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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Jason Kao Hwang + Edge
Crossroads Unseen
Euonymus Records EU02

Jason Kao Hwang + Spontaneous River
Symphony of Souls
Mulatta Records MUL022

On his two latest releases, violinist-composer Jason Hwang works at a mature level of creativity in two very different settings. Crossroads Unseen, the third release from his Edge quartet, affirms his ability to sustain a working band and continue to find new changes for musicians and listeners. On Symphony of Souls, he assembles a special project – a composition for improvising string orchestra – with a limited lifespan and develops it into a fully realized work. Hwang’s composition fits the 40-piece Spontaneous River ensemble like a glove and his conduction of the band and score is quite simply one of the best ever recorded.

Edge, with Hwang on violin and viola, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury, has developed into one of most celebratory bands in jazz, a band that can take listeners on journeys of catharsis, or into the mysteries of self-identity, or the spiritual unknown and leave them feeling uplifted, enriched, and even entertained. Hwang’s compositions, with their vivid melodies and formal inventiveness, wear their craftsmanship and serious intentions lightly. The quartet plays them with feeling and imagination and an air of delighted discovery.

For example, “The Path Around the House” leads the band all over the place. From an atmospheric sound tapestry to a melody voiced by the bass, to riffs and long lines, to funky rhythms, there’s a surprise around every corner. Hwang and Bynum both take a very composerly approach to their solos, giving their phrases the same general shape but still applying lots of variation within them. Different combinations of instruments keep the density of the music and the timbres in constant flux as well. Filiano’s unaccompanied solo jettisons the tempo, opens up the space, and mutes the volume of the preceding collective improvisation, then gradually picks up the pace to set up an especially knotty composed line and a funky riff. A drum solo immediately follows, once again shifting the performance in a new direction. The title track also infuses contrasts into the development of the performance, blends composition and improvisation, and orchestrates the band members into different combinations.

The band’s eagerness and enthusiasm are as important to the music’s infectious exuberance and intellectual engagement as Hwang’s composing. “Transients” flows nicely through its several themes, but the solos and group interplay make it a vibrant and constantly surprising track. Hwang’s solo sports beautifully inflected phrases with terminal upward and downward curves that position the notes in ambiguous relationships to tonality. Filiano’s unaccompanied bass solo is full of lovely overtones and drones and dancing rhythmic figures that mesh with Drury’s drums. Bynum injects the blues into the opening of his solo, then kites the music upward with optimistic phrases that spiral skyward. The music overflows with color and feeling and joyful swing.

Hwang’s Symphony of Souls for string orchestra and percussion is clearly written by someone with an intimate understanding of strings. He knows where the sweet spots lie on the instruments when he writes a melody for them and the score fits very comfortably on the instruments. There is, of course, a tremendous diversity of sound within the string family, and Hwang seems intent on using as wide a range of them as he can in this piece. He coaxes a diversity of colors and textures from the orchestra in “Movement Four,” assembling different groupings of instruments, asking for different techniques, and highlighting the unique voices of the soloists. He swaths the basses in a penumbra of violins, a cello solos over tremolos and long tones. Then the lyrical tranquility gives way to tense scrapes, dry swipes and scratches, a sound that grows like a thunderhead and inspires the same awe. He loves to arrange large groupings in different ways. He masses the violins into a big swooping flock in “Movement Ten,” then breaks up the coordinated mass into individual overlapping soloists, until another huge formation with an entirely different character, dense and busy, emerges. “Movement Seven” explores another aspect of string sound with a lively plucked melody that sets up pizzicato guitar solos that form an intricate braid. Then he abruptly changes direction, building a tense vertical wall of sound with a dark vein of heavy bass lines running through it.

Hwang’s conduction of the score is alert and insightful. Transitions between movements are smooth; soloists are cued in and out in groupings and sequences that fit organically with the written parts; the ensemble or instrumental sections are deployed for contrast, support, disruption, or continuity. The result is a seamless merger of written and improvised music that seems to live and breathe and grow as it unfolds. Conductor and ensemble work together effortlessly in this beautifully balanced and thrilling collaborative effort; it’s unlike anything else in Hwang’s recorded output. 
–Ed Hazell


Darren Johnston’s Gone to Chicago
The Big Lift
Porto Franco Records PFR031

Since relocating from Canada in 1997, San Francisco-based trumpeter and composer Darren Johnston has gained considerable prominence in the Bay Area, collaborating with such revered artists as Fred Frith and ROVA; clarinetist Ben Goldberg and other West Coast stalwarts make notable appearances on Johnston’s impressive 2009 debut as a leader, The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed). Johnston is also known for his strong ties to the Chicago scene, which is documented on The Big Lift, the premier of his Gone to Chicago quintet with trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Frank Rosaly.

An accomplished arranger with an appreciation for the entire spectrum of jazz history, Johnston coaxes full-bodied voicings from an acoustic five-piece that are attributable in part to his experiences in large ensembles like the Bay Area Jazz Composers Big Band, the Brass Menazeri Balkan brass band and the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. Johnston’s colleagues are attuned to his all-encompassing aesthetic, bringing a winning combination of rambunctious vitality and serene sensitivity to these multifaceted charts, be it the spirited second line march of “Two Ways of Running” or the probing introspection of “The Rock Quarry.” Bishop’s prickly discourse with the leader on the former and Adasiewicz’s cinematic shadings on the later are two highlights of a remarkable set. The quintet members demonstrate their vanguard credentials in the coiled thicket of dissonance that dominates “Rubber Bullets,” and the fractured time signatures of the punchy title track. Their rhapsodic delivery elevates a sublime cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Love Call” and provides earthy detail to a phantasmagorical reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which emphasizes Johnston’s role as a forward-thinking traditionalist.

Johnston’s trumpet playing is as dynamic as his elaborate writing; ribald brass chops lend fiery authenticity to the swaggering march cadences of “Two Ways of Running,” while abstract muted fragments provide subtle inklings of structure to the impressionistic tone poem “Cut.” His tuneful sensibility is evident in both his architecturally sound solos and sophisticated charts, which eschew conventional forms for a more narrative approach. Setting tortuous melodies and contrapuntal harmonies against shifting rhythms and quicksilver tempo changes, he crafts intricate frameworks punctuated by open-ended sections for free improvisation; his sidemen revel in these labyrinthine works, navigating their abstruse angles with aplomb. Adventurous yet accessible, The Big Lift is a persuasive example of the creative versatility of the Chicago scene and points further West.
-Troy Collins


Darius Jones Trio
Big Gurl (Smell My Dream)
AUM Fidelity 069

If you were concerned with whether the art of jazz was expanding or contracting, where would you look and how would you know?

The first time I heard Darius Jones in concert was in a trio with Adam Lane and William Hooker performing a live score for an Oscar Micheaux silent film at Vision Festival, 2009. Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) features that line-up exchanging Jason Nazary for Hooker on drums and sans the silent film. Jones’ debut recording as a leader – Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) – was recorded and released in the same year as my live encounter with the young saxophonist and casts him in the company of generational mentors Rakalam Bob Moses and Cooper-Moore. Big Gurl might be heard as Jones in the company of generational peers. While Lane has been getting noticed for chamber-inflected creative music projects since the beginning of this century, Nazary is, like Jones, from the south (ATL) and came to New York by way of Boston in 2005, the same year that Jones arrived in New York from Virginia.

While it is arguably on Jelly Roll Morton’s piano that jazz took its first strides away from rag and into its own ontology, or through Armstrong’s trumpet that jazz became the first popular music to dominate the recorded age, the saxophone is the instrument most iconic of jazz as a tradition, practice, and succession of heroic inhabitants of that practice. Circular breathing aside, the phrasing of saxophony is temporally and causally linked to the cadence of breathing. At the finest grain, its form is the same as that of voice, which must encompass attack and decay, tone and timbre. One human’s breath applied within this narrow formal system, intersecting with the musical ideas of vertical and horizontal architecture, is the material basis of some of the most memorable moments of the last one hundred years.

There are a number of ways to address the question of whether the art form called jazz is enlarging or contracting. We can look to novel instrumentation – jazz artists availing themselves of new ways of generating their sound, whether through digital artifices or novel strategies for contextualizing or modulating improvisation. Another indicator of growth might be an enhancement of the capability of more conventional instrumentation and compositional forms to render/trigger complex configurations of affect. In this, his second effort as leader, Jones seems to push against this envelope of expression by literally breathing new life into the sax-based trio.

The recorded evidence of this reanimation is the set of seven compositions performed by this trio on Big Gurl. In it, the trio is allowed to move collectively in a way that never undermines the integrity of the compositions as such, but it is a lot of movement, an intelligent freedom that measures the distance between a tight poetic synchronicity and the mere simultaneity of notes. Take, for example, the tune-ish ballad “Michele [Heart] Willie” which suggests a melancholy lyric that you’ve never heard, or “Chasing the Ghost,” a breathless escape maneuver propelled forward and away by Nazary’s drums. Across the seven-song set, each instrument carries narrative responsibilities as the lyric potential of each subset of themes is milked for its subtle potentials. On “Ol’ Metal-Faced Bastard,” Lane is heard bouncing around Nazary’s pulse with the mantric insistence of a rock power trio, providing Jones with a platform to blow some hideously beautiful stuff that exceeds the degrees of freedom that can be cognized through formal stratagems. “I Wish I Had a Choice” is another ballad in a breezy tempo, but that doesn’t mean at all flat, the metric space being used as frame to build away from and return in a tonic tidal drift that is both organic and elegiac. “E-Gaz” is a brisk burner that deconstructs into a polyphonous bark that brings to mind the three-eyed heavy-jowled canine that along with a brown woman (the gurl?) who also has three eyes, colorfully graces the CD’s cover in the form of an illustration by Randal Wilcox.

Throughout, Big Gurl stands as a solid players’ album, putting each instrumentalist and especially the leader forward in the best possible light. Darius Jones has to be credited for his deep immersion in the tradition of an instrument that is haunted by the ghosts of many a great gunslinger. His answer to glossy comparisons is an immaculate attention to all matters of sound within the reach of his chosen tool. The result is a prescient statement of tone – each note a sound shape, deliberately blown into being and pinched off at its terminus like a bubble of fresh glass. He makes a modern saxophone music that is historically conscious and joyful to listen to and that joy is the space into which this music continues to grow.
–Thomas Stanley


Daunik Lazro
Some Other Zongs
Ayler AYLCD-123

Daunik Lazro, Benjamin Duboc, Didier Lasserre
Pourtant les Cimes des Arbres
Dark Tree DT01

The French saxophonist Daunik Lazro is one of his instrument’s great explorers, but in North America he is a significantly under-known musician. First recording with bassist Saheb Sarbib in the 1970s, Lazro has roots deep in free jazz, though his associations in succeeding decades have generally been further into the terrain of free improvisation. He has had particularly fruitful, long-running musical associations with Jőelle Léandre and Carlos Zingaro, and in 1995 toured and recorded in a trio with Joe McPhee and Evan Parker, company to which he is perfectly suited. These two recent CDs, with Lazro in solo and trio contexts, present him as a dedicated baritone saxophonist, mining the instrument’s resonance with a rare profundity.

One is free to associate Lazro with his roots or his explorations. He begins the solo CD Some Other Zongs with the only composition to be found on either of these recordings, Joe McPhee’s “Le Vieux Carré.” It’s a deep blues that reaches well past McPhee and the usual free jazz sources to go directly to Harry Carney (that primordial circular breather whose 100th anniversary on April 1, 2010, occurred just a few days prior to the recording), the grain of Lazro’s sound initially almost as warm and pure as Carney’s own before Lazro gradually attenuates it to include some harsher timbres and some multiphonics as well. The remarkable “Caverne de Platon” can invoke a very different baritone saxophonist, Werner Ludi recording himself inside the Lucendro dam. Lazro is a genius of sonics, attenuating high and low multiphonics as layers of pitch appear and disappear in his extended notes (as a sonic baritone saxophonist, Mats Gustafsson may be his closest kin for the sheer life in the airy spray of harmonics). Each of the succeeding “Zongs” develops its own character: “Zong at Saint-Merry 3” might suggest a pod of whales; the broad-ranging “Zong 4” hints at a baritone shakuhachi (ringing in the Grand Canyon).

Listening to Lazro play in a group can suggest his role is akin to architecture or land-form. Huge notes appear and reside in space, as timeless and immovable as boulders, sonic events which other sounds wash against and across. His strengths in group play are heard to fine effect on Pourtant les cimes des arbres, the distinguished debut release for French label Dark Tree. The trio includes a regular Lazro collaborator, drummer Didier Lasserre, who in turn has often formed a rhythm section with the bassist, Benjamin Duboc. The titles of the four pieces together form a translation of a haiku by Bashō: Un lune vive, pourtant, les cimes des arbres, retiennent la pluie. Like Bashō’s works there are both struggles toward authentic meaning and moments of sudden illumination. Despite a certain appearance of convention, the trio often focuses on timbre. Drones and percussive elements arise from all three musicians in a way that gives the group a special unity and a kind of orchestral breadth of sound. The long opener, “Une lune vive,” is a work of brilliant three-way improvisation in which the trio’s evolving shapes seem to issue from a single collective mind: the piece begins in such quiet that the sounds of brushes on snare, bow on strings and air through baritone virtually merge. Deliberate pauses arise naturally as the piece ranges through high bowed harmonics on the bass, bass rumblings from Lazro’s baritone, and scraped and bowed cymbals (Lasserre’s kit consists of just snare drum and cymbals). By contrast, the relatively brief “Pourtant” is a tumult of energy, with the sudden abrasive squeals, mouthpiece plosives and gritty multiphonics of the baritone pressed through discordant bowed bass and rhythmically scraped cymbals. The concluding “Retiennent la pluie” virtually reverses the journey of Zongs from linear convention to sonic abstraction: here the trio concludes with a slow near-minor melody for baritone framed by regular bass double-stops, another demonstration of Lazro’s compelling mastery of a blues-based oratory, suddenly breaking into assertive high-pitched wails and bass blasts as he proceeds. Whether he’s alone or in well-chosen company, Lazro is a special improviser, with a unique identity.
–Stuart Broomer

Pi Recordings

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