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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Ches Smith and These Arches
Clean Feed CF270CD

Among the many notable creative improvising musicians currently based in New York, there are remarkably few whose purview includes significant collaborations with veterans of the fabled ‘80s and ‘90s Downtown scene. Ches Smith is one such artist, a powerful yet unassuming drummer whose resume includes impressive sideman work with Tim Berne and Marc Ribot, collaborations with contemporaries Mary Halvorson and Darius Jones, and membership in the avant rock bands Secret Chiefs 3 and Xiu Xiu. These Arches is Smith’s flagship ensemble, an unconventional bass-less unit no less unusual than Good for Cows, his longstanding duo with bassist Devin Hoff, or his solo percussion endeavor Congs for Brums.

These Arches features an intriguing multi-generational lineup, pairing seasoned accordionist/electronics wizard Andrea Parkins and ubiquitous guitar prodigy Halvorson with renowned alto saxophonist Berne and industrious tenor player Tony Malaby. Berne has proven to be visionary in his choice of younger collaborators; Jim Black, Chris Speed and Craig Taborn have all gone on to great acclaim following their tenure in Berne’s pre-millennial projects. Returning the favor, Berne has served as a sideman for some of his most compatible associates, including Smith.

The recent addition of Berne to the original four-piece roster amplifies the quintet’s fervency, simultaneously creating a conceptual link to the post-modern Downtown aesthetic that Berne helped shape with peers like John Zorn. Smith’s quixotic writing is reminiscent of the eclectic genre-splicing that defined the early Knitting Factory scene, although his stylistic juxtapositions are more organically cohesive than those of his predecessors. Despite the subtly diverse nature of the program, the individual tunes exhibit melodic similarities, lending the date a unified sensibility.

Reinforcing its title, Hammered traffics in somewhat heavier territory than the group’s 2010 Skirl debut, Finally Out Of My Hands. Most of the pieces were originally written for a rock-oriented lineup, a detail that’s readily apparent in the dramatic title track, which provides an excellent example of Smith’s sensitivity to dynamics. The number’s infectious theme is fashioned from nuanced variations on a soaring metallic riff driven by stop-time rhythms, bookending a series of divergent episodes that veer between swaths of coruscating noise, aleatoric pointillism and deft call and response.

Despite being chart-driven, the open structures underlying Smith’s labyrinthine compositions facilitate a wide range of individual interpretations. Dense, collective improvisations are counterbalanced by brief unaccompanied soliloquies and intimate duets, resulting in a fascinating array of detours, including Parkins and Halvorson’s pensive exchanges with Smith at the end of “Wilson Phillip” and the saxophonists’ sinuous interplay on “Learned From Jamie Stewart.”

The band’s intuitive chemistry also spurs their communal rapport. Together Parkins and Halvorson weave a phantasmagoric web of sound, underpinning the proceedings with a bevy of kaleidoscopic textures that range from skirling distortion and whirling fuzztones to chirpy percolations and glitchy bleats. Berne and Malaby, whose simpatico dialogue is further enriched by the tonal contrast between the former’s urbane precision and the latter’s folksy expressionism, make a suitably compelling frontline, capable of hushed lyricism to trenchant histrionics.

In light of such heavyweight company, it would be easy to take the leader’s sterling contributions for granted; his understated virtuosity eschews grandstanding pyrotechnics, driving his bandmates with concision and focus. Though the interpretive prowess of Smith’s collaborators is a key factor in the success of Hammered, their contributions are equally reliant on the malleability of the leader’s accessible writing. By gracefully incorporating everything from catchy post-punk themes to rousing Balkan-inspired motifs into a hybridized new standard, Smith successfully advances the erratic post-modern innovations of the recent past.
–Troy Collins


Looking For The Next One
Cuneiform RUNE 360/361

The founding of S.O.S. was an act of generosity and of amity. After Alan Skidmore was hospitalized following a serious road accident, fellow saxophonist John Surman kept up his morale with regular visits and cassettes of musical diaries. During one visit he proposed an all-saxophone trio with altoist Mike Osborne. There was an ulterior and equally gentle motive here, too, for Osborne was also in fragile health, though still functioning and an emotionally stirring soloist.

I can’t entirely go along with Bill Shoemaker’s suggestion in his booklet notes that the early ‘70s were “leaner times than most for jazz musicians in the UK.” It was a richly fertile period in creative terms; there were touring networks responsive to improvised music, and solid, proportionate support from both the BBC and the Arts Council. In addition, and again thanks to warm reciprocation of Surman’s personal networking, British musicians were firming up connections with like-minded European players. Compared to the media-primed “jazz boom” of the following decade, it seemed a golden age. But I was 17 and seeing a band like S.O.S. in a Masonic hall in Edinburgh was my equivalent of seeing Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The manner of the group’s founding also suggests a measure of economic ease (in comparison to later circumstance) but also a stroke of luck. As Skidmore recovered and restarted active playing, the trio rehearsed at relative leisure in the Kent countryside. Osborne also had his own group with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo but creative chance intervened in the shape of a ballet commission. Shoemaker likens the scandalizing impact of Antoine Bourseillier’s and dancer Carolyn Carlson’s Sablier Prison to that of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. I’d say it was also Surman’s L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud, an example of occasional work helping to reshape a whole musical direction. While Miles’s film soundtrack was quite casually and spontaneously done, S.O.S.’s involvement in Sablier Prison involved long rehearsal and repertory performance, cementing the group’s “telepathic” identity.

More than one listener at the time wondered whether that closeness was double-edged. S.O.S.’s turn-on-a-sixpence dexterity, rapid motivic shuffling and eerily coordinated ensemble improvisation struck some as contrived, unspontaneous, composed (bad word in 1974) rather than improvised – at almost exactly the same time rumors reached us that a young chap called Anthony Braxton played written-out solos – but the reality was that S.O.S. was working a new vein of tightly organized thematic writing in whose interstices free playing was more than possible. They were not alone in this: Chris McGregor, Michael Garrick, Ian Carr, Neil Ardley, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler, Gordon Beck, John McLaughlin, Mike Westbrook, Tony Oxley, Howard Riley, and others, were all exploring new integrations of composition and “jazz,” a context that not just tends to confound the “leanness” of those years, but also the casual assumption that what distinguished British improvisation from American was a commitment to total freedom, eschewal of groove, line, harmony, in fact anything that suggested book-taught music.

When S.O.S. set up in Edinburgh, some were taken aback to see a drum kit being assembled on stage. A bizarre rumor went round the pub that Rashied Ali was going to sit in, a moderately plausible factoid given that Surman and Osborne had worked with the former Coltrane drummer during a visit to London. But it was known that Skidmore was a “frustrated” drummer and actually a rather decent one. The other addition to the group sound was Surman’s EMS synth, which provided ostinato loops and non-wind colors. He’s uniquely heard on grand piano on the title track here, one of three along with the unusual, almost fanfare-like “News” and Ali’s “Rashied” recorded in late 1974. There’s drumming on a couple more tracks from the following autumn, but it’s provided by the late, great Tony Levin, who’d been working in Skidmore’s own group. Of them, “Country Dance” is perhaps the most obviously idiomatic, a weaving, dense but harmonically open line that brings out the distinctive colors of the three horns.

That terpsichorean reference apart, nothing of the Sablier Prison music seemed to survive into S.O.S.’s regular material. Much closer to the sound and material of the group’s eponymous Ogun LP is the performance on disc two from the Balver Hoehle festival in July 1974. “Suite” contains “Ist” and “Goliath” and some other elements that recall Surman’s work with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin as The Trio, an iconic group of somewhat earlier years. “Trio Trio” is similar to some of the things Surman was doing on the extraordinary overdubbed Westering Home, a modest but still listenable template for the solo studio artifacts he later made for ECM. There’s very similar, Irish-sounding material in “The Mountain Road” from the September 1975 performance with Levin. “Legends” is a Bach arrangement.

Old J.S. – Bach, not Surman – subtitled his Inventions and Sinfonias with this delightfully paternalistic tag: “Honest method, by which amateurs of the keyboard – and in particular those desirous of learning – are given a clear way not just to learn to plays cleanly in two parts but after further progress to handle three obligate parts correctly and well and along with this not only to develop good invention but to develop the same well; above all, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.” There’s the S.O.S. story, right there. Surman was already way beyond the learning stage as a composer. His large- and small-scale writing of the period was a brilliant rapprochement of classical learning and real jazz feeling, but it was in S.O.S. that he found a way of playing three obligate parts in real time and harnessing a unique cantabile composed of quite different elements: his own vernacular tone, Skidmore’s Trane-influenced blowing, and Osborne’s anguished wail.

I remember that Edinburgh performance with great fondness – especially the moment when all three players (who’d been working with dancers, after all) seemed to levitate on stage – and I treasure the fluttery cassette I made of the night, but this Cuneiform release is a great gift. It doubles the amount of S.O.S. material in existence and affords perhaps a better sense of where the group came from and was headed even than the official LP.
–Brian Morton


Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet
ECM 2304/05

Wisława may well be a harbinger of a long, fruitful Indian summer for Tomasz Stanko, who turned 70 last year and now spends part of the year in New York. In remarkably short order, his New York Quartet with drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist Thomas Morgan and pianist Daniel Virelles has developed two CDs worth of engaging material. More importantly, they have crafted an ensemble sound quite distinct from that of the trumpeter’s previous long-standing Polish quartet of one-time protégés.

While he still favors solemn ballads and lithe mid-tempo themes, Stanko’s New York Quartet gives his more visceral compositions the types of fluctuations in rhythm and attack that beg substantive comparisons with Miles’ second quintet. Stanko’s traditional emphasis on nuance is also well served by the NYQ. The two bookending versions of the title piece provides an ideal opportunity to show how finely they shade the wistful, elegiac and resolute phrases Stanko mixes into the composition, with the second version stirring the judiciously applied chiaroscuro of the first to create a stronger emotional undertow.

Stanko’s cohorts are on respective rungs to ubiquity. Cleaver is already there, and this album makes a solid argument for why: he supports the material without being subordinate to it; he supplies just enough commentary to the others’ solos without a whiff of intrusiveness; and, when it’s time, he takes over with sudden grace, makes his case with disarming efficiency, and, instead of slipping back into the second line, inspires his band mates to meet him on the summit. Likewise, the album demonstrates why Morgan is climbing apace; he’s got Ron Carter’s knack for sinewy lines but with a fatter sound; and his solos privilege space and unadorned melody as much as head-turning virtuosity. Virelles has never been a generic “Latin” pianist, but here – and on Chris Potter’s recent ECM album – he’s reaching for something that comparisons to the likes of Andrew Hill just don’t capture, and it’s this elusive quality that suggests he’s really onto something.

Still, this is Stanko’s date, which his every note confirms. There is so much concentrated emotion to his playing and his range never fails to impress. He can be grim on some ballads but can he stargaze with the best of them on others. On his more intensely propulsive compositions, Stanko can project Artaud-like cruelty or soaring ebullience. Stanko’s style has always defied pigeonholing, but this has never been made plainer than with his New York Quartet. And, one gets the sense that they’re just getting started.
–Bill Shoemaker


Aki Takase
My Ellington
Intakt CD 213

Every improviser interested in the jazz tradition has his or her Ellington. It’s hard to tire of his melodies or to resist the charismatic Ellington persona. His tunes are strong, yet they never break; an improviser can bend them and shape them, but never extinguish their essential qualities. In this sense, Monk is his only rival.

Pianist Aki Takase’s Ellington emerges transformed but intact from her interpretations of tunes that range from chestnuts like “Caravan” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” to connoisseur’s choices like “A Little Max (Parfait),” “Fleurette Africaine,” and “Ad Lib on Nippon.” She doesn’t adhere to the strict song form of any of the pieces; instead she builds her solos using a wide range of strategies, sometimes coming at the tunes from more than one approach within in a single performance.

“Solitude” is a good example of how she abstracts an essence from the composition to guide her improvisations. She starts far away from the melody and works her way gradually toward it. At first the only indications of the composition’s identity that is her template for the improvisation is the occasional characteristically Ellingtonian interval or fugitive phrase from the tune; eventually, the familiar melody emerges like a friend from a crowd.

Other tracks are similarly inventive, but ultimately respectful of the songs. She begins “The Mooche” with Chopinesque chords, which seem incongruous at first, but ultimately seem right at home in the expansive vocabulary she develops to explore the tune. She is quite ingenious at using the “doo-wah, doo-wah” rhythmic figure of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” to initially propel her version. Sometimes she becomes a co-composer, such as when she invents her own left hand motif to serve as the engine that drives “Caravan.”

This is a rich, and at times even daring, exploration of canonic material, and every track offers something fresh. No matter how tangential her explorations grow, she never abandons the Ellington original in her own invention. It’s a testament to both composer and interpreter, that the album affirms the talent of each.
–Ed Hazell


Christian Wolff
8 Duos
New World Records 80734-2

A new release of performances of Christian Wolff’s music is always a cause for celebration. Like John Cage and Morton Feldman (with whom he is often grouped as part of the “New York School”), Wolff has had an enormous impact on contemporary improvisation and composition, charting out methods for building structure from open-form compositional strategies. But Wolff’s music is not nearly as well documented. There are a handful of releases on the Mode label, a few on Matchless, several on Edition Wandelweiser (including a particularly strong performance of his work “Stones”), and a solid sampler on Editions RZ. There are also a small handful of recordings of Wolff in improvisational settings including a meeting with Keith Rowe on the ErstLive label and a collaboration with Eddie Prevóst and John Tilbury on Matchless. New World Records has also put out some key documents such as Long Piano. This new 2CD set easily goes to the top of that list.

Titled 8 Duos, this 2 disk set compiles eight compositions Wolff wrote for percussion in duo with a variety of instruments between 1987 and 2012, all performed by percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky along with a distinguished group of collaborators. Most of the pieces were written specifically for Schulkowsky, who Wolff met in 1990, and many for the particular duos captured on this recording. In the insightful liner notes by George Lewis, he quotes Wolff talking about what drew him to writing for percussion. “First, it was a mid-ground between fixed and open instrumentation: the type of player was determinate, but often could orchestrate at will (within loose parameters.) It’s a physical process. You have to make your own keyboard and you do it partly by making physical moves, even before you know what the sounds are going to be.”

The set opens with “For Morty,” performed by Schulkowsky and pianist Frederic Rzewski. For this reading, the percussionist’s hanging metallic resonances and rubbed bass drums meld with the ringing piano notes, building a measured arc as their lines move in and out of unison. Rzewski also joins the percussionist for the 5-part “Rosas” for Rosa Parks and Rosa Luxemburg. These pieces have an elegiac feel without ever overtly touching on the political struggles of the dedicatees. Instead, Schulkowsky and Rzewski capture the dark tonalities of the five abstract themes with compact contrapuntal focus. Violist Kim Kashkashian joins the percussionist for “Violist and Percussionist” which Wolff wrote for the two in 1996. Here, pitch is far more indeterminate and the sliding arco tonalities and sharp pizzicato of the dusky-hued viola provide a striking foil for the timbral variety of the percussion, from sharp metallic attack to deep drum rumble and their reading of the piece is full of captivating drama if a bit episodic at times.

Also included are two pieces performed by Schulkowsky and Joey Baron. “For a Medley,” the most recent piece of the set, composed in 2012, has a refracted Gamelan-like quality and one can hear Baron’s innate sense of pulse and ear for tuned drums interact with Schulkowsky’s crisper, drier pacing while “Percussionist 5” has a more splintered sense of pacing shaded by the vocalizations between the two. Pulse also plays strongly in the aptly titled “Pulse” with trumpet player Reinhold Friedrich with the two tag-teaming their way through wending stuttered semaphores. While pulse is an undercurrent throughout, one would never mistake the cracked angularity for a minimalist work-out.

The highlight of the set is “One Coat of Paint,” a 27-minute tour-de-force named after a John Ashbery poem performed by Schulkowsky and cellist Rohan de Saram. Here, the give-and-take between cello and percussion is telepathic, with phrases constantly shifting between the two voices. The spare “Part 1” is imbued with a sense of space and open interaction, followed by the fractured phrasing of the brief “Part 2.” The 18-minute “Part 3” expands on the interactions framed in the first two sections, utilizing subtle timbres, textures, and voicings which create a permeable sense of space throughout. Another particular standout is a short duo with the percussionist along with the composer on melodica which closes things out. Here the reedy chords and overtones of the melodica quavering and the quiet clatter of keys against the sharp delineation of the percussion part provide an effective contrast of sound color while charting out common ground in ebb and flow. Kudos to New World for their continued support of composers like Wolff.
–Michael Rosenstein

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