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Reviews of Recent Recordings


The Devil’s Hopyard
Jazzmaniac JR3625

The first time I heard Thomas Chapin’s music, I wrote down “boyish competence” and defended the phrase against an editor who thought it was notionally patronizing to describe anyone’s work thus. Later, I met and got to know Tom, and found that closer acquaintance further justified the description. He had a boy’s enthusiasm for anything and everything, showed off new instruments with palpable excitement and played with the kind of physical and intellectual insouciance that leaves most of us around the age of 21, if we ever had it.

In that same review, I’d predicted that Chapin would one day be recognized as a significant composer, or possibly a major one. Despite his premature passing, there’s more than enough in the surviving recordings and in this affectionate tribute by an old friend from Lionel Hampton band days to suggest that the legacy isn’t just going to be elegiac and regretful. What baritone saxophonist Glenn Wilson and trombonist Jim Pugh share with Chapin, apart from highly distinctive wind voices, is an ability to combine near-classical “correctness” with raw spontaneity, swing with freedom. These are intriguingly textured arrangements, packed with interesting and logical (as opposed to merely show-off) time changes, and some fascinating mise-en-abîme harmonics from the four string players: Chris Nolte plays relatively conventional bull-fiddle bass, albeit in a challenging idiom; Dorothy Martirano plays improvising violin, folksier than Mark Feldman but in a similar vein; Tomeka Reid’s fine cello work will be familiar from recordings by Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed; Armand Beaudoin doubles cello and bass. Percussionist Matt Plaskota has a wonder-bag of small instruments, heard to great effect on “Bump In The Night,” an improvised trio with the two front men. Drummer Josh Hunt, who like Nolte is a pupil of Wilson and Pugh at the University of Illinois, doesn’t just complete the personnel; he glues it all together with a deft and thoughtful time-feel on every track.

All but one of the pieces is a Chapin composition. The exception is Enrico Rava’s “Diva,” a Carla Bleyish waltz idea with funkier inserts (or vice-versa, if you prefer), which Tom arranged for his own with-strings Knitting Factory date, released as Haywire. The program here is exactly the same as on the KF release, minus its crowd-pleasing encore “Geek Gawkin,” and it’s worth spending an hour with the older record which had Feldman in the line-up, along with regular trio comrades Mario Pavone and Michael Sarin, plus cellist Boris Rayskin and bassist Kyoto Fujiwara. The big and obvious difference is no second horn, somewhat mitigated by Chapin’s multi-instrumentalism, but Pugh and Wilson know each other’s moves and understand this music so well there’s a sense here of a much bigger outfit at work. “Haywire” itself has a headlong quality that always seems like it might come off the rails. The Rava piece is no less daring in this revised arrangement, but it comes in a more lyrical style, sedan rather than dragster. The five pieces that make up the “Devil’s Hopyard Suite” possibly need some kind of fresh interstitial material to tie them all together. As on the original recording, one senses there is an underlying logic, but it perhaps needs some set-dressing, if only to mitigate the sorry news that the Connecticut park which gives the suite its name has very recently been devastated by fire and will take considerable time to regenerate.

“Eidolon” (lovely Walt Whitmanish word!) refers to a Greek spirit or spiritual essence, though I wouldn’t put it past Tom Chapin to have been aware it also refers to a genus of bat, not indigenous to Connecticut but enough of an association to clinch the composition’s edgy beauty, which is largely carried by Wilson’s burnished flute and Pugh’s muted trombone. “Hoofin’” gives the trombonist his most extended feature and a chance to show off his ability to work inside/outside with equal confidence. “Bug Bears” is a romp, a noisy blowout that lets everyone work off steam. “At Peace With My Demons” sandwiches another group improvisation in between a lovely introduction and tailpiece, a section that seems to sum up Chapin’s personality and aesthetic in just a few minutes.

There aren’t too many trombone and baritone fronted bands around. Mulligan/Brookmeyer might seem an obvious forerunner, but I was pleased to see Wilson citing Curtis Fuller’s underrated 1957 Bone & Bari (Blue Note) with the prolific but largely forgotten Tate Houston. I think Glenn even quotes from “Algonquin” on that album. He’s hip to the period, certainly, as he showed on his own One Man’s Blues (Sunnyside) in 1999, with its killer read of Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig Of You,” a great “Lester Left Town,” and the best jazz recording of “It Was A Very Good Year.” So that’s two more records you need to catch up on. Just don’t fail to get hold of this one. A beauty.
–Brian Morton


Alex Ward + Tim Hill + Dominic Lash + Mark Sanders
FMR FMRCD318-0811

Widely recognized in new music circles as a gifted improvising clarinetist, Alex Ward’s virtuosic abilities as a guitarist are less commonly known. Setting aside his clarinet, Ward’s scorching fretwork is the primary focus of Predicate, a dynamic – and at times quite volatile – quartet session recorded with saxophonist Tim Hill (on alto and baritone), double bassist Dominic Lash and drummer Mark Sanders.

Inspired in part by his work in the jazz-influenced rock bands Camp Blackfoot, Dead Days Beyond Help and Alex Ward & The Dead Ends, this date serves as a keen realization of Ward’s belief in the role of composition as it relates to improvisation. As Ward states in the liner notes: “(C)omposed material should be as strongly characterized as the improvising. Otherwise, the incorporation of composition would signify nothing more than a reluctance for the music to be fully improvised.” Considering the tunefulness of Ward’s themes, such as the jaunty bop intervals that drive the careening “Stub,” or the bluesy noir motif that underscores “Happy New Year,” his gambit pays off – Ward’s written melodies are as memorable as his sidemen’s interpretations of them are enthralling.

Despite the quality of his composing, Ward’s steadfast commitment to free improvisation is readily apparent throughout the album. The epic centerpiece, “Forecast,” is indicative; opening gradually with a thicket of hushed pointillist discourse, the group suddenly launches into a barrage of cacophonous skronk that ends just as suddenly as it began, before the tune’s coda dissipates back into the ether. Though a definite compositional arc can be discerned, it is the ensemble’s impetuous verve that defines the appeal of such freewheeling strategies; Hill’s acerbic cadences match Ward’s blistering screeds in their full-bore intensity, spurred on by Lash and Sanders’ brash activity.

Largely eschewing tonal subtlety for greater sonic impact, Ward’s metallic tone is often amplified by overdriven distortion and further bolstered by an adroit, physical attack. This string-shredding approach to the instrument can be traced back to the seminal efforts of luminaries like Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock; the former is an acknowledged influence on Ward, who played with Bailey when he was only 14. Ward’s bandmates match his enthusiasm; Hill’s coruscating phrases make a perfect foil for the leader, while Lash and Sanders bring a palpable conviction to the proceedings, whether shading the cinematic introduction to the dramatic, droning opener “The Denied” or punctuating the angular groove of the animated closer, “Candidates,” with terse interjections.

A vibrant and varied release, Predicate shows great promise for the future of this quartet.
–Troy Collins


Henry P. Warner + Earl Freeman + Philip Spigner
Freestyle Band
NoBusiness Records NBCD 41

“Ain’t No New Thing,” a 1972 piece by recent ancestor Gil Scott-Heron, is regularly proven to be true by connoisseur labels of jazz-based forms of avant music.  Through their efforts, old and often previously unheard music continues to be made new and newly available again. NoBusiness Records’ reissue of the Freestyle Band’s recently unearthed 1984 recording is a fine example of music that’s been underground for too long, and heard by too few people when it was in print.  

Freestyle Band was comprised of clarinetist Henry P. Warner, electric bassist and pianist Earl Freeman, and hand drummer Philip Spigner. Of the three, Freeman was the best known, having played on several notable late ‘60s-early ‘70s recordings with Noah Howard, Archie Shepp and others. Warner was an early associate of Billy Bang’s, documented by No Business’ retrospective of the violinist’s earliest recordings. Spigner – aka Ade Yeme – worked with Bang early on and made his recording debut on Freeman’s Soundcraft ’75 (Anima).

Nearly 30 years after its first release, Freestyle Band has a searching freshness that belies its age.  Warner’s b-flat and alto clarinets often project a deeply lyrical, resonant timbre more associated with the bass clarinet. Spigner’s hand drumming is rooted in African and Afro-Cuban rhythms, but there is also a quality that can be likened to Coltrane’s sheets of sound. For me, though, it is Freeman’s electric bass playing that is the most arresting.  His extraterrestrial approach to his instrument is reminiscent of the deep, rubbery sound made famous by Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins, which he successfully brings to an avant, improvisational-based setting. 

Two pieces stand out. The first is the twenty-one minute composition “Pelican,” named in honor of Lower East Side poet and philosopher Carl Lombard (aka Dr. E. Pelican Chialto), begins with unaccompanied solos by each musician – Freeman, Warner, then Spigner – before slyly moving into a head-nodding groove that only relents with Freeman’s too brief closing piano coda.  The other is the ten-minute closing “Bird Knows”, which showcases Warner’s most introspective and soulful playing and Freeman’s orchestral piano accompaniment.
–Bobby Hill


Frank Wright Quartet
Blues for Albert Ayler

This is a previously unreleased recording from Rashied Ali’s collection of tapes, documenting a performance from his New York club Ali’s Alley. Recorded on July 17th, 1974, the band is a quartet of Frank Wright on tenor sax, flute and (briefly) vocals, James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Benny Wilson on bass and Ali on drums. According to the notes, Wright had arrived that day from Europe and the performance was dedicated to the late Albert Ayler in commemoration of his birthday a few days before. The result is a titanic 75-minute jam in a form compounded of energy music and blues. It begins with Wright modulating a short Coltrane-like blues figure as the forces gather around him – Ulmer’s hard-edged high-speed chord figures and Ali’s thunderous rolls and polyrhythms, Wilson’s bass pulsing below more as presence than something actually audible. Within moments, Wright the Reverend is speaking in tongues – screams, moans, low register blasts and splintering runs. While the ritual may be predictable, it’s still powerful. Wright and Ulmer are very effective in their first meeting, Ulmer’s largely tonal playing anchoring the blues impulse so strong in Wright’s own, and Ali’s performance simply masterful, a force of nature initiating, driving, filling, and completing the music throughout. There are occasional surprises (Wright’s lyrical flute excursion near the end) and longueurs (Wilson’s arco interlude meanders, but track segmentation means that the 12 minutes of Part 4 can be skipped), but it’s the ultimate consistency that counts – forceful, committed, incendiary music.   
–Stuart Broomer

Hat Hut

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