Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


JD Allen Trio
The Matador and the Bull
Savant SCD 2121

Tenor saxophonist JD Allen is a bit further out there than he’s been made to seem. Sure, the regular mentions of Rollins’ classic trio dates and the Coltrane-tinge of Allen’s more haunting themes have a solid basis; but there’s a few things that set Allen apart from the pack. He’s Hemingway compared to, say, James Carter’s Mailer; he lets the horn sing and the material breathe, resulting in more nuanced and moving performances than he would achieve if he stuffed every bar with syntactical dazzle and brilliant historical references. Subsequently, when he does air out his considerable chops, there’s a palpable sense of purpose in every phrase and shout. These are qualities that well suit his instincts as a composer and bandleader: keep it short; give a tune a full twist instead of a simple turn of phrase; and redraw the conventional contours of a set.

This is why Allen’s albums hold the listener’s attention from start to finish, The Matador and the Bull being no exception. Starting an album with a Jimmy Garrison-like bass introduction that leads into a churning line that almost lumbers out of the gate is about as far away from boiler plate sequencing as you can get; but with bassist Gregg August marking the snail’s pace with space-soaking notes and drummer Rudy Royston slowing ratcheting the intensity, Allen cogently works his solemn theme up to a simmer – and then quickly ends the piece. The next piece starts with a slender motive that leads to a short Royston solo; Allen then introduces another line that leads to more back and forth with the drummer; reaching gale force, Allen cues the end of the piece with a boppish phrase. It’s only with the sudden onset of the infectious rhythms of the third piece that it’s clear that reducing the between-tracks pause by a second or two silence allows Allen to use the silence not as the blank line between block paragraphs but as a semicolon, a way to link independent statements while preserving the integrity of each.

This proves to be a thoroughly effective method for an album that contains performances commencing with moaning solo arco bass textures, dancing tenor lines, and just about everything in between. Combine this with Allen’s penchant for short performances – all of the album’s twelve tracks clock in under five minutes, with only two lasting more than four – and the finely calibrated rapport within his trio, and the results are deeply satisfying. Allen goes a step further than confirming less is more because he packs more into less space than most.
–Bill Shoemaker


Susan Allen + Roman Stolyar

Susan Allen is a California-based harpist, Roman Stolyar a Siberian-based pianist. In this recording made in Siberia in 2009, the two develop a striking empathy, largely exploring the sonic potential of their instruments and extending that dialogue through other sound sources as well. The dialogue begins in predictable territory, with airy chromatic runs from both harp and piano on “Soul Waves,” but even before that piece has finished the two have begun to move into more interesting terrain, hand-damping their strings and pressing the near-identity of their instrument. “Ancient Spirits’ is a marked departure, the two surrendering their conspicuous virtuosity with Allen switching to a kayagum – a Korean relative of the zheng and koto – and Stolyar a wooden flute for a kind of meditation on sound, the most direct form of music making. That gesture leads to some genuinely playful music making, with Stolyar finding a host of devices that break up the initial formality, playing a slide whistle on one track, a melodica on another, playing rumbling bass clusters with one hand while chirping on a flute with the other; Allen reveals a knack for theremin-like twitters and odd vocalic low-frequencies that contrast sharply with the harp’s glassy highs. The CD is ultimately as thoughtful as it is playful, with both musicians exploring the kind of spatial transformations inherent in the resemblance and resonance of their principal instruments.
–Stuart Broomer


Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio + Jeb Bishop
Burning Live at Jazz ao Centro
JACC 017

It was around 2004 when I became aware of tenor/baritone saxophonist and composer Rodrigo Amado’s music and that of his Lisbon-based peers. Clean Feed Records has a lot to do with that, because at the time they were tireless in documenting the Portuguese creative music scene. That’s probably a little less the case now, mostly because Lisbon’s free improvisers are somewhat better known. What initially seemed to characterize Lisbon’s free music was a set of two somewhat fuzzy trajectories: spare, moody rustle and the use of “little instruments” (exemplified by Carlos Zíngaro, Paolo Curado, RED Trio and others), and the free-jazz-rock of figures like Mário Delgado and Carlos Barretto. Of course there were and are artists who don’t quite subscribe to either – as with any art form, talk of terminology and movements quickly gets derailed by minutiae. Amado often seemed like an outlier – drawing from the fire-and-brimstone, heel-digging soul of classic free jazz, a la Archie Shepp, Sonny Rollins and Sam Rivers. Though he’s been part of the Lisbon environment since the late 1980s, it wasn’t until well-distributed titles in the early 2000s that Amado’s name became recognizable internationally.

Burning Live at Jazz ao Centro is the second disc from the saxophonist’s Motion Trio, a collective improvisation ensemble featuring drummer Gabriel Ferrandini and cellist Miguel Mira. Here, they’re joined by (recently ex-) Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop on three pieces recorded at Jazz ao Centro, home of the Coimbra Jazz Festival as well as the JACC label. The presence of a cello does not necessarily make the Motion Trio into a chamber jazz ensemble. Rather, Mira’s role is closer to Abdul Wadud in the Black Unity Trio or Julius Hemphill’s groups, providing supple midrange thrumming and an incisive, piercing attack. He’s got excellent time and, on the opening “Burning Live” (indeed), sticks entirely to pizzicato. The front line is garrulous, Bishop’s trombone slushy and chortling alongside Amado’s vibrant, concentrated gutbucket. It’s not hard to hear the Shepp-Roswell Rudd model or the Hans Dulfer-Willem van Manen approach in the quartet’s excitable tenor/trombone focus. To be sure, both Amado and Bishop are their own players and historical points of comparison aren’t the whole of their music, but these reference points boil up in a searing dose of constant commentary.

The lengthiest piece is “Imaginary Caverns,” which hovers at around 25 minutes and is the disc’s centerpiece. Calm bluesy inflections pepper the opening tenor-trombone duet, Amado a picture of furrowed thoughtfulness as he evenly doles out burrs and popping caresses. Ferrandini’s dry patter on cymbals and objects is flitting and agitated, shored up by Mira’s deep and well-toned walk. Following Bishop’s plunger-abetted elisions, the saxophonist stretches out in measured steps, building and reflecting on a short passage of notes before moving into throaty swipes, the sweat and cuss of cello and drums offering muscular support. A brief percussion solo separates the piece’s distinct moods, with the following section awash in ponticello bowing, cymbal accents and closely-valued breathy hues. It’s tense music, the lapping of long tones and Bishop’s nattering bugle flicks offset by a constant array of small sounds and throaty mumble.

The forwardness and development of this music results from a taut sensibility – the group appears to rarely display all its cards at once, instead doling out improvisations with both directness and reservation. In essence the Motion Trio + 1 are as compelling at near-explosiveness as other ensembles might be at full blast. But that’s not to say they don’t get down to business, and Burning Live has no shortage of forceful playing, as on the closing barnstormer “Red Halo.” After an unaccompanied pizzicato passage from Mira (sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not a bassist) and a short tenor-cello duet, the trio minus Bishop lock into spry, gritty action. Beats and accents flash across the group’s field in a colorful drive, Ferrandini working across phrase lines somewhere between Paul Lytton and Barry Altschul as the hornmen bark, slush and interweave. This is an incredibly well-balanced quartet, front line and rhythm meshing beautifully and able to work across their perceived roles. It’s still unclear to me why the names of players like Amado, Mira and Ferrandini aren’t mentioned alongside esteemed Chicago, New York and Scandinavian peers, but hopefully that will change with more hearings of records like Burning Live.
–Clifford Allen


Asunder Trio
The Lamp
Kilogram 023

Asunder Trio (guitarist Hasse Poulsen, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, and drummer Mark Sanders) got together when Sanders arranged for a short UK tour in the spring of 2011. The group is a sort of connect-the-dots endeavor, the way so many improv meetings come about – Sanders and Dunmall have been working together in various contexts since the late ‘80s and Sanders has been working with Poulsen as part of the quartet Speeq since the mid ‘90s. Sometimes, these sort of meetings click and sometimes, they fall flat. In this, case, the combination is a natural, and this recording, from a performance at The Lamp in Birmingham, showcases the trio in three collective improvisations with a compelling focus and breadth of approach.

Things kick off with “Asunder,” the most straight-forward of the three pieces, with Dunmall’s impassioned tenor building in waves against Poulsen’s resonant chords and Sanders’ slow-simmer free drumming. There’s a contemplative beauty as the trio collectively builds tension around a lyrical theme, slowly amping up the energy and density of the playing, reaching squall-like force before bringing things around to resolve. Poulsen starts “The Lamp” with jagged, angular lines and Sanders dives in with crackling free counterpoint, dancing around his kit with tuned drums and metallic cymbal sizzle. Dunmall enters 3 minutes in with stabbing soprano lines and the three play off of the kaleidoscopic refractions, with sputtering sheets of guitar texture, cyclical buffets of soprano, and the snaps and sparks of Sanders drums, spontaneously steering the shifting densities.

The recording ends with the elegiac, “For Tony Levin”, dedicated to Dunmall’s longtime collaborator who had died a month before the March gig. Poulsen lays down swirling washes of processed guitar, Sanders lays in scrapes and shudders of bowed and abraded drums and cymbals, and Dunmall layers in quavering low notes on tenor. The piece wafts along in atmospheric, pulsating textures until Dunmall breaks through with a crying theme, bringing a more dynamic focus for the remainder of the performance. Based on this recording, one hopes this is more than just a one-off meeting.
–Michael Rosenstein


Josh Berman & His Gang
There Now
Delmark DE 2016

Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Fast Citizens
Delmark DE 2017

Chicago’s central role in the evolution of jazz is ongoing, drawing upon a homegrown history that comprises everything from the Austin High Gang to the AACM. The city’s current generation of creative improvising musicians has embraced this diverse lineage with an historical awareness that draws pertinent parallels to the AACM’s innovative polystylism. This young, tight-knit community has also adopted the Association’s cooperative ideology, with numerous ensembles featuring a regular roster of members who alternate sideman and leadership duties. Their eclectic inside-outside sensibilities have come to define Chicago’s progressive jazz scene. Two current releases expertly reveal the depth of this expansive aesthetic: cornetist Josh Berman’s There Now delves headlong into the past, updating ‘20s Chicago Jazz with avant-garde fervor, while cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Fast Citizens push boldly into an increasingly polystylistic future on Gather, juxtaposing traditional acoustic elements and heavily amplified popular forms like metal, punk and rockabilly.

Berman has been a ubiquitous voice in Chicago since the turn of the Millennium as a co-leader of the Emerging Improvisers and Umbrella Collective with drummer Mike Reed, in addition to performing with numerous groups, including Fast Citizens. Berman’s all-inclusive conception of the art form manifests in personalized statements summarizing the entire jazz continuum. His succinct bluesy solos alternate halting lyrical variations with abstract ruminations, crafting rich instrumental narratives from dramatic contours.

His Gang boasts a robust frontline in tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, trombonist Jeb Bishop, clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio and bass clarinetist Jason Stein, supported by the stellar rhythm section of vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. Balancing evocative sentimentality with jarring modernity, the octet navigates Berman’s cagey arrangements of early jazz standards and oblique originals with a rousing blend of old school swing and trenchant expressionism – often conjuring surreal impressions of Jimmy McPartland jamming with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Five of the eight selections are deconstructed covers of certifiable Dixieland classics, including a sublime ballad reading of Bob Carlton’s “Jada” and a freewheeling take on Eddie Condon’s ebullient “Liza.” Whether transposing the melodies of familiar chestnuts into dense layers of polyphonic counterpoint or arranging labyrinthine originals around stark a cappella solo interludes, Berman’s variegated charts are most impressive.

Whether bonny or brash, Berman’s sidemen interpret these protean revisionist works with the same assurance and concision that the leader brings to old fashioned favorites like “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” including Stein’s jaunty sprint through “Sugar,” Adasiewicz’s prismatic accents on “One Train May Hide Another” and Bishop’s swaggering contributions to “Cloudy.” Far from the sterile conservatism of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Berman & His Gang restores a sense of primal invention to the idiom’s roots.

Taking up where There Now leaves off, Gather, the third album by Fast Citizens, ventures even further into vanguard territory. Formed in 2002, the sextet’s line-up features Berman and His Gang members Jackson and Rosaly, as well as alto saxophonist Aram Shelton, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and bassist Anton Hatwich. Rather than functioning as a true collective, the unit operates under rotating leadership, with each session attributed to a different member; Ready Everyday, their 2006 Delmark debut, was issued under Jackson’s name, while Two Cities, their 2009 sophomore follow-up for the label, appeared under Shelton’s. Lonberg-Holm serves as the leader for this date; his reputation for edgy, amplified sound explorations with Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark helps usher Fast Citizens into brave new worlds.

Unlike There Now, all of the pieces on Gather are new, but the infectious spirit of early Chicago Jazz is still apparent, although Lonberg-Holm’s compositions opt for elliptical narratives rather than standardized forms. The episodic structure of “Simpler Days” is exemplary; Lonberg-Holm switches to electric guitar (for the first time on record), accompanying each soloist in turn, modulating from complementary to contrary approaches. His understated fretwork initially underscores Jackson’s tender bass clarinet musings before unleashing spidery filigrees in concert with Berman’s splintery cornet variations, finally parlaying Shelton’s brisk alto cadences with fractious chords.

Conversely, “Lazy Day” unfolds with chamber-like austerity, its spare demeanor subsequently contrasted by the metronomic intensity of “Later News.” The latter’s metallic fervor provides an ideal setting for Shelton’s staccato multiphonics – whose similarly blistering screed on the blazing free-bop opener, “Infra-Pass” keeps perfect pace with the tune’s manic tempo accelerations. Equally abstruse, “Faster, Citizens! Kill! Kill!” evokes the bodacious curves of Russ Meyer’s camp classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, culminating in an appropriately gnarly surf-inflected coda, while the regal closer, Jackson’s “Roses,” opens with Berman’s earthy extrapolations pirouetting over a haunting brass chorale.

Looking to the past and future for inspiration, There Now and Gather encapsulate the entire spectrum of Chicago’s storied history into a soulful hybrid of Jazz Age charm and avant-garde innovation. As examples of current developments, these two recordings offer the best that the city has to offer, making them perfect entry points for the novice as well as must-hear acquisitions for the connoisseur.
–Troy Collins

Perpetual Frontier - The Properties of Free Music - Joe Morris

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