Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Curtis Hasselbring
Number Stations
Cuneiform Rune 356

Number stations are shortwave radio stations that broadcast mysterious coded messages from around the globe that are widely believed to be instructions for secret agents. Commonly associated with the Cold War, but still heard today, these surreptitious transmissions inspired New York-based trombonist Curtis Hasselbring to compose a suite based on the curious phenomenon, funded in part by a 2010 Chamber Music America grant from the Doris Duke Grant for the Creation of New Jazz works. Uniting two of Hasselbring’s ensembles, Number Stations brings together Chris Speed (tenor saxophone and clarinet), Trevor Dunn (acoustic and electric bass), and Ches Smith (drums and marimba) from the New Mellow Edwards, with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi from Decoupage.

Befitting the clandestine subject matter, Hasselbring’s enigmatic writing emulates covert missions and tenuous alliances by pitting each ensemble against the other in a series of choreographed charts and improvised strategies. Drawing a direct parallel to Cold War paranoia, “Make Anchor Babies,” the album’s third cut, is subtly inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film noir classic The Wrong Man. The ebullient tune pivots around a sultry Brazilian motif, intermittently punctuated by terse interjections before suddenly deconstructing into an ethereal coda dominated by the reverberating echo of Halvorson’s spectral ruminations.

“It’s Not a Bunny” is the record’s conceptual centerpiece, a virtuosic tour-de-force that sets up stealthy interactions between individual musicians. Underscored by shadowy accompanists, Hasselbring’s plangent brass musings introduce the ascending theme; Moran’s luminescent capitulations instigate assertive tempo displacements from Dunn and Smith; and Speed’s coarse tenor scuffles with Halvorson’s glassy arpeggios at the finale. Hasselbring’s episodic, non-linear approach similarly informs the remainder of the date. Cryptic melodies, abstruse harmonies and discursive rhythms materialize in a variety of arcane settings – from the Morse code-inflected vamp that underpins the swinging “Tux Is Traitor” to the cantilevered counterpoint of the atmospheric “Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s.”

The session’s final number, “37° 56’ 39” by 111° 32’,” based on coordinates to Hell’s Backbone, a narrow winding road near Bryce Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah, ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Perhaps Hasselbring’s idea to name the album’s sunniest, most upbeat tune after a notoriously treacherous road is an ironic jest, but maybe the unspoken mission behind Number Stations isn’t simply to transpose elements associated with international conspiracy theories into sonic tone poems, but rather to infiltrate and undermine the musical mainstream.
–Troy Collins


Alexander Hawkins and Louis Moholo-Moholo
Keep Your Heart Straight
Ogun OGCD 039

English pianist Alexander Hawkins is only 32, while South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo is a venerable 73, but they are kindred spirits despite the wide difference in their ages. Their joyful duo album displays a rapport that is at times almost telepathic. Like his elder, Hawkins, who’s been a member of Moholo-Moholo’s band for several years, always leads with his heart, but his intelligence and considerable technique follow closely behind. Together pianist and drummer play with exuberance and openheartedness, yet with a great deal of order and unity, whether they play on compositions or freely improvise.

Although they play compositions, the free improvisations really stand out on this record. It’s during these totally spontaneous dialogues that the empathy between them and their joy in one another’s company emerge with the greatest emotional force. They clearly both feel at ease with each other, and free to go in whatever direction they want; it’s one of the most engaging aspects of their duo. The lengthy “Heavy Manners” neatly encompasses the full range of their interactions and displays the deep connections between them. Hawkins tries all manner of improvisatory gambits. He sets up call and response passages between the extremes of the keyboard, sets off firework explosions of chords, or arches long trails of notes overhead, plays melodically, and evokes unusual timbres from his instrument. Whatever unexpected angle Hawkins shoots off in, some component of Moholo-Moholo’s trap kits always seems to shadow him closely while other drums add color or contrast.

On another improvisation, “Pure Vision,” Moholo-Moholo’s accents drop in between Hawkins’s phrases with uncanny accuracy. The drummer’s orchestration of the kit is impressive here as well. He turns periodically to the bass and toms to give extra weight to what Hawkins is playing, then concentrates on cymbals and snare to give the music an airier, elevated feel. As the piece reaches its climax he brings the whole kit together. Unlike the other improvisations, which jump cut between ideas and slip in and out of different tempos, “Catch You on the Rebound” is driven by Hawkins’s steady left hand ostinato, over which he unfurls pulsing right hand lines with a Tristano-like forward momentum and coherence. Moholo-Moholo takes a spare approach, confining himself to rapping out accents that goose the piece along rather than constantly push it.

The compositions include two South African tunes that Moholo-Moholo has recorded before with ensembles and two standards. “Lakutshon Ilanga,” first recorded in 1995 on Bra Louis-Bra Tebs by a septet eager to push it up into free energy heights, is here lingered over and tenderly ruminated on. “Amaxesha Osizi (Times of Sorrow)” appeared on 1978’s Spirits Rejoice. This new version charts its own course through the achingly beautiful tune, played mostly at a slow, rhythmically free pace instead of in tempo, and with a stronger gospel flavor. The album’s lone disappointment is “If I Should Leave You,” which gets a fairly standard deconstruction with elaborate embellishments and tangentially related motifs inserted to break up the continuity of the song. On the other hand, Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” gets a startling treatment, with Hawkins playing the song at a majestic fortissimo using two-handed chords against which Moholo-Moholo’s cymbals crash like ocean waves.

In the hands of Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo, the two approaches – free improvisation and improvisation on compositions – often play against and reflect each other. For instance, Hawkins develops his opening improvised theme on “Heavy Manners” in a deliberate compositional way. The influence of tunes such as “Amaxesha Osizi” can be heard on the improvised “Hear Our Hearts,” during which Hawkins subjects a spontaneously invented, somber South African-type melody to sudden disruptions and the interleaving of new, often unrelated materials.

So many of Moholo-Moholo’s duet recordings have been with pianists – Keith Tippett, Irène Schweizer, Cecil Taylor, Stan Tracey, Marilyn Crispell – that it’s easy to see this one with Hawkins as another in a continuing series. Certainly Moholo-Moholo seems to love the piano’s 88 tuned drums. But there’s nothing generic about his approach to pianists. He takes each one as they are and relates to them as individuals. In Hawkins, he’s found one of his most simpatico partners, one who shares his love of a good melody and spontaneous freedom and who plays with vitality and imagination that’s equal to his own.
–Ed Hazell


Earl Hines
Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945
Mosaic MN&-254

Why is Earl “Fatha” Hines so often left out of discussions of the jazz greats? There is plenty of evidence of his genius, and his central place in the history of jazz piano to be heard on Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945. But the exhaustive 7-CD Mosaic compilation of his early years as a bandleader and soloist also provides clues to the mystery of his faded reputation as well.

At his peak, Hines projected a confidence and depth of imagination almost unexcelled in jazz history. Few pianists – Art Tatum, Cecil Taylor – had the same technical resources, lightening imagination, or sheer sense of daring as Hines. Solo after solo among the box set’s 171 tracks is simply jaw dropping. One is almost tempted to say they are avant-garde in their freedom with tempo, the density of ideas, and the independence of his hands, but that would misrepresent the music’s commercial appeal and rootedness in popular song and dance.

It’s easiest to hear his virtuosity and risk taking on the unaccompanied solos he recorded periodically. The set opens with four of the best of them, recorded over two days in December 1928. Most arresting is the way he interrupts the forward momentum on “57 Varieties” and “A Monday Date” with the left hand abandoning its rhythm chores to tangle with the right hand. It feels as if the performances are teetering on the edge of chaos momentarily, but Hines always manages to restore the swinging order just when it seems like he couldn’t possibly turn things around. He can stride with the best, but he’s more likely to break up the beat, as he does on “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” And he’s a master of melodic improvisation and pacing on “Caution Blues (Blues in Thirds).” The date establishes the methodology for all his successive solo outings, but his imagination was too restless for him to rely on formula. In his 1939 “Rossetta,” Hines makes nearly every aspect of the keyboard his plaything, hitting a relaxed tempo after a weirdly unsettled introduction, then dispensing with the beat at will for periodic outlandishly ornate fantasias. Breathtaking. There are also two 1940s solos, including the wonderfully titled “Child of a Disordered Brain,” on the very early “Storytone” electric piano, which are not top notch Hines, but are nevertheless interesting historical novelties.

The best of the big band tracks display a rare pianistic brilliance as well, not only in his brief, but eventful solos, but also in his comping behind solos and his ensemble work. He drives into the groove of “Grand Piano Blues” (1929) with huge right hand octaves colored with tremolos that mimic the terminal vibrato of horn players, creating his own one-man big band on the keyboard. But again he can’t resist toying with expectations and darts away into wild flourishes. His solo on “Blue Drag” (1932) is packed with cascades of notes, single note melody, dissonant harmonies, blues riffs, call and response between the hands, double time passages, and lines that cross cut the rhythm at odd angles. “Pianology” (1937) is another exhaustive catalog of pianistic resources – left hand single notes, stride, beautiful chords, one note punctuation, riffing, runs in both hands that push against the beat then resolve into melody. Of course not every session is of equal quality and there are dates when he sounds desultory (March 26, 1934) or on which he solos very little (August 10, 1937).

But these ups and downs are all part of the story that a great historical survey box set like this one tells and the story of the Earl Hines Orchestra is a fascinating one. For 10 years, from 1929 to 1939, the Hines Orchestra was the house band at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago, their job security guaranteed by none other than gangster Al Capone. Capone was apparently a very big fan who insisted that the Hines aggregation be the club’s exclusive orchestra. It was a request ballroom management couldn’t refuse. With summers off to travel the country and regular radio broadcasts after 1937, the Hines Orchestra became one of the most popular of the era. And little wonder. It was a tight, well-rehearsed band that swung hard to fill dance floors.

Their charts – written largely by band members such as Cecil Irwin, Budd Johnson, and Jimmy Mundy (later with Benny Goodman), and sometimes by outside arranger-composers like Reginald Forsythe and Horace Henderson – played to the band’s strengths. For instance, the 1929 “Beau-Koo Jack” sports very tricky unison trumpet and woodwind lines. And numbers like “Sensational Mood” and “My One Ambition Is You,” recorded in 1932 as the band was reaching an early peak, are relaxed but disciplined performances powered by a cracking rhythm section featuring drummer Wallace Bishop and bassist Quinn Wilson. The string of exceptional ensemble playing continues pretty much unabated during the ‘30s, from a stellar four sides recorded on October 27, 1933, to numbers like Horace Henderson’s show-stopping “GT Stomp” and Mundy’s arrangement of “Lightly and Politely” from separate 1939 dates. There are the inevitable numbers that fail to rise above the merely commercial (they had to make a living after all), and the 1937 edition of the band was lackluster compared to others, but overall, the quality is high.

There were good soloists in the band, although none that equaled Hines himself. In the early ‘30s trumpeter-vocalist Walter Fuller is a lively Armstrong-influenced presence. Multi-instrumentalist Darnell Howard proves to be an arresting violin soloist on “Cavernism.” Omer Simeon’s soaring clarinet intensifies climactic moments on many tracks. And the arrival of Budd Johnson in 1937 brings a contemporary Lester Young influenced solo voice to the band. One of the best subplots found in the set is the emergence of singer Billy Eckstine, who, from early 1940 arrival, matures with every track he recorded with the band leading up to masterpieces like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (1941) and “Skylark” (1942).

But as good as it was, the Hines Orchestra never had the same charisma as the Ellington or Basie organizations. The soloists were rarely as memorable. There wasn’t a strong signature sound. Ironically, one of Hines’ great strengths – his concern with overall ensemble sound and balance – often lead him to sit out altogether or remain in the background, depriving the band of its most singular presence. After the band’s relationship with the Grand Terrace ended, Hines’ drinking problems began to affect his performance, and there’s a noticeable drop off in the consistency, vibrancy, and imagination of his playing in the final years covered in the set.

All these factors have worked against Hines’ perceived stature. One has to dig through a lot of workmanlike music to unearth the brilliant Hines solo gems. Like all big band leaders, he felt the financial strain of shifting tastes and changing economics, but he compounded the problems with the decline in his playing. He recognized the importance of the rising bebop generation and briefly employed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in his 1948 band, but shortly there after folded up shop and went with the Louis Armstrong All Stars. After leaving Armstrong, Hines to a large extent fell out of the wider public’s eye. At one point he even contemplated giving up music altogether and opening a cigar store.

But in 1964, he triumphantly, if belatedly, rose from the ashes of his career, recording a string of remarkable solo albums. His agility and precision and imagination are as sharp and delightful in the last decade of his recorded career as they were in the first decade. Albums like Blues in Thirds and Tour De Force (Black Lion) and the bountifully creative Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington (New World) rank among the best solo piano albums ever recorded. But even these artistic highlights of his career, coming at a time when critical attention was focused on the avant garde and popular attention on the Blue Note hard boppers and fusion, tend to be overshadowed by their times.

Musicians certainly understood Hines’ importance, and his influence was felt for generations in the music of players such as Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, and Oscar Peterson. This set is essential for understanding why Hines is important to the history of jazz and perhaps why his accomplishments have fallen into relative neglect. He deserves better.
–Ed Hazell


Charlotte Hug + Fréderic Blondy
Emanem 5026

John Stevens + Paul Rutherford + Evan Parker + Barry Guy
One Four and Two Twos
Emanem 5027

A single sizzling viola note followed by a peremptory piano chord opens up the vibrant, imaginative duo session for Charlotte Hug and Fréderic Blondy. Two of the more committed prepared instrumentalists out there, these players avoid the tricks-for-tricks-sake approach to improvisation and instead put their languages in the service of carefully considered distillations of the unknown. Among the main ingredients are tiny scrapes, low dampened chords, sustained intonations, and groaning wood, which together make for a myriad of sonic combinations across these pieces from 2008. But what really makes it is the combination of this vast textural and dynamic range with an often fascinating rhythmic language. It’s there from the start of “La Belle Sultane,” with Hug’s mewling, distorted strings against brilliantine plinks and an innenklavier thrum, all coalescing in the sound of big clouds blooming. Or, listen to the skittering mice inside the wall on “Oeillet Parfait” or the gloriously contrapuntal “Cato’s Pink Cluster,” which winds up into a furious cascade of notes. And the pair is smart and inquisitive enough to couple these denser pieces with several that go deep into the grain of various drones. “Sombreuil” combines a resonant low end from Blondy (presumably using Ebows) with Hug’s keening high-end micro-squeaks. The pianist has such fabulous range, by the way, and can sound like bowed metal, or a series of gongs and woodblocks at times. “Nova Zambala” and “Thalia Remontant” at times suggest viola plus John Tilbury, but there are also those distinctive percussive thickets that transform the laminal textures, heating them up briefly and letting them cool back down into the sound of bells, whorls, and the most warm wood. It’s a vibrant set of scraping symphonies and spectral worlds, all arriving at the closing rumble of “Thor.” But a special word for “Rosa Moyesii,” which opens with limpid single notes against a grainy drone before plunging ever deeper into an icy grotto, in which Hug tastefully uses vocals: the deepest of sighs and the “aaah” of discovery, as whorls of overtones gather around these splendid, splendid players.

One Four and Two Twos is another vibrant slice of London-based improvisation from the 1970s. The peerless lineup (John Stevens on drums and voice, Paul Rutherford on trombone and euphonium, Evan Parker on saxophones, and Barry Guy on bass and electronics) is in gnarly form on these sessions. The first five tracks (a London studio session from 1978 originally issued by Konnex, and in part prior to that by View) are fully exuberant from note one, buoyed in no small part by Stevens’ almost ecstatic playing and vocalizations. The general feel of intensity and barely contained energy is found throughout this session. The second track features some furious crossing lines from the horns, with Guy’s mildly distorted bass seeming to propel them as they dart in and out of each other’s way. It’s a real treat to hear Rutherford so exuberantly plumbing the depths, and there’s an almost enchanted passage where (if not for those low scuffles that are such a trademark of his sound) Guy could almost pass for Derek Bailey! They move from there into the fractured, keening third piece, and beyond that to the variegated fourth performance. Spitting, churning soprano and big robusto trombone lead the way into a spacious, abstract, quizzically reflective section of such deep vocalic exchanges and an intense focus on worrying the tonal center. Following that are three tracks (never before issued) from a Rutherford/Guy duo date in Milan in 1979. Here it’s Rutherford who uses the electronics, augmenting specific features of his language (a muffle, a brassy overtone) while Guy darts and slashes with the smallest, most incisive gesture or the hugest yawp of sound. The two lower register instruments cover quite a bit of territory, from lovely groan and fluttering metal to the alien atmosphere of the third piece (where an off-mike Guy sound particularly spectral). Finally, there’s a pair of live tracks from Stevens and Parker (just on soprano) from 1992, right around the time of Corner to Corner if that gives you any indication as to its language. Flinty, focused, and wholly committed, these pieces cap off a terrific and truly valuable release.
–Jason Bivins

Intakt Records

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