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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Elliott Sharp Aggregat
Clean Feed CF288CD

When Clean Feed Records released renowned multi-instrumentalist and composer Elliott Sharp’s Aggregat in 2012, it was met with a round of bemused, albeit enthusiastic reviews. After all, it was the first session to be issued featuring Sharp’s reed playing as prominently as his distinctively amplified fretwork. For years Sharp has augmented his six-string extrapolations with brief detours on soprano saxophone or bass clarinet and occasionally, tenor saxophone, but rarely for entire tunes – let alone albums. Supported by the intrepid rhythm section of bassist Brad Jones and drummer Ches Smith, Sharp was able to convincingly transpose his cyber-punk inflected themes into a primarily acoustic format.

That project led to a new incarnation; bolstered by an expanded lineup, Quintet ups the ante considerably over the previous trio effort. Joined by trumpet phenomenon Nate Wooley and rising trombonist Terry Green, Sharp forgoes his trusty axe altogether, sticking to his trio of horns exclusively throughout this unamplified set. Wooley’s bold use of extended techniques and Green’s highly expressive vocalizations are a perfect match for Sharp’s own vanguard aesthetic; although Sonny Rollins’ muscular lyricism is an obvious influence on the leader’s bristling tenor runs, the tonal manipulations of visionary saxophonists like Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp are even more prominent in his wheelhouse.

Recorded in Bryce Goggin’s studio, the room’s natural reverb and the fact that each composition ranges from a concise two to eight minutes in length lends a sense of sonic cohesiveness to the proceedings, despite the diversity of Sharp’s methodology. “Anabatics” embodies the sort of skirling contours and vertiginous intervals commonly associated with Sharp’s thorny writing, yet the sprightly free-bop opener “Magnetar” evokes Ornette Coleman’s early Atlantic sides, as the three horn frontline deftly navigates the rhythm section’s briskly modulating tempo shifts. The cinematic travelogue “Arc of Venus” showcases an even subtler side of the quintet, its exotic soundscape colored by ghostly muted horns and dramatic mallet work, while the aleatoric impressionism at the center of “Lacus Temporis” is not immediately identifiable as part of Sharp’s oeuvre at all. Nonetheless, such excursions provide an aural respite from more turbulent fare, with Sharp’s young sidemen offering consistently stellar contributions at every turn.

Green proves a most enthralling player, with un-tempered growls, slurs and smears bolstering his vociferous phrases, but it’s Wooley who nearly steals the show. As one of the most inventive and imposing young trumpet players performing today, Wooley’s technical innovations extend Bill Dixon’s legacy, expanding the timbral range of the horn into previously unheard realms of nuance and texture. Attentive to the material at hand, Wooley customizes his tonal approach to dynamically suit each work, plying barely audible metallic cries throughout the spectral meditation “Cherenkov Light” and unleashing well-timed blasts of coruscating white noise on the oblique swinger “Katabatics,” perfectly complementing each piece in turn.

Sharp easily holds his own in the company of these spirited young Turks, matching their unfettered discourse with an experienced fervency that manifests in an expressionistic array of multiphonic split-tones, sustained altissimo refrains and sinuous pitch bends. Emboldened by a collaborative mindset emblematic of the group’s name, Quintet is Sharp’s most conventionally jazz-oriented – and thereby intriguing – album to date.
–Troy Collins


Sound & Fury
Ektro Records Ektro-105

Finnish composer/drummer Edward Vesala’s Sound & Fury made its recording debut in 1989 with Ode to the Death of Jazz, then played and recorded through the ‘90s until Vesala’s death in 1999. Despite the loss of such a singular, guiding leader, the group appears never to have quite disbanded and it returns now with seven unrecorded Vesala compositions scored by his widow Iro Haarla, the ensemble’s arranger since its beginnings. For a nine-piece band, the personnel has been remarkably stable as well: trumpeter Matti Riikonen, guitarist Jimi Sumen and the three reed players – Jorma Tapio, Tane Kannisto, and Pepa Päivinen – have all been with the group since its beginnings. They’re joined here by a second guitarist, Julius Heikkilä, bassist Sampo Lassila, drummer Ilmari Heikinheimo and percussionist Hannu Risku.

There are many kinds of bands in the world and Sound & Fury appears to be at least two or three of them, exploring in the course of the CD some unlikely combinations of textures, in part arising from the combination of all those varied reeds and the two very electronic guitars. “Nattuggla” has the insistent tranquility of much Far-Eastern music, a floating sound of flutes and guitars that’s genuinely tranquil. At the opposite pole, with the three saxophonists in chaos mode, there are levels of impassioned collective cry that might have you wailing along or running into the streets to find people to share this extraordinary music. The opening “Lamgonella Lomboo” has the emotional force of certain early Sunny Murray Ensembles or Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, a swarming maelstrom of sustained and bending saxophone tones that ultimately gives way to an electronic guitar wail, a coolly artificial transformation and extension of the preceding cry that’s genuinely artful. There’s more of the same moody, welling passion afoot on the title track as well.

Some of the other compositions are more insistently complex, like the rambunctious “Punk,” but it’s the sheer emotional wallop that the band possesses, led by the three saxophones of Tapio, Kannisto and Päivinen, on alto, tenor and baritone respectively, that keeps this music burning with a rare flame.
–Stuart Broomer


The Jeremy Steig Quartet
Flute Fever
International Phonograph, Inc. CS 8936

“Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tales of the Jazz Age

Originally issued by Columbia Records in 1963, Flute Fever is the studio debut of flutist Jeremy Steig. Only 21 years old at the time, Steig was still recovering from an injury sustained a year earlier that left his face partially paralyzed, necessitating the use of a special mouthpiece to play his instrument. Unhindered by his handicap, Steig’s virtuosic performance lends credence to the title; rarely has an album so effectively captured the impetuous ardor and steely determination of youth.

Joined by the equally young pianist Denny Zeitlin and the veteran rhythm section of bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Ben Riley on what was essentially an unrehearsed blowing date, Steig tears into a series of beloved standards with unfettered abandon, masterfully supported by the trio’s serendipitous chemistry. Although Steig’s vocalized, multiphonic blowing technique was already commonly used by fellow woodwind experts like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef and Sam Most, his unique embouchure and precise staccato phrasing immediately set him apart from other mainstream flute stylists.

The majority of the session careens along at a frenzied pace, with Tucker and Riley’s whiplash tempos testing Steig and Zeitlin’s mettle. Undeterred, their quicksilver cadences alternate between soaring flights of fantasy and taut call and response exchanges, demonstrating a remarkably harmonious rapport that belies the fact that this was their first meeting. A manic sprint through “Oleo” opens the set in telling fashion, climaxing with Steig’s histrionic overblowing and recoiling refrains, giving his unspoken anger a voice through what he called “musical temper tantrums.” However, Steig’s excursions rarely veer from conventional harmony, distinguishing this unique straight-ahead effort from contemporaneous avant-garde fare. Bracing up-tempo versions of “So What,” “Well, You Needn’t” and “Blue Seven” follow suit, including two takes of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” delivered at an exceedingly brisk clip.

The inclusion of two ballads imparts some breathing room to the proceedings, providing welcome balance to Steig’s unbridled enthusiasm. Ostensibly a marketing decision, this gambit encourages the quartet’s understated lyrical side, yielding one of the all-time great renditions of the Songbook classic “Lover Man.” Steig and Zeitlin invest the timeless lament with an inspired series of ornamental filigrees and romantic reveries, using the same approach to imbue their rhapsodic interpretation of “Willow Weep For Me” with opulent harmonic detail.

Beautifully remastered from the original tapes and reissued in a deluxe mini-LP replica jacket, International Phonograph’s 50th anniversary CD edition of Flute Fever revives a long out of print masterpiece – one of the most exciting examples of the flute’s expressive potential in a traditional jazz context. How to account for such raw, unrestrained beauty? Blame it on youth.
–Troy Collins


Aki Takase La Planete
Flying Soul
Intakt CD220

Pianist Aki Takase has flown improbably under the radar for much of her career, which seems vaguely unjust given the quality of her improvising and the strong run of recordings of late. This new configuration – which finds her in the company of clarinetist Louis Sclavis, violinist Dominique Pifarely, and cellist Vincent Courtois – will hopefully change that situation. It is, by instrumentation and sensibility, a chamber improv disc but it contains a vast range of creativity that is elegant, restrained, and quite colorful. With fabulous group interplay and sensitivity, and each piece having a real sense and direction, this is a bracing disc from start to finish.

The gorgeously spacious, vaguely disoriented “Into the Woods” opens up like a bagatelle unearthed from a lost archive. Takase patiently elaborates a high end piano line, as the strings and clarinet weave a lattice so seductively. There is so much attention to the sound of wood and grain, something I find irresistible. Additionally, on all of these focused pieces, intensity of dynamics and texture are very much the thing; the playing is never spare for lack of ideas but helps instead to let them sing. The album is also paced well, with mid-length pieces (for the most part) broken up by more combustible sub-minute fragments like the rough scratches of “Rouge Stone.”

As a result of this focus and clarity, there’s a real sense that this band can go just about anywhere in terms of expressive possibility. There’s a lush, almost rhapsodic violin/piano duet on “Wasserspiegel,” an effect nearly equaled by Sclavis and Pifarely’s exchanges on Alexander von Schlippenbach’s “Twelve Tone Tales” and by the sublimely elegant closing track “Piece for ‘La Planete’” (whose patient, slow-moving lower register seems to give birth to radiant cello lines). The burbling riff grounding “Onigawarau” is a nice change, lapsing elegantly in and out of waltz-time, like two different slices of European chamber music history colliding. There are similarly propulsive tracks elsewhere: the playful “Moon Dance” (where Takase sounds great on celesta) and the slashing “Tarantella” (like a fusion of Tristano on crank, Bartokian melancholy, and furtive free scrabbling).

But it’s the title track that, fittingly, best captures the sheer range and invention of this quartet. After a fairly thick drone opens things up, Takase seems to break it apart with rapid-fire low end runs. Improbably, this is followed by a recording of children singing playground songs, the music hinting at things both playful and ominous. Then Takase swerves suddenly into a melancholy solo (with subtle allusions to Monk), joined by the others for a tasty, lyrical conclusion that bends ever upwards before exploding with noise. It’s quite the reminder of how dazzling improvised music can be.
–Jason Bivins

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