Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


John Butcher + Tony Buck + Magda Mayas + Burkhard Stangl
Unsounds 35

How suggestive a lineup we find emblazoned on the cover of Plume, even if the entire quartet never plays together. “Fiamme” is for the trio of percussionist Tony Buck, saxophonist John Butcher, and guitarist Burkhard Stangl, from a December 2007 festival shot in London. Knowing something of the history of these players over the last twenty years (specifically Buck’s sensibility from The Necks and Butcher’s and Stangl’s work in Polwechsel), you might expect something rather spare and vaguely droning. Expectations are thwarted from the outset on the quite lively “Fiamme,” with Stangl sounding a bit sour and Bailey-like on his acoustic, with small rustles from Buck and Butcher’s singular oscillations and birdcalls. Who knows to what degree the musicians sought consciously to evade associations, but regardless of the frequency of subtler moments (Buck making tiny sounds, as if with beads, Stangl coaxing soft harmonics, and metallic blooms from Butcher), the trio seems to spend more time with rattling, caterwauling passages. In these spaces, Butcher gets intense with skirling soprano lasers while Buck creates a wall of effects and Stangl digs deep into some no-wave jangle. To me, these are the least effective passages of the piece. Elsewhere, though, there is more focus and sympathy: an ebow drone that coaxes unity, some lovely feedback sax oscillation against resonant chords and Buck’s clatter, and a chiming continuo effect that puts into relief Butcher’s moaning sounds and Stangl’s palm-muted interval steadily intoned. Good moments in other words, but sometimes “Fiamme” does just seem like a sequence of moments, the musical whole seeming to hint at its own possibilities without always necessarily realizing them.

The 40-minute “Vellum” (from the 2011 Freedom of the City festival) swaps out Stangl for pianist Magda Mayas. With her thoughtful, expressive inside-piano work it makes for a more successful meeting. She manages on this date to generate a sound somewhere between a cranking nineteenth century difference engine and brilliantine ice sculpture, making her the perfect foil for these two players (and she’s especially deft in concert with Buck). As Buck and Butcher whip up metallic whorls of sound, Mayas is especially attentive to attack and sustain. Even when all three players back off into atmospheric sounds, there’s an ominous spaciousness to the whole, like a claustrophobic machine interior (realized in Buck’s insistent, continually alternating patter). Only once, late in the piece, does the trio let loose with exuberant, expressionist playing. For the most part, “Vellum” is a terrific study in contained tension: a thud, the highest squeak, serrated strings, and a lone plink. Vivid stuff.
–Jason Bivins


Chagas + Curado + Viegas Wind Trio
Old School New School No School
Creative Sources CS224

Paulo Curado, Paulo Chagas and João Pedro Viegas are three veteran Lisbon improvisers with varied backgrounds in free jazz and composed music, but what comes through strongest here is a sense of camaraderie in music making, a commitment to the genuinely spontaneous encounter. Each brings two or more woodwinds (Viegas, soprano and bass clarinets; Chagas, flutes, oboe and sopranino clarinet; Curado, flute and soprano and alto saxophones), and the dialogues often concentrate specifically on linear development or the vertical worlds of sound and overtones. “Fake Camerata,” for example, revels in the tenuous relationship to traditional chamber music, beginning in the timbral resemblance between Curado’s soprano saxophone and Chagas’ oboe, before the continually threading lines are given resonant substance and contrast by Viegas’ bass clarinet. The spontaneous play of mind is always apparent, at times the three entering a world in which their parts are sufficiently continuous to suggest a detailed score, as in the evolving shifts between long tones and multiplying rhythms with sudden chirping intrusions in “Meditation for Beginners.” The emphasis on spontaneous composition reaches its summit with the 11-minute “Roy meets Vienna and doesn’t get away with it.” There’s no sense of the habitual pose or the self-conscious style, just three very open musicians examining the minutiae and inferences of one another’s lines.
–Stuart Broomer


The Engines + John Tchicai
Other Voices
Not Two MW895-2

The Engines are generally well disposed to comparisons with New York Art Quartet. Though Roswell Rudd’s shadow stretches across too many decades for any one trombonist to fully embody and extend his legacy, Rudd’s mid-‘60s advents have been thoroughly digested by Jeb Bishop and incorporated into an ever-ripening voice. Dave Rempis can wield both alto and tenor saxophones like flamethrowers; but he also has abundant capacity for finesse and subtlety. Tim Daisy’s style stands in bright contrast to Milford Graves’, if only because Daisy is at his core a kit drummer, not a hand drummer like the singular Graves; yet, his polyrhythms are robust and textured – and he can swing with soaring energy. And Nate McBride accomplishes something that few of the NYAQ 11 bassists achieved by making a lasting impression.

Put John Tchicai into the mix, and you have a set that encapsulates the intelligence with which NYAQ circumvented the exhortative and atomizing gambits dominant among exponents of the New Thing, the centered soul that the venerable saxophonist not only brought to NYAQ but to his music thereafter, and the type of exhilarating inter-generational synergy that such meetings always promise but seldom deliver. Certainly, the quintet did not have the luxury of the extensive shed time that Rudd and Tchicai enjoyed almost 50 years ago; but the album-opening transition from the freely improvised horn exchange to McBride’s “High and Low,” a hard-swinging head comprised of short punchy phrases, confirms that this was not a hit-and-run encounter – and that’s before they take it upstairs by segueing the ensuing freebop blow into Rempis’ plaintive “Strafe,” which gives the performance a piquant asymmetry. The pairing of Tchicai’s “Cool Copy” and Bishop’s “Looking” is equally inspired; the former has a slinky, vaguely Nicholsish tinge, and a dash of the drollness found in Roscoe Mitchell’s mid-tempo strolls, while the trombonist’s composition has a refined, affecting drama about it – this one’s from the heart.

Tchicai’s “Super Orgasmic Life” might initially prompt a double-check of the title; a gently unfolding line that will reinforce the assessment that the flute played a secondary role in his music, it nevertheless gains steam through Daisy’s brush work and McBride’s nimble lines to set up a fine, lithe alto solo by Rempis. Bishop’s “Planet” closes the album with a vehicle well-tailored to Tchicai’s strengths; a robust, vamp-driven theme, it provides Tchicai a fine vehicle to chortle, shout and sing. A thoroughly collaborative effort, Other Voices is more than a fitting tribute to an artist who deserves many – it’s a damn good record.
–Bill Shoemaker


Ellery Eskelin
Trio New York II
Prime Source CD 7010

Since the advent of his solo career in the early 1990s, Ellery Eskelin’s respect for the jazz tradition has been an intrinsic, albeit discreet part of his oeuvre. Formed in 1994, Eskelin’s longstanding trio with accordionist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black personified the adventurous tenor saxophonist’s avant-garde aesthetic, yet even their idiosyncratic discography bears occasional evidence of the idiom’s historical tenets. Most notable is the atypical 1999 Hatology album Five Other Pieces (+2), a set largely comprised of established standards by John Coltrane, George Gershwin and Lennie Tristano, among others. Recorded three years earlier for Soul Note Records, The Sun Died, Eskelin’s vibrant tribute to legendary tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, is another unusually pertinent milestone, featuring guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Kenny Wollesen as partners in a creative reimagining of the organ combos favored by the honoree.

Issued in 2011 on his own Prime Source Recordings imprint, Trio New York was Eskelin’s first dedicated foray into the classic organ trio format, a bold exploration of the Great American Songbook with Hammond B3 virtuoso Gary Versace and ubiquitous drummer Gerald Cleaver. Trio New York II is the sophomore follow-up to the group’s self-titled debut, refining its expansive approach towards standards, whether delving into outer realms or plying in-the-pocket grooves with soulful panache. Rather than simply deconstructing the traditional frameworks of beloved chestnuts, Trio New York builds recognizable structures from thematic abstractions, collectively transforming free-form improvisations into straight-ahead vamps and familiar chord changes.

Subtly referencing the past, Eskelin seamlessly weaves melodic fragments and oblique phrases into sinuous cadences that confirm his lyrical mastery of the extended line. His singular ability to marry avant-garde extrapolations with time-honored conventions is readily apparent on “The Midnight Sun,” the album’s atmospheric opener. Aided by Versace’s percolating organ flourishes, he gracefully transposes pithy coiled refrains into plangent ruminations.

Versace’s cascading filigrees and throbbing bass pedal accents provide harmonic counterpoint and rhythmic drive, venturing into uncharted territory during unaccompanied soliloquies like the pensive introduction to Thelonious Monk’s “Wee See,” which spotlights intervallic chord progressions reminiscent of Sun Ra. Cleaver’s adroit sensitivity and supple interjections imbue even the most freewheeling excursions with implied forward momentum, exemplified by a locomotive version of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” that effortlessly transitions from pulsating rubato to euphoric swing courtesy of the drummer’s tasteful modulations in time, tempo and touch.

The genesis of this project can be traced to Eseklin’s formative years playing house parties with his mother, Bobbie Lee, who worked the Baltimore organ circuit in the 1960s. Accordingly, Trio New York digs deep into the standard songbook, conceptually delving further afield while offering heartfelt renditions of elegant ballads like “My Ideal” and “Flamingo,” as well as sophisticated swingers, including an opulent interpretation of “After You’ve Gone.” Embracing his roots in the context of a well-established format, Eskelin, widely known as a vanguard improviser with a romantic streak, reveals how boundless imagination bolstered by seasoned workmanship can transcend mere nostalgia.
–Troy Collins


Rich Halley 4
Crossing the Passes
Pine Eagle 005

The priest and writer Alexander Lucie-Smith said recently that “west” no longer existed as an existential concept. This is perhaps a latter-day version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about the closing of the frontier as both place and process. Rich Halley’s music suggests Lucie-Smith might be wrong. The saxophonist grew up in northeast Oregon, close to the Wallowa Mountains which all climbing nuts, even those of us who haven’t made it out there, know as the “Oregon Alps.” Halley identifies himself musically as a storyteller and this superb set is an imaginative response to a north-south trip across the plateau and range he made last summer with a friend and with son Carson Halley, who’s the drummer here. It’s not pictorial music, but just as Webern’s music conjures up something of the Tyrol (really! listen to it again), so this album has something of the sublime, the remote and above all the companionable. Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich is the kind of big, capable guy who can still make you laugh when things get tense or tired. The younger Halley sets a cracking pace, as the youngster always should, but he plays for the group at all times. I don’t know too much about Clyde Reed; but on the same mountain-climbing analogy, he’s the one who carries a double pack. What a bass player! He doesn’t so much push the pace or count cadence as keep the party together.

It’s tempting to give an account of each individual track here, the places where a sawing repetition of tones gradually reveals a rich ambiguity in the harmonics or where tenor saxophone and trombone punch out brilliantly conceived themes and motives, but it’s the complete narrative and sense of journey that counts on this one, more even than on similarly conceived things like Halley’s earlier The Blue Rims (with Bobby Bradford) and Mountains and Plains, both of which also featured Reed, but not yet Carson. Vlatkovich has been a playing partner for some time and there’s real understanding there. I’ve suggested elsewhere that there is a Rollins quality to Rich Halley’s playing, a similarity some have strongly disagreed with. Thinking it over again now, I still think it makes sense. Rich always sounds as if he’s in the middle of a story. He might digress. He might even tell you another story on the way, or change voices (some guys tote a “double.” Halley knows how to vary the tenor’s tone to suit the immediate situation), but the next camp is always reached and just at the psychological moment. There’s not a moment of ennui or fatigue on this record, though I sense it was a tiring one to make.

Nothing but positives, then, just heartland American jazz of the very highest order and with no metropolitan modishness. From my wrong-side-of-the-Atlantic perspective there is always a slightly frustrating notion that there is music like this to be found throughout the contiguous US which just never gets out or over the ocean. I suspect little of it reaches this quality, though. I’m frustrated never to have climbed in the Oregon Alps. It seems unlikely now, but at least there’s this aural equivalent. If I had to sum up what I looked for in a musician, it might come out as something like: a good narrator and a man you’d trust on the hill with you. That’s Rich Halley.
–Brian Morton

Perpetual Frontier - The Properties of Free Music by Joe Morris

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