Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Iva Bittova + Gyan Riley + Evan Ziporyn
Eviyan Live
Victo Records 126

Roberto Bonati + Diana Torto
Heureux comme avec une femme
ParmaFrontiere 2013

Folk music is the well, pure and simple. Why musicians are drawn to a particular well can be complex; but, almost always, folk music represents the most essential means for personal statements, a starting point that grounds and gives context, regardless of how far afield a musician roams from the conventions of a given folk music tradition. In recent decades, folk music has been a beacon especially for Europeans, partially in response to American hegemony, shifting national borders, and the lingering legacy of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and political and cultural repression. Bottom line: Whatever good there may be in a particular people – and the recent passing of Pete Seeger is emblematic of this – it can be traced from their folk music. And, perhaps ironically, folk music is one of the better means of waking one from the nightmare that is history, if only because folk music has the aura of prehistory.

That aura shines, albeit refracted by well-developed post-modern sensibilities, on both on Eviyan Live, which documents the 2013 Victoriaville festival performance by the trio of Czech singer/violinist Iva Bittová, guitarist Gyan Riley and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, and Heureux comme avec une femme, a collection of compositions by Italian bassist Roberto Bonati sung by Diana Torto. Both albums have ample charm, primarily located in the voices – Bittová’s has an incomparable gliding lightness in its upper register, and smokier tones in her lowest notes, while Torto’s leavens its operatic capacity with sensuous, occasionally sultry color.

Still, both albums are collective efforts, Bonati’s role as sole composer notwithstanding. Ziporyn’s fluid work frequently dovetails Bittová’s vocalese with supple ease, while providing contrast to her often scampering violin in terms of timbre and, when he switches to bass clarinet, pitch. Playing an acoustic guitar, Riley reveals a familiarity with flamenco, gypsy and other European guitar traditions, as well as the boldness to interject an incisive run or strummed flurry reminiscent of Ralph Towner’s startling early work. Bonati’s plummy tone and sure sense of phrasing makes him an excellent foil for Torto – he is remarkably consistent in filling the inevitable one or two-second long spaces in a voice-bass duet with small gems.

The main difference between the two albums is one of tone, traceable in part to regional differences, although Bonati’s affinity for early music also plays a role. There’s a peasant whirl to stretches of Eviyan Live that Bonati and Torto don’t approach, who instead imbue dance rhythms with a more formal, if comparably impassioned bearing. Despite their differences, Eviyan Live and Heureux comme avec une femme finely complement each other, as they tap if not the same well, then the same aquifer.
–Bill Shoemaker


Raoul Björkenheim
Cuneiform RUNE 373

Edward Vesala was a taskmaster and something of a martinet. He was also a visionary bandleader, with more than a little about him of Miles Davis, who had been a major influence. His approach to music and to ensemble playing had a communitarian aspect. His Sound and Fury group spent longish periods sequestered in the Finnish countryside while Vesala coached his musicians in an approach to improvisation that seemed to involve multiple layers of rhythm – something that perhaps came more naturally to the percussionist leader than to his horn players – and in slow evolutions of melody.

His methods – intense, and sometimes “harsh,” as his daughter Lumi confirmed to me – yielded some of the most beautiful European jazz of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and shaped a cohort of players who have in many cases gone on to make highly original contributions of their own since his death in 1999: most obviously Vesala’s widow Iro Haarla, whose instruments and career somewhat resemble Alice Coltrane’s, but also bassist Ulf Krokfors, guitarist Jimi Sumen, trumpeter Matti Riikonen and multi-reedman Jorma Tapio.

Perhaps the most distinguished Vesala alumnus was the one first to detach from the leader’s bearhug and set up on his own – Raoul Björkenheim. The guitarist’s first group as leader was called Krakatau, a name chosen to suggest the volcanic power-trio music he made with Krokfors, saxophonist (and krakophonist) Jone Takamaki and drummer Alf Forsman. Despite the boilingly hot drive of most of the group’s pieces, influenced by Cream, Lifetime, the Jimi Hendrix Experience (and perhaps more notionally the Pete Cosey/Reggie Lucas version of the Miles Davis group), there was a lyrical side to the guitarist’s playing as well, an approach to exotic melody that came out on “Changgo” and “Nai” on Krakatau’s eponymous ECM debut.

The group on eCsTaSy is similarly configured, with Pauli Lyytinen on saxophone and kalimba, Juri Huhtala on bass and Markku Ounaskari providing as convincing an extension of Vesala’s stratified approach as any we’ve heard since the great man’s passing. It opens with the joyous unison line of “El Pueblo Unido,” which is credited to Björkenheim but owes more than a little to Charlie Haden’s “Song For Che,” unless it also borrows from Haden’s Spanish Civil War sources. What comes next is an interesting surprise for anyone not accustomed to the guitarist’s work, for “Sos” (so written) is cast in a tight, hectic neo-bop form, reflecting, I suspect, Björkenheim’s early debt to Eric Dolphy. Huhtala even does a convincing Ron Carter solo. The improvised “Deeper” moves closer to the slow free-jazz of Sound and Fury, built over a bass drone that has something of “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” to it.

This textural and dynamic variety is one of Björkenheim’s great strengths. He has always had a knack for programming albums and eCsTaSy is as carefully put together as a great pop set. After the improvised track, the pace picks up somewhat. “No Delay” is quite virtuosic and demanding, reminiscent in its way of a freer version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. There’s more stop-start stuff on “Through the Looking Glass” and then a change of gear, “As Luck Would Have It,” the very Vesala-like “Subterranean Tango” and the equally mysterious “Threshold,” with a nice roar-up finish on “The Sky Is Ruby”.

The other impressive thing about Björkenheim is that his groups aren’t just a pair of minders hired from Redding/Mitchell Stage Security Inc. but proper groups with strong individual personalities as well as a clear collective aesthetic. Repeated listenings suggest that Huhtala is integral to the sound and mixed well forward. The saxophone man plays well in some very un-saxophonic keys and Ounaskari is, as above, a player of serious lineage and considerable originality. I last saw Björkenheim a few years back in Luleå, more laid back and thoughtful than he’s usually presented. The title’s well chosen. This is music thoughtful enough to stand outside itself but without more than a passing hint of Mahavishnu’s skyscraping. Excellent.
–Brian Morton


Ran Blake
Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano
ESP 1011

Maverick pianist Ran Blake has long been revered as a singular talent, albeit one operating on the fringes of the jazz establishment. In a genre known for its widespread embrace of pyrotechnic virtuosity, Blake has made a virtue of understatement, relying on subtle nuances in color, shading and touch for his dark, introspective style. Largely eschewing quicksilver cadences and a kinetic attack in favor of brooding expressionism, Blake occupies a rarefied place in the jazz continuum.

Although The Newest Sound Around (RCA, 1961), made with the late vocalist Jeanne Lee, predates Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano by four years, the latter session stands tall in Blake’s discography as the first and most representative of his many subsequent solo piano recordings. Issued by ESP in 1965, the date’s contemplative air offers a striking contrast to the label’s then contemporaneous fare, which included incendiary offerings from New Thing firebrands like Albert Ayler, Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders. Blake’s pensive lyricism and impressionistic sensibility may have been out of step with the times, but in retrospect his pan-historical aesthetic imbues the effort with a timeless appeal.

The album includes an array of well-known standards augmented by a handful of erudite originals, ranging from the dramatic tone poem “Birmingham U.S.A.” to the seemingly incongruous, but infectiously ebullient gospel-inspired “Sister Tee.” Opening with a brief reading of his signature ballad “Vanguard,” Blake rounds out phantasmagoric reimaginings of familiar songs like “Sleepy Time Gal,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “There’ll be Some Changes Made,” and “Good Mornin’ Heartache” with stark renditions of George Russell’s “Stratusphunk” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” In fact, Blake was only the third musician to cover Ornette’s iconic lament after Chris Connor and the Modern Jazz Quartet, a detail that further reinforces Blake’s reputation as a pioneer.

Blake’s intimate approach draws the listener in over the course of the set, as he patiently unspools abstract fragments of recognizable melodies, transforming them with dynamic tonal shifts, jarring chords, sudden rests and contrasting rhythms. Deconstructing beloved songbook chestnuts with oblique lyricism, Blake’s quixotic phrasing and capricious timing reconfigures traditional tunes as impressionistic sketches. Recomposition is a term commonly associated with the pianist’s unusual technique for reinterpreting time-honored material and nowhere is this aspect more obvious than on this seminal record, with its bold reharmonizations and revoicings of established standards.

Part of Blake’s individualistic status comes from his catholic taste in music, which was still fairly uncommon among jazz artists during his formative years. As recounted by Blake in a 2002 JazzTimes interview with Bill Shoemaker, “in the early ‘60s, it was rather weird to like Ray Charles, Stan Kenton, Gershwin and Mahalia Jackson. I loved a lot of repertoire that people just didn’t know. There wasn’t the cross-cultural activity that you’ve seen in the past 10 or 12 years. It wasn’t common then. It wasn’t a real plan, playing alone. It was what I had to do to play the music that meant the most to me.”

Considering the arc of his career and selective discography, Blake’s longstanding role as an educator has allowed him the economic freedom to document only those projects that are the most important to him. Released as part of ESP’s 50th anniversary, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano is a tone-setting introduction to Blake’s oeuvre and a most welcome reissue.
–Troy Collins


Don Cherry
Live in Stockholm
Caprice CAP 21832

There is an indication of what it was like to experience the music of trumpeter Don Cherry during the late 1960s and early ‘70s in the notes to Live in Stockholm, the first release of music intended to mark Cherry’s debut on Caprice Records back in 1971. Critic Lars Weck is quoted as saying “Don Cherry and Mocqui Carlsson are developing a different kind of presentation, a mixture of music and staging ...” and Keith Knox similarly states that “there has to be a new presentation of music, a complete environment.” Holistic art is endemic to the work of Don Cherry – from the fact that he was noted for carrying a transistor radio around everywhere he went, constantly listening and picking up new themes and introducing them at will in group performances, to Mocqui’s quilts, banners and garments that festooned stages. Cherry’s record covers didn’t always feature trappings of this environment, but on LPs like Organic Music Society (Caprice RIKS 44/50), the visual commitment is total.

It is interesting that these pre-Organic Music Society recordings made in 1968 and 1971 don’t feature any Mocqui artwork, though the booklet does contain copious period photographs. Transferring the vibe present at Stockholm’s ABF-huset and the Moderna Museet’s Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome might not be all that easy, but the music itself does present its own totality. The 1968 pieces feature the Bernt Rosengren-Tommy Koverhult two-tenors quartet, with Torbjörn Hultcrantz on bass and Leif Wennerström on drums, alongside Cherry and Turkish-born trumpeter Ahmet “Maffy” Falay. It’s a scaled down version of Movement Incorporated, an orchestra that Cherry workshopped in Stockholm around the same time. The two “ABF Suites” stitch together thematic material familiar from then-recent Blue Note recordings like Symphony for Improvisers and Where is Brooklyn? – brusque unison lines and loose staccato propelled by crisp brassy swagger and Rosengren’s methodically gruff locution. Though Hultcrantz is pretty low in the mix, the somewhat top-heavy recording offers a fine view of Wennerstrom’s percussion work, straight out of the Max Roach/Ed Blackwell school, with a dash of Roy Haynes thrown in.

While the long form improvisations retain the wooliness of their East Village-cum-Parisian predecessors, by 1968 Cherry had begun to incorporate music from South India, far-flung regions of Africa and South America to his craft, and the small orchestra often gives way to sparse vistas and tonal explorations not often heard in free jazz. Eternal Rhythm (MPS 15204) was only a couple months away, and that suite’s trademark twined wooden flutes and oboe are in full force on “ABF Suite, Part 2,” leading into a beautiful Andean-Turkish melody chanted with wooden pipes and Cherry’s calm, wordless vocals before segueing into a take of Coltrane’s “India.”

The 1971 recording of “Another Dome Session” is absent Rosengren with Koverhult only playing flute, while the rhythm section features Turkish drummer Okay Temiz and Swedish bassist Rolf Olsson on a half-hour piece. Initially focused on darting interplay between pocket trumpet, flutes and a bevy of percussion, the music shifts to a gentle, rhapsodic anthem, a hallmark of much of Cherry’s work from this period. Frequent collaborator and teacher Abdullah Ibrahim is a heavy influence on the second third of the piece, with township and church motifs from Cherry’s piano backed by driving frame drums and the delicate lilt of concert flute and Falay’s skinny, muted trumpet. Switching to a kit, Temiz offers wet, rolling jabs that, in tandem with dusky left-hand piano comping, propel collective front-line commentary until the tape fades out, just as another catchy theme enters. For any follower of Don Cherry’s music, these Live in Stockholm sessions are essential, even without the whole-Earth visuals.
–Clifford Allen


Connie Crothers Quartet
Deep Friendship
New Artists NA1058CD

Pianist Connie Crothers’ Deep Friendship is an aptly titled quartet concert album made at William Paterson College in 2010 with three of her closest collaborators: alto saxophonist Richard Tabnik, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Roger Mancuso. Sometimes rapport is best heard on pristinely engineered recordings, but this is an example of a very roomy sound making a strong case for an ensemble’s close listening and quick spot-on reflexes. You do have to, at least figuratively, lean towards the speakers to drink in every last detail of the music; but in doing so, it becomes clear that Deep Friendship is deserving of more than the committed-listening-pays-dividends line – it’s that good.

Although Crothers now devotes considerable energies to freely improvised music, this set is comprised of straight-forward-leaning jazz tunes – she penned three while Tabnik contributed two. Crothers’ opener, “Ontology,” initially has the long, sinewy lines that bring Tristano, her mentor, to mind; but, shades of Mingus soon appear, giving the piece a more nuanced emotional impetus. Tabnik’s and Crothers’ respective solos push outward; eventually, Filiano’s arco solo introduces abstract, Mingus-not-Coltrane “Mediations”-like spaces before the inevitable recapitulation. Her “Roy’s Joy” also has glints of Mingus in the soar and swirl of some of its lines; but it’s the Clifford Jordan-like balancing of the humble and the magisterial in the opening bars that is immediately engaging. Tabnik’s playing here crystalizes his relationship to bebop; to extend the Mingus metaphors, he’s midway between Charles McPherson, who stretched in the bassist’s music, and Eric Dolphy, who vaulted over it.

Tabnik’s two compositions – “Fortuity,” a ballad that deftly forestalls harmonic resolution, and “Linearity,” a boppish romp – provide better bearings for locating the saxophonist on the present-day jazz spectrum; granted, one that is too dependent on the simplistic binary of “inside” and “outside” for the idiosyncratic Tabnik. As a soloist, he forgoes extensive use of extreme textures, keeping them in reserve to cap a fevered solo; his can impressively apply a piercing tone to a softly gliding line without dampening its loft; and he knows the idiom intimately enough to subvert the expectations for solos at the most crucial moments. However, Tabnik does not simply jitterbug with the museum artifacts; he’s of the tradition, albeit understanding the need to constantly test, if not challenge it. While Crothers’ ensembles always elicit excellent work from Tabnik, he’s really best heard at the helm of his own projects, last year’s bracing 2-CD Symphony for Jazz Trio: Prayer for Peace (New Artists) being the best starting point.

At first, Crothers’ bluesy closing title tune seems an unlikely candidate for a rousing set-closer, but it proves to be a stealthy springboard. The pianist’s solo mixes nimble single-note lines with dramatic sweeps of the keyboard; Filiano starts to bring down the house with another astounding arco solo, soon to be joined by Mancuso’s focused, heated embellishments; while the intensity is somewhat curiously taken down a notch for the closing theme, it does leaves the listener wanting more.
–Bill Shoemaker

New World Records

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