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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Lisa Mezzacappa & Nightshade
Cosmic Rift
Leo CD LR 613

Bay Area bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa leads two distinct ensembles. The more jazz-driven of the two, Bait & Switch, debuted in 2010 on Clean Feed; Cosmic Rift launches her other group, the subtler, more textured and composed Nightshade. It’s a quintet that often develops chamber music-like ambience with Cory Wright on clarinets; John Finkbeiner on electric guitar (the only musician other than Mezzacappa in both bands); Kjell Nordeson on vibraphone and percussion; and the most striking presence, Tim Perkis, a key figure in the rise of electro-acoustic improvisation and member of the League of Automatic Music Composers, on electronics. Mezzacappa first assembled the group for collaborations with visual artists and filmmakers, and there’s a sense of dialogue with space in all the music here, each musician keenly aware of one another’s dynamics and lines. The group’s great strength may be its transparency: every musician’s sound seems to be a portal for the rest of the group, whether it’s the shimmer of Nordeson’s vibraphone or the air columns of Wright’s clarinets. It’s unusually well shaped from the brief opener “Cosmic Rift (Prelude).” Less than two-minutes long, it’s a densely tangential explosion of sound that immediately suggests affinities with Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maître,” and ultimately finds resonance with the concluding “Cosmic Rift,” a far more developed and shifting work. That serial impulse finds flower in Mezzacappa’s extended arrangement of Olivier Messiaen’s “Regard de L’étoile,” with its delicate lines of clarinet, vibraphone and theremin-like electronics gradually fragmented by sudden intrusions of bass and guitar. Mezzacappa arranges one other piece, Frank Zappa’s “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” and Wright contributes the composition “Ballet,” an eerie sonic mash-up that eventually resolves itself into melody. That ability to evolve melody out of sonic flotsam is a signature of the group: Mezzacappa’s strengths as a composer include her gift for melody, an abstract lyricism that repeatedly flowers in works like “Delphinus” and “Alvamel’s Dream.” The group has a strong sense of musical identity, handily shifting from composed elements to scattershot improvisation, all wedded to the sense of an organic and expressive whole. 
–Stuart Broomer


Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
Before There Was Sound
Nessa 34

Here’s one to gladden the heart, a CD full of song, swing, youth, energy, creativity. Here are 25-year-old alto saxist Roscoe Mitchell; lyric trumpeter Fred Berry; and a grand rhythm section of Malachi Favors, bass, and Alvin Fielder, drums, recorded summer, 1965 and only now, at last, released. It is probably the first recording by Mitchell (he did break loose with an alto solo on Nick The Greek’s 45 “Whole Lotta Soul” at about the same time). Chicago’s AACM was formed the previous May and now this, not Mitchell’s Sound (Delmark, 1966), is the first known album led by an AACM musician. 

If you listen hard you can hear various influences, but Mitchell’s quartet are a leap beyond Ornette Coleman’s and John Coltrane’s discoveries. In fact, by this time Mitchell was already quite distinctive. True, in the first song, “Mr. Freddy,” his solo shows a kind of exhilarated, Coleman-like melodic sensibility – an edgier sound, too, as he stretches out, with fiercer, more concentrated motivic developments. Then there’s his highly personal care for dynamics – who else, in 1965, could play as softly? And his attention to the tension of simple sounds in space – who else could play as freely? – on “And There Was Peace.” There is also the freedom that appears for awhile in his “Outer Space” solo, a motivic tail-chase that hints at the obsessive ferocity of many of his 1990s and 21st-century solos. Mainly, he’s full of enthusiasm on this CD and his phrases often return to a dancing swing.

These first versions of the Mitchell standards “Mr. Freddy,” “Carefree,” and “Jo Jar” are so exuberant that life seems full of possibilities, and of course for Mitchell and friends, so many of those musical possibilities eventually became realities. They must have played together at length before this, because they sound like a real quartet especially in the liberties they take: Berry plays comments on Mitchell’s solos; bass and drum play independently of the horns’ three-meter in Berry’s ballad “Green;” Favors’ lines sometimes sound telepathically close to the horns’ improvising. Actually, Favors’ ongoing sensitivity and intensity make him this group’s unifying element. He’s absolutely direct, no decorations, no digressions, and while his melodic solos are brief, they have an authoritative gravity. This is the first recording of his song “Akhenaten.”

This is one of Fred Berry’s few recordings and now will surely become the best known. He is definitely a personal player who invents straightforward melodies, no bravura, and shares Mitchell’s boldness and enthusiasm. For all his vigor his solos are thoughtfully shaped, most often from theme phrases; he’s a consistently fine contributor. Fielder’s energy is just right for this quartet. Those who only know his powerful work in recent decades may be surprised at his Max Roachish solo in “Outer Space,” which also has his unity and interplay with a fast Berry solo. Elsewhere are the beginnings of his later weight and density. The way he and Favors work together is inspiring. At the time this recording was made, Joe Daley’s non-AACM trio was exploring a parallel, free universe. Did any other Chicago free spirits venture as far as this at that time?

I’ve been looking forward to hearing this music for a long time, for its historical importance. I see now that it’s even more important musically.
–John Litweiler


Enrico Rava
(ECM 2218)

It is not a little ironic that a musician who was widely believed to have defined the new European jazz of the 1970s was always somewhat in thrall to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, made his breakthrough with Gato Barbieri during the Argentinian’s European sojourn, and served his most significant apprenticeship in New York for most of the period 1967 to 1976, working with Carla Bley, Roswell Rudd, Cecil Taylor (the subject of Rava’s beautiful mid-70s “C.T.’s Dance”) and others. All this needs to be put in some kind of context. Rava’s no Miles Davis copyist. As far as trumpet playing is concerned, he’s closer to Chet Baker and some of the pre-bop brass men. What he took from Miles, apart from a noir sensibility creatively shared with another movie buff Ran Blake on Duo en Noir (2000; Between the Lines), and the slightly self-conscious self-doubling most explicitly expressed on another Rava staple “Dr. Ra and Mr. Va,” is a conviction that most creative music can be made out of least musical information. What he takes from Duke is an equally profound belief that the composition is specific to individual voices and scarcely exists apart from their uttering of it. He’s not a musical Platonist.
Rava’s career on record began with the unexpectedly funky Il giro del giorno in 80 mondi (reissued in ‘76 on Black Saint), which is now almost exactly 40 years old, and then scored off a Eurojazz classic with The Pilgrim and the Stars (and the inexplicably less regarded The Plot) for ECM. Already, Rava was surrounding himself with players – John Abercrombie, Massimo Urbani, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen, Rudd again, J-F Jenny-Clark, Aldo Romano – who had the ability to join him in his curved space-time, with its distinctive sound-color. He’s often excluded himself from the  numbering of his groups, as if he were a separate entity to the quartet or quintet accompanying him, and one of the most interesting aspects of his more recent recordings is how much less they sound like horn-plus-orchestra and how much more like an integral group.

That’s especially so with his recent “quintet.” Guitarist Giacomo Ancillotto rounds out the numbers on some tracks, but it’s the recruitment of trombonist Gianluca Petrella, and the consolidation of Giovanni Guidi at the piano stool (this for a leader who used to favor pianoless groups and who nods to “Cornettology” here, though again it comes as much via Chet and Gerry Mulligan as through Ornette Coleman) that makes the greatest difference to his approach. He’d worked with Stefano Bollani for many years, returning to ECM after the better part of two decades with the deceptively titled Easy Living and making a fine duo album with the pianist on The Third Man; one assumes that at some level that means Manfred Eicher.

The producer’s hand is evident again on Tribe, which seems to exist without haste or urgency, each cut sufficient to its own nature and sense of direction, with nothing like a Teo Macero-like interventionist. The mood is generally slow, but not so much elegiac as philosophically stilled. If “tribe” – the title of an old number from The Plot, creatively reworked here as Rava has always revisited favored themes – is meant at all in an anthropological sense, then this is something like that misunderstood old heuristic, the “state of nature,” in which everything hierarchical is either suspended or so deeply understood that it does not require statement. Petrella seems to lead the music just as often as Rava. The trumpeter frequently plays embellishments to the piano part and while bassist Gabriele Evangelista and drummer Fabrizio Sferra don’t have the resonant throb and shimmer of Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen in earlier years, they do exert a powerful but easy-to-miss influence on the direction of these tracks.

“Garbage Can Blues” is a nice reminder that Rava has always been capable of something down and dirty, not quite in an On The Corner way but with the kind of sharp elegance you see on the misty back-squares and promenades of Rava’s hometown. Trieste was once an “international city” and still feels like one levered out of specific nationality and out of time; ask Claudio Magris about this, or me – it’s a cooler destination than Venice. “Choctaw” doesn’t come across like a First Nations idea. It’s more arabesque in tone. Similarly “Paris Baguette,” which seemed to me a very “New York” line, without the hustle. His last thing for ECM was the frankly nostalgic New York Days, but he nails the city more precisely in three and half minutes here, despite leaving most of the expression to the piano player.

It’s now 45 years since Steve Lacy dropped a tape on Bernard Stollman, which became the live-in-Argentina ESP The Forest and the Zoo, with Rava, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo completing the group. Since then the output has been steady, even during the ‘80s when Rava seemed to drift outside the critical radar. He gets better without getting duller or more mannered. ECM’s gloss suits him fine, but it isn’t the aspect that makes these recent records so compelling. It’s their philosophical quality, sense of search, grace and measure. James Joyce spent some time in Trieste but had this to say in Ulysses: “It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness …” That’s fancy talk, but it catches this music just right.
–Brian Morton


Tyshawn Sorey
Oblique – 1
Pi 140

Aw, shucks. Tyshawn Sorey has been an artist to anticipate eagerly, a drummer who inspires and even lends unity to other people’s groups. But this CD of his own compositions and his own quintet is a letdown. Sorey’s ten pieces sound like Braxton works infused in varying degrees with Tristano-Marsh phrasing, and they’re named with numbers, Braxton-style. “Eighteen” is a pure Braxton concept, an unaccompanied alto sax solo played by Loren Stillman in which long tones alternate with more active phrases. Sorey’s composing is fussy, featuring stop-starts, vamps, a piano chord every other second. The opener, “Twenty,” has Todd Neufeld’s busy guitar solo over John Escreet’s intriguing, wicked piano harmonies, which is followed by the distant chimes and Cecil Taylorish clusters of Escreet’s nutty solo; there’s also a long, complex alto solo by Stillman. There are no fast pieces and half the tracks are in plodding, dreary tempos.

In general, pianist Escreet and guitarist Neufeld both try to build solos out of broken, eclectic ideas. Escreet is far more expansive – different, often colorful harmonies, densities, juxtapositions – and he seems to aim to build solos out of mosaics of sound, whereas Neufeld just sounds disorderly. Bassist Chris Tordini keeps time only when he plays vamps, which are presumably composed; otherwise he just plays spare, uninteresting background comments on his mates.

Amid all this discontinuity, Sorey’s colorful eight-to-the-bar drumming, whacking all over his kit, is what makes the music move at all. Alto saxist Stillman does provide flowing improvisations. He’s another eclectic, with suggestions of Steve Coleman and especially Lee Konitz, along with, of course, Braxton.
–John Litweiler


Jason Stein Quartet
The Story This Time
Delmark DE 2013

Jason Stein is quickly emerging as one of the more persuasive bass clarinetists in modern jazz, the result of his singular commitment to an unwieldy instrument typically used as a colorful doubling horn by most multi-reedists. As part of a generation of Chicago-based improvisers whose shared backgrounds in post-punk and free jazz have led them deeper into the roots of the mainstream jazz tradition, Stein reveals a marked stylistic leap on The Story This Time, the debut of his self-titled quartet. Augmenting the freewheeling verve of his flagship ensemble, Locksmith Isidore Trio with an original take on classic bebop, this new line-up looks forwards and back for inspiration, offering a handful of salient originals alongside rousing interpretations of works by Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Thelonious Monk and Lennie Tristano.

The third Locksmith Isidore record, Three Kinds of Happiness (Not Two, 2011) found Stein approaching a similar stylistic crossroads, but this date paints an even more expansive portrait. Stein revels in the unfettered freedom of spontaneous improvisation as well as the inimitable joys of swing, joined by fellow Chicagoans Keefe Jackson (on tenor saxophone and contrabass clarinet), bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. Together they embark on a lively program split between thorny originals and re-contextualized covers. Although vanguard numbers like the episodic tribute to Steve Lacy, “Laced Case,” and the expressionistic “Hatoolie” bristle with coarse dissonances and cubist angles, they also feature memorable themes and engaging interludes reminiscent of the album’s more traditional fare. Stein’s imaginative arrangements of such bop chestnuts as “Skippy,” “Palo Alto” and “Lennie Bird” incorporate extended bar lines, modulating tempos and bold harmonic detours, techniques adapted from his quixotic originals.

Though Eric Dolphy’s innovations are an established part of the modern bass clarinet language, Stein has avoided the legendary multi-instrumentalist’s intervallic technique in favor of a more linear approach. Embracing the lyrical sophistication of a previous era, Stein proves to be a gifted interpreter, imbuing the big horn with a robust sensitivity. His proclivity for melody is evident throughout this vibrant set, which he punctuates with pithy, squalling interjections that serve as reminders of his avant-garde origins. Jackson’s serpentine tenor ruminations make an apt foil for the leader’s oblique cadences; their circuitous interplay negotiates deft rhythms with a spirited collectivism recalling the ebullient zeal of bebop’s glory days. Abrams and Rosaly effortlessly execute fractured rhythms and vacillating time signatures, plying brisk bop tempos with joyous élan while adding kaleidoscopic detail to impressionistic tone poems like “Hoke’s Dream.” Bolstered by his sidemen’s enthusiastic contributions, The Story This Time showcases Stein’s abilities as an astute interpreter of the jazz lineage and a first-rate writer on the rise.
-Troy Collins

Hat Hut

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