were two long free improvisations in various momentums and moods. Apart from a bit of bass accompaniment near the album’s end, Wright sticks to tenor sax throughout and Louis Moholo-Moholo stays at the drums. Rather more often, altoist Dudu Pukwana and bassist Johnny Dyani also play piano. Quite a loose set-up.

The more assertive two are Moholo-Moholo, who determines the music’s momentum, and the purposeful Wright. He’s the main soloist by default – Pukwana is especially yielding. After the music begins in disorderly fashion, Wright takes over with a fine solo. His tenor work is fiercely ecstatic, including lyrical passages and multiphonic screaming. His way of shaping solos here recalls Albert Ayler’s, including a less breathless version of Ayler’s original way of varying motives. For a comparison, maybe Peter Brötzmann’s romantic/expressionist use of Ayler tenorisms is more original but for me Wright’s formal instincts and lack of sensationalism are at least as compelling.

To my low-fidelity ears it’s sometimes hard to tell which saxophonist is which. Clearly, though, Pukwana listens closely and offers off-and-on commentary on Wright’s lines; the two roar together in the middle of “Ancient Spirit,” then Pukwana burns a fast solo with his distinctively strained sound. A horse-laugh tenor phrase in “Contemporary Fire” leads to clever two-sax horse laughing, then a Wright-led sax duo. Since Pukwana’s phrasing is mainly brittle and his lines are mainly free association, his sound and personal intensity are his music’s fragile unifying elements on this CD. At times he accompanies Wright on whistle, then piano, and he offers brief kwela-jazz themes on piano late in both tracks.

Dyani, a fine accompanist as usual, gets to play three brief solos and directs the others briefly with piano riffs. Twice the four sing together, each in an original language. Moholo-Moholo’s fire, his mastery, the way he challenges his partners make him a joy to hear. At the start the three old partners don’t quite seem to know what to make of Wright. But the music soon comes together, as jazz improvisation uniquely unites people, and by the end it sure sounds like brotherly love.
–John Litweiler

New Artists Records

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