Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Dave Douglas
Three Views
Greenleaf GPS 1-3

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is a restless musician/producer constantly refining strategies for connecting with listeners. In late 2011 his Greenleaf Music label (not to be confused with British pop label Greenleaf Records) issued three quite different albums as MP3 and FLAC downloads: Rare Metals, Orange Afternoons, and Bad Mango. This year Douglas reached out to luddites by selling all three on a flash drive (by now the flash drive is sold out) and, with some photos but no program notes, as CDs in a box. That box has an almost unreadably dim and tiny title – why the bad packaging? Of course, before long everybody will be selling their releases in all of these formats. The price of the box is a mite more than the total of three MP3s but less than three separate CDs or the usual three-CD box would cost – here, too, Douglas is ahead of everybody else.

Rare Metals is by Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy, a quintet that used to be stylistically indebted to Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy. This time the obvious influence on the hymn harmonies and stop-go melodies of the opener, “Town Hall,” is Henry Threadgill’s Sextet writing – though by the dedication “Thread” Douglas’ composing is into his own thickets of counterpoint and thorny melody. The disc’s intrigue is in the soloists. “Town Hall” has a sober, affectionate, melodic French horn solo by Vincent Chancey followed by a brief, darting trumpet adventure by Douglas. Luis Bonilla plays a grand trombone solo in “My Old Sign” and Marcus Rojas plays a bouncy, witty tuba solo, including little mocking sounds and slurs – the tuba as Oliver Hardy – in “Night Growl.” It’s too bad the French horn isn’t a more expressive instrument – in “Lush Life,” compare Chancey’s nice solo with Rojas’ mouthpiece-waggling tuba, Douglas’ busy trumpet, and Bonilla’s manipulations with mutes. Five of the six pieces are by Douglas and so is the most vivid playing: melodic trumpet solos shaped for maximum dramatic impact. His “Safeway” solo is another gem. Nasheet Waits, the drummer, is the only non-soloist here.

Orange Afternoons is highly advanced modal decadence – think of the ‘60s Miles Davis and Blue Note sessions that were at the border of or toppled over into free jazz. The music is soloists creating line and momentum and one to four others not accompanying, but playing independent commentaries on, or at least simultaneities to, the solo line. This spacy medium, the music’s recurring down-slurs, the slow tempos all recall the exhaustion of modes. So does tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, usually a hard-bop eclectic who this time suggests a few of his father’s arpeggios and a lot of Wayne Shorter. There’s a fair amount of the spaced, oblique Shorter phrasing that always makes me wonder: Is he deliberately ambiguous or is he indecisive? In contrast Douglas’ trumpeting is usually purposeful, shapely, he’s the best thing on this disc. Especially noteworthy is “Solato” where he begins calmly over Marcus Gilmore’s hyper drumming, climaxes in long tones, then bursts into a furious, double-time anti-climax. Vijay Iyer’s rugged piano solos move in strange directions; his moods seem to mutate rather than evolve. Linda Oh, the bassist, never keeps time but it’s good to hear that she also eschews conventional modal slurs and ornaments; instead she plays direct melodic and rhythmic responses to her partners. 

Bad Mango is a departure, considering that the drummers are secondary in the other two CDs. This is by Douglas and So Percussion: Josh Guillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Beach. They aren’t Latin drummers, they don’t play an orgy in rhythm – instead they’re free tappers, thumpers, and pingers who sometimes make synthesizer and cheesy organ sounds too. Elsewhere they play classical music and here they sound very alive and free, of time, meter, and spirit, especially after the slow moodiness of the previous disc. The music often recalls the Art Ensemble of Chicago at their most tense and abstract; remember how Lester Bowie used to solo over several  percussionists, for instance in People in Sorrow? Of course however much Bowie may once have influenced Douglas’s lyrical and expressive ideas, the great one’s romanticism was nothing like Douglas’ nervous urges to form solos. “One Shot” has taiko-like drum sounds; “Spider” is staccato percussion under long trumpet tones; “Witness” has a tuned-drums improvisation and an especially fine trumpet solo; in the title piece Douglas’ movement between static and mobile lines suggests Anthony Braxton.

Once I paid Douglas a big compliment by claiming that his music would fit right in with the AACM – that’s still almost true. Some of his New York trumpet contemporaries like Roy Campbell, Lewis Barnes, and Peter Evans stretch out more and thrust themselves into more dangerous situations (and Campbell and Barnes are certainly melodic, soulful players). By contrast cautious listeners may find comfort in Douglas’s outstanding technique and melodic and formal instincts, the more finished quality of his works. For me, his feeling and his mastery are almost always moving, as they are in Three Views. He’s one of our good guys.
–John Litweiler


Marty Ehrlich’s Rites Quartet
Frog Leg Logic
Clean Feed CF242CD

Marty Ehrlich has long been one of the premiere songbirds of new music. He writes strong melodies and his best solos have the lyrical flow of song, his tone the shine and vibrato of the human voice. His new CD, with a revamped Rites Quartet – Ehrlich and trumpeter James Zollar are joined by cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Michael Sarin – is a vibrant and tuneful example of his art.

The band’s instrumentation begs comparison to groups led by the late Julius Hemphill, an early mentor of Ehrlich’s. As Ehrlich matured as an artist, so did his relationship with Hemphill; Ehrlich was a sideman and peer in Hemphill’s big band and his final working ensemble, the Julius Hemphill Sextet. He has continued to explore his compositional legacy through his leadership of the Sextet. Ehrlich has certainly absorbed and personalized some of Hemphill’s techniques, which is especially evident in the funky cello vamps that undergird “Ballade” and “You Can Beat the Slanted Cards.” The resemblances, while worth mentioning, are hardly the full story and Ehrlich is securely his own man throughout.

He certainly solos in his own voice. On “Ballade” his every phrase is big and bold and played for all it’s worth and Ehrlich’s relationship to what came before him is clear, even when it strikes you at first as surprising. Perhaps that song-full quality in his soloing is closest in spirit (although not in form) to Johnny Hodges. His remarkably cohesive flute solo on “Solace” hangs together like a well crafted short story, with every detail supporting the narrative and deepening its emotional impact. Even his solo on the short, agitated “Walk Along the Way,” with its short nervous phrases built from wide intervals, menacing growls, and irregular silences, while seemingly fractured and jumbled, betrays the essential storytelling quality of his improvising. He is player of wide emotional range, as well. In its slow but purposeful unfolding, “My Song,” a duet with cellist Roberts, displays unforced lyricism, autumnal melancholy, and serenity. “Gravedigger’s Respite” capers along with a joyfulness that buries not the dead, but death itself.

Zollar makes an excellent foil for Ehrlich. There’s a dark undertow in his tone that nicely counterbalances Ehrlich’s brightness – he’s a master colorist. On “You Can Beat the Slanted Cards,” he busts his notes apart into growls, crimps their edges with a half-valve squeeze, or hammers them out into broad, bronzy smears. The constant play with texture and color, as well as phrase length, gives the solo a jumpy, charged, percussive quality. He also uses his command of a wide spectrum of timbre to create call and response between registers, and between sounds and lines in his solo on “Solace.”

Roberts and Sarin function as both rhythm section and lead voices as called for by the situation. They keep the music varied, but uncluttered, letting hints and implications of the beat carry the tunes forward just as often as they nail a groove. The open group sound, the interplay of melody and color, the emotional commitment and intellectual engagement of the band make this one of Ehrlich’s finest albums.
–Ed Hazell


If Not Inertia
Cuneiform Rune 339

Sound as a construction material may be too subtle for building dwellings, yet the nautical vessels built from music have proven remarkably tough and seaworthy with some of the oldest craft still plying the existential seas today. Where jazz finds itself leaning after burning off the first decade of the twenty-first century is still a part of that multi-generational, transcultural enterprise of shipbuilding that has produced plenty of fine yachts, grand ocean liners, serviceable barges, an ark or two, and, of course, plenty of junk(s). Trombonist Brett Sroka’s trio Ergo lends its sound to the construction of something like a kayak – a smallish enclosed canoe, usually manned by one, maybe two people, and capable of skillfully negotiating the battering rapids of the swiftest waters. His is a finely hammered listening music that makes equal use of plan and permission to create spaces that are meditative and tranquil, yet remarkably full.

A competent laptop-musician who is also a member of the post-rock collective 12,000 Trees, Sroka is joined in Ergo by Sam Harris on piano and drummer Shawn Baltazor and on their latest recording If Not Inertia by the additional contributions of guitarists Mary Halvorson and Sebastian Kruger (no, not the German painter of the same name known for his painfully realistic portraits of Keith Richards and other rock luminaries).

If Not Inertia is never hurried or brash and willingly sacrifices what is often received as intensity in favor of a depth that opens lotus-like to repeated listening. It is not, however, casual or restive in its composure, just calm. Sroka’s controlled use of electronics and live sampling sends ripples of temporal distortion through the seven tasteful offerings and prevents the trio’s calm from sounding staid or stale. (Although, I will say that I am not sure that that would be the case without the electronics.)

On the closing composition “Let’s,” my favorite track, Sroka’s horn sets up some really wonderful harmonic interaction with Harris’ piano, which seems to be thinking different things in the upper and lower registers. Kruger’s spare and tuneful acoustic guitar helps the linear exposition develop its own sense of melodic direction.

Guitarist Halvorson, who has been attracting loads of favorable ink with her penchant for painting the space around spaces, brings her intuitive touch to three of the album’s most accomplished works, including the massive “Widening Gyre.” “Gyre” builds off of a thunderous bass drum figure that is the album’s only hint of bombast. The drum is quickly augmented by a processed bleep that seems to have breath built into it, followed by Sroka’s trombone which certainly does have air built into it. In keeping with the album’s tone, the sublime strength of “The Widening Gyre” unfolds without much in the way of clutter or commotion, although the piano, trombone, and Halvorson’s guitar energetically trade patterns with unbridled restraint.

“Two for Joy” – my other favorite song – puts Harris’ prepared-piano forward in a way that emulates the quaint charm of a toy instrument without at all sounding diminutive. Drummer Baltazor provides a textural reference more so than a temporal frame and Sroka’s playing is emotionally full. In many ways the most essential spirit of the music formerly known as jazz is embodied by the indeterminacy of the slide trombone. “Gonz” also displays the leader’s chops on that instrument and proceeds from a tense duel between Sroka’s twisted brass and the tightly coiled wire of Halvorson’s strings and pick-ups. It ends with the piano tracing measured block chords against a groove that glides with the cadence of a march.

Missing in action from If Not Inertia is any real reliance on the blues, which is probably a good thing considering how easily that reference can degenerate into a faded anachronism in the hands of younger players. The group (which is based in Brooklyn) has appeared twice (2007 and 2009) in Washington DC’s compelling Sonic Circuits Festival and Sroka is pictured on the CD insert wearing the sponsoring organization’s trademark red and white t-shirt. This bit of shameless parochialism serves only to remind the reader that the nation’s capitol has transformed itself in recent years into an exciting hub of fresh and emerging music. Ergo’s third recording underscores the fact that intellectual rigor and affective urgency need not reside in separate principalities and that listening itself is always a creative act.
–Thomas Stanley


Ernst Glerum
Movie Music
Favorite FAV7 – 2011

Glerum Omnibus
Paper Models
Favorite FAV8 – 2011

“Too pooped to party,” Misha Mengelberg returned to Amsterdam midway through ICP Orchestra’s spring 2011 US tour, refueling speculation about his retirement. Luminaries including Cor Fuhler and Guus Janssen have subbed in the past and are well-suited for the gig, but they’re not good bets to replace Mengelberg at the piano because of their own work – and in the case of Fuhler, his current residency down under. Given the diminishing role of the piano in an ICP set (distinct from the role of Mengelberg himself, perhaps the most unlikely rallying figure in jazz history), there’s an outside-the-box option that’s particularly tantalizing because he’s already in the band – Ernst Glerum. In addition to being one of the premier bassists on the Dutch scene, Glerum is a thoroughly engaging pianist and composer, fluent in a wide range of mid-century jazz idioms. His polished playing with Glerum Omnibus may be something of a disqualifier for some, and his indispensability in the bass chair would surely be argued; however, given the long-decreasing percentage of a set where Mengelberg actually plays, double duty for Glerum is at least a conceivable option.

Paper Models is a fitting title for Glerum Omnibus’ latest because there is a to-scale precision in the quality of interplay between Glerum, bassist Clemens van der Feen and drummer Jamie Peet. There’s nothing overly broad or dwarfed by irony – just jazz straight on. If anything, there’s an aspect of understatement in Glerum’s writing and playing; his blues-tipped choruses stopping short of Ray Bryant-like flourishes; his hymn-like cadences avoiding suggestions of gymnastics and piety. As a composer, he can misdirect and surprise; after initially working a gritty vamp on “Another Story,” Glerum suddenly downshifts for a few bars of semi-plush balladry. The opening passage of the title piece strides lithely before Glerum pivots and digs into a hard-boiled groove. Conversely, Glerum fleshes out the pristine “Psalm” with a John Lewis-like conviviality. More importantly, Glerum has a great knack for developing a solo, giving each phrase just enough distinguishing characteristics and space to allow the listener to hear a mind at play, not a cache of data. van der Feen and Peet are perfectly suited to this end, as they burnish the rhythms and harmonic contours of the compositions on a bar by bar basis. Glerum Omnibus is one of few units refreshing the jazz piano trio format without pandering to an illusive new audience with middle-brow pop tunes.

Movie Music is a collection of themes and incidental music penned for independent films and television series. Except for cameos by a snare-brushing Bennink and van der Feen, all the music is performed by Glerum, who plied bass tracks to approximate the mass of a small orchestra, sometimes backing Bill Evanish piano parts. The overall mood of the album is noirish, replete with ground-hugging fog and the diffused light of a distant street lamp. Still, Glerum’s fine bowing in the upper register places his melodies in a separate warming light. Additionally, the enveloping quality of his scores lets Glerum pare down his piano passages so that, instead of creating a back and forth with the basses, they drift along together. This is exquisite night music that may not make an otherwise mundane night so, but it’s worth a go.
–Bill Shoemaker


Random Acoustics (no catalog number)

Pianist-composer Georg Graewe revives his long dormant Random Acoustics label with this ambitious book and DVD package. The DVD documents Graewe performing with his GrubenKlangOrchester and his duo with vocalist Almut Kühne, and as a solo pianist; a string quartet and a mixed media piece with video projections, singers, narrator, and a small orchestra conducted by Graewe round out the collection. But it is far more than a survey of the state of Graewe’s recent art. For the months-long grubenklang.reloaded concert series in 2010, Graewe engaged more than 50 instrumentalists, composers, visual artists, actors, poets, and writers from Europe (mainly Germany) and America. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the package is the clarity and forcefulness of Graewe’s curatorial vision. There were several series under the capacious grubenklang.reloaded umbrella. The massive production included the Piano Today solo piano series; RuhrKampf, a meeting of improvisers from Germany and France; New Generation, a convening of emergent improvisers from Europe and the US; and Words and Music, which paired actors and improvisers. There is more than 3 hours of music from these series in the “Audio Magazine” included on the DVD, with critical commentary preceding each section. These series all pose vital questions about musical culture and its relationship to political and music history; the relationship between regional and national culture and global culture; the technology of music, electronic and acoustic; and the meaning of words and the meaning of music. It is not merely a series of concerts, but the presentation of a world view, a survey of methodologies for making music that’s relevant to the time and place in which we live our lives.

Graewe’s own music is full of these cultural-historical-aesthetic collisions. Its starting point is his German cultural heritage, with all its paradoxes and beauty. Even the name of his big band alludes to the mining industry of the Ruhr area from which he comes – “grubenklang” translates as “sound of the mines.” It is rooted music, subjected to constant buffeting from other forces that Graewe absorbs into his vision. His compositions for the GrubenKlangOrchester, which he established in 1982 and reconvenes here for the first time in 16 years, are frameworks that contain contradictions and conflict without always seeking to resolve them. The first tune includes an elegant Graewe-Frank Gratkowski duet, a brutal guitar solo from Martin Siewert, and concludes with a delicate melancholy melody. “Redshift E” encompasses a wide range of moods and approaches as well. Tobias Delius is featured on “Despair,” a refined, sad, almost reticent, cabaret ballad, which the saxophonist expands upon in his solo.

The influence of jazz is heard in Graewe’s solo performance, “Federkizzen II,” especially in his rhythmic approach and the momentum of the improvisation. It’s a graceful, light-footed dance of motifs played with spontaneity and drive, without obscuring the European melodic and harmonic conventions that frame the piece.

As a musician working after an era that has saw the leveling of the hierarchy of values that placed composed music “above” improvised music, Graewe can stake his claim in both areas with equal persuasiveness. The second movement of “String Quartet I” displays his lively intelligence at work in a traditionally classical context, applying an analytical, engaged curiosity about the way multiple forces can play out in a single work. He takes short explosive phrases and overlaps them, lets one instrument interrupt another, pits them in call and response, arranges them in concerted motion, or allows unrelated parts to unfold simultaneously.

Perhaps the highlight of the video section is Graewe’s duet with Kühne, “Zugriff.” Here the emphasis of Graewe’s composition in on continuity and line. With fierce concentration and a voice with a silky gleam, Kühne slices into the music like a knife, laying bare the meaning of the words as she dissects the melody. Graewe employs the piano as a sympathetic witness to and commentator on Kühne’s singing in a thrilling and brilliant performance.

While “Zugriff” displays a traditional art song relationship between voice and instrument, the multimedia “Alle kennen meine Visage” juxtaposes voices, words, music, and visuals in different relationships to one another to explore the diaries of Albert Einstein. The physicist may have observed that “Everyone knows my face,” but the piece seems to question exactly what that means, what we actually know. Graewe’s orchestral score accompanies singers and narrator, sometimes engages in monologues of its own, and occasionally remains silent. Images of Einstein at different times of his life appear and dissolve, his equations fade into meaningless dots and streaks, his face materializes in a circuit board, familiar, unexpected, incomprehensible. It’s a marvelous, mysterious piece that, like much of Graewe’s work raises difficult questions and never settles for easy answers, and more often than not, lets everything hold together in an ambiguous whole.

His love of contradiction, collision, and unresolved or unsolvable puzzles guides the entire grubenklang.reloaded enterprise. Piano Today showcases ten pianists in a series in which separate European and American schools of improvisation are taken for granted, the equality of written and improvised music a given, sound manipulation by mechanical preparation and electronic technologies accepted, and the uses of the past examined and questioned. For instance Keith Tippett (in a stunning performance) and Denman Maroney treat the piano strings with physical objects to create novel textures and timbres. Sarah Nicols performs a piece in which motion sensors process the sound of the piano. All three performers expand our perception of the piano’s sonic properties. Three of the European pianists deal directly with the classical canon. On “Suzanne,” Christian Rieger, uses Renaissance music as a source to create contrasts with modern practice. Oskar Aichinger parodies Viennese waltz on “Klischee Viennoise.” And Michael Wilhelmi recontextualizes Schumann in “Schnell und Spielend.” The American innovations of swing and the blues and their contemporary transformations are honored in the music of Marilyn Crispell and Craig Taborn. It’s an impressive survey of some of the more important issues in contemporary piano playing.

The contentious political history of the French-German border forms the stage set for RuhrKampf, in which musicians from France and Germany improvise in different combinations, including a memorable bass solo from Bruno Chevillon and a graceful duet between Graewe and clarinetist Isabelle Duthoit.

The New Generation ensemble brings together musicians from Europe and America, most of who had never played together before and asked them to hammer out a program of music through “argument and collision.” However contentious the process may have been, the end results were unified and even harmonious. Perhaps because freedom for this generation means the freedom to appropriate whatever elements or forms suit their needs, once again contrast, contradiction, fractured narrative, song form, and abstraction, can coexist within one piece, or occupy a place among different pieces in a program, without the need to form any resolution. Roman Sieweke’s “Blues” takes familiar jazz tropes and distorts them until conventional dynamics, ideas of ensemble togetherness, beat and tempo are entirely upended. Liz Allbee’s “Big Leader” opens with a viscously satirical military march that evaporates in an out of tempo haze of sound manipulation. The effect is both hilarious and unsettling. Kühne takes the idea of collision most literally in her piece, “Wolkenfelder,” which rams everyone together in a dense, multifaceted mass.

A great deal of time is given over to Words and Music, but because the words are all in languages other than English (and no translations are provided), your English-only reviewer is unable to make any meaningful observations on the performances. Graewe and the other performers in the series respect the integrity of the language of the original text, its sound and cadences, and is clearly exploring the different ways that music and language have meaning. But here, the reviewer is forced to confront his linguistic limitations and acknowledge how they shape his ability to understand his experience of art, culture, and history. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience.

Improvised music has always explored the line between the part and the whole, between the individual and the ensemble, or composition and improvisation, and in grubenklang.reloaded, these tensions are positioned in a historical and global context. It forces the listener, as well as the musician, to think about his or her individual relationship to larger issues. Maybe no answers are forthcoming, but it’s exhilarating experience.
–Ed Hazell

Aum Fidelity

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