Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Raymond MacDonald + Marilyn Crispell
Parallel Moments
Babel Label BDV 13125

A year or two ago I would have had to declare an interest; but on this occasion, it is not my unhealthily swain-like devotion to Marilyn Crispell, but my interest in Raymond MacDonald instead, a fellow-Scot who is very dear to my heart. But by this stage in his still burgeoning career, he seems to belong to a much wider musical world and is finding partnerships among his creative peers both at home and abroad, and both within the confines of his Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and beyond. MacDonald has the kind of musical personality a Walt Whitman or a 19th century theosophist might have described as “adhesive.” He has a quick and instinctive gift of sympathy (or empathy) which makes him a near-ideal doubles partner.

Both participants in this duo have said that there was an instant connection on their first encounter, which I seem to remember took place at Gateshead in the north-east of England some few years back. It has matured since then into one of those associations like Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, or perhaps even closer, Marion Brown and Mal Waldron, where the level of communication is confident and comfortable enough to allow a measure of companionable silence and a kind of friendly parallelism in the improvising moment. MacDonald and Crispell seem to feel no need to fence and parry, or to indulge in non-stop call and response. MacDonald’s calls are always striking enough to inspire a strong answer, but they are also strong enough on their own terms not always to need one, and Crispell takes that cue, often musing quietly in the foreground while the saxophonist does his Zorn-like thing.

A piece like “Conversation” seems to point in another direction, but in fact it’s as good a place as the title track to hear that respectful and affectionate affinity at work. It’s a long track, long enough in prospect to raise concerns that it might fall into the familiar lazy diction of sax-and-piano duos, an oversubscribed form that sometimes lacks imaginative contention. The opening “Longing” evokes something very like homesickness or separation-loss. It’s a quiet and moving way to begin a set like this, but it isn’t long before MacDonald’s blues wail (which also evokes Celtic music) comes to the fore. Crispell’s very simple chordal progressions actually aren’t as linear and predictable as they first appear. She takes the music in a quite unexpected direction, hinting at Tyner’s fourths-based harmony and Coltrane’s vertical edifices but also drawing on her own compositional history in intriguing ways. I seem to hear echoes of some of her large-scale compositions in this. She gets inside the piano on “Parallel Moments,” conjuring up its harp-in-a-box personality as well as that now over-familiar 88 tuned drums definition that Cecil Taylor must wish he’d kept to himself.

There’s not a slack or flawed track on the album, which comes in a nice abstract sleeve, painted by MacDonald himself in his own parallel identity as a painter of understated authority, as befits the son of one of Scotland’s best-loved landscape artists, Hamish MacDonald. Very often, his art points to important aspects of his music, not least the simple laying together of colours, without narrative or symbolic intent: MacDonald, like Crispell, knows how to make the simple opposition of tones shimmer and vibrate. Parallel Moments is the kind of record one wants to linger in front of, like a favourite canvas; and like a favourite canvas it delivers different things in different lights and moods, all of them uplifting.
–Brian Morton


Sergio Merce
Microtonal Saxophone
Potlatch P114 CD

It is easy to jump right to the back-story of this CD. Argentinian musician Sergio Merce is a conservatory-trained musician, where he played in a saxophone quartet dedicated to playing early and baroque polyphonic music while also delving into the music of John Coltrane. While working with fellow reed-player Lucio Capece, Merce created an electro-acoustic set-up based on a portastudio (a portable four-track audio-cassette recorder), directly manipulating the tape heads and manipulating sonic output with the built in EQ of the machine. Merce continued to play tenor saxophone and his explorations with multiphonics lead him to the idea of manipulating the mechanics of the instrument itself to allow for a more nuanced control. Working with an architect friend, he re-imagined the way that keys on a saxophone work replacing them with various water, gas, and compressed air valves which could be tweaked and adjusted to tune the harmonics and overtones of the instrument. This re-invention robs the ability to rapidly shift from one note to another, replacing that with the capacity to fine-tune the microtones and multiphonics of the instrument with astonishing flexibility.

All of this would be little more than an intriguing experiment if the music were not so compelling. Utilizing the newly invented instrument along with a sustain pedal, Merce builds pieces of palpable presence and whorled detail. The four untitled tracks build with a lush layering with elements of drone that are tuned and adjusted through meticulous control of breath. There are elements of the sound that bring to mind electronic oscillations or reedy organ pipes, but throughout, one hears the act of physical control as an integral element to the sound. Layers of quavering tones beat against each other, creating shadow harmonics and vibrating pulses. By reengineering the instrument, Merce erases the possibility of the muscularity of attack and the brawny bluster inherent in the horn, instead, shining the focus wholly on the complex workings of the excitement of reed-activated air traveling through a conical bore. These four pieces come across as sonic explorations more so than fully-formed structures, each delivered with such a strong sense of invention where different approaches to layering and pacing are examined with a balance of inquisitive investigation and prevailing focus.
–Michael Rosenstein


Mario Pavone
Street Songs
Playscape Recordings PSR # 070713

An enduring presence in the Downtown New York scene, Mario Pavone’s storied career dates back to the late 1960s, when he worked with such luminaries as Paul Bley and Bill Dixon. After a decade of high-profile sideman gigs, Pavone released Digit in 1979, his debut on the self-funded Alacra label, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he regularly began documenting his own work as a composer and bandleader.

Since 2000, Pavone has recorded exclusively for Playscape Recordings, beginning with Motion Poetry, a quartet date co-led with guitarist and label founder Michael Musillami. Street Songs is Pavone’s twelfth album for the independent imprint, a singular effort that conjures subtle memories of the bassist’s youth. Pavone grew up in the post-war industrial town of Waterbury, Connecticut, which featured a strong mix of Italian, Polish and Portuguese families; a common denominator was the predominance of accordion in their traditional folk music, which Pavone fondly remembers in the liner notes as “front stoop music.”

Inspired by past remembrances, Pavone embraces time-honored instrumentation for this sextet project, prominently featuring Adam Matlock on the frontline, an accordionist recommended by second bassist Carl Testa. Underpinning the distinctive combination of accordion and two upright basses are pianist Peter Madsen and drummer Steve Johns, who share over two decades experience in Pavone’s various ensembles, while trumpeter Dave Ballou has been a mainstay of the leader’s myriad endeavors for the last five years.

While including two upright bass players in such a small ensemble is a relative rarity, Pavone is no stranger to such configurations, having regularly performed with a second bassist throughout the 1980s in Dixon’s various bands. Thoroughly experienced in this unorthodox setting, Pavone and Testa avoid mere doubling, often interweaving arco and pizzicato techniques simultaneously; their tandem excursions occasionally result in ghostly overtones that recall the otherworldly tone clusters favored by a fellow Connecticut legend: Charles Ives. The intersecting lines of “The Dom” similarly invoke Ives’ fondness for contrary motion, while the stately march “Mythos” and the opulent ballad “Short Story” demonstrate the bassists’ congenial interplay. Evoking comparisons to another classical composer’s work, the terse “Alban Berg” pays heed to the revered artist’s mysterious “Lyric Suite” for string quartet, vibrantly accentuated by Madsen’s brash, kinetic runs.

The novel combination of trumpet and accordion imparts a distinctly continental flair to the date. Ballou waxes lyrical on the tender “Short Story” and digs deep into earthy effects on “Cobalt Stories,” smearing his vocalized cries with bluesy hues worthy of the song’s title. Ballou’s piercing notes cap “Mythos” with similarly clarion intensity, but only after Matlock’s reedy, freewheeling variations venture far into uncharted territory. The oblique nature of Pavone’s writing encourages such adventurousness in his sidemen, engendering the date’s Old World tonalities with a decidedly modernistic air, making Street Songs one of Pavone’s most personal and evocative offerings.
–Troy Collins


Jason Roebke Octet
Delmark DE 5014

Widely and justifiably praised, the highly cooperative nature of the contemporary Chicago jazz scene is well represented on High/Red/Center, the Delmark Records debut of double bassist Jason Roebke’s Octet. The all-star session finds Roebke joined by some of the Windy City’s most intrepid improvisers. Alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, cornetist Josh Berman and trombonist Jeb Bishop make up the muscular frontline, while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Mike Reed round out the nimble rhythm section.

Emblematic of the scene’s collaborative sensibility, each musician has worked together in various configurations over the years, emboldening their longstanding rapport. A ubiquitous presence in his hometown, Roebke has played with each member of the Octet in a number of different ensembles, including Adasiewicz’s Rolldown, Bishop’s trio, Jackson’s Quartet, Stein’s Trio, and Reed’s People Places & Things, among others. In accordance with his peers’ aesthetic inclinations, Roebke’s urbane themes and unconventional arrangements exploit the group’s close-knit chemistry, challenging preconceptions of form, leading to spontaneous detours that convey what Whitney Balliett coined “the sound of surprise.”

As sole composer and arranger, Roebke crafts deceptively simple structures that test his sidemen’s mettle; although inside/outside dynamics are an intrinsic part of creative jazz in the 21st century, Roebke’s dedication to both sides is especially notable. His early years were spent as a musical copyist for renowned avant-gardist Roscoe Mitchell before studying with straight-ahead bassist Rodney Whitaker – just two examples of differing artistic influences that underscore the creative tension in Roebke’s writing.

The opening title track is indicative of Roebke’s compositional acumen and his bandmates’ interpretive abilities. The tune’s kaleidoscopic melody, sprightly pace and scintillating vibraphone accents gradually settle into a more introspective mood – firmly established by Jackson’s wistful tenor soliloquy and the leader’s plaintive bass ruminations – a dramatic shift in temperament that reveals Roebke’s full range. The deceptively titled “Blues” similarly confounds expectations (unlike the bluesy swagger of “Dirt Cheap”), with hypnotically droning pedal tones intermittently punctuated by a series of intervallic bop cadences – thrilling asides highlighted by Berman’s splintery salvos and Stein’s caterwauling refrains.

“Double Check” and “Ballin’” both suggest the angular territory Eric Dolphy explored on his 1964 Blue Note masterpiece, Out To Lunch, a landmark recording that has noticeably influenced Chicago’s current generation of musicians. But where others merely pay homage, Roebke organically integrates the vertiginous melodies and halting rhythms associated with that iconic set into more traditional frameworks.

The majority of the album is comprised of bold swingers like “Candy Time” and “No Passengers,” with punchy contrapuntal motifs and rich Ellingtonian harmonies enhanced by unexpected changes in tempo and tone – keenly illustrated by the latter number, which features an audacious free interlude for Stein’s serpentine bass clarinet. Conversely, the understated ballads “Ten Nights” and “Shadow” reveal the band’s capacity for lyrical restraint, with heartfelt turns from Bishop and Ward, respectively.

The consistently inspired interpretations of these inventive compositions by Roebke’s capable sidemen presents a brilliant encapsulation of all that Chicago’s contemporary jazz scene has to offer, confirming High/Red/Center as the bassist’s most impressive release as a leader to date.
–Troy Collins


Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long
Another Timbre AT71

Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is the third release on Another Timbre by the group Skogen, an electro-acoustic ensemble formed by Swedish musician and composer Magnus Granberg. Over the course of these releases, Granberg and ensemble have documented a collective approach to utilizing compositional structures for open-form ensemble playing. Their first release was an extended reading of “Ist gefallen in den Schnee,” a piece by the leader derived from Schubert’s song cycle “Die Winterreise” as well as an unidentified jazz song. The composition utilized these sources to provide pools of pitch, rhythmic, timbral, and melodic material along with a temporal framework for employing the material over the course of the reading. For their second release, Rows, Granberg invited composer Anders Dahl to provide a series of short compositions based on twelve-tone theory, with room for interpolation of attack or the replacement of notes with un-pitched sound or noise.

For their latest release, Granberg again provided an extended form, this time drawing on English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move”. A careful listen reveals how the foundational elements of Dowland’s piece provides a subtext of mood and flow for the musicians to inhabit. (Skogen is the Swedish word for forest and Granberg has talked about the idea that his music would be “like an environment, perhaps a forest in which inhabitants with different characteristics could move freely in accordance with the environment and their own and each other’s properties and abilities.”) Integral to the success of the music is the choice of musicians and instrumentation of the ensemble freely mixing traditional Western instrumentation with the leader on piano and clarinet, Angharad Davies and Anna Lindal (violin), Leo Svensson Sander (cello), John Eriksson (marimba, vibraphone), Erik Carlsson (percussion); non-traditional pitched instruments with Ko Ishikawa (sho) and Henrik Olsson (bowls and glasses); and electronics with Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) and Petter Wästberg (contact microphones, objects).

Equally important is the shared sensibility of the participants, all of whom are committed to a stately collective restraint. In an interview on the Another Timbre site, Granberg explains it like this: “The density of musical events is comparatively low. I myself am very fond of the idea and practice in, for example, Javanese gamelan music, where some of the musicians, depending on their instrument, may just play one, two or perhaps four strokes during musical cycles which sometimes may last for several minutes. Japanese Gagaku music is another East Asian orchestral tradition which partly works in a similar way, I think. Other reasons may perhaps be found in the instrumentation (which is predominantly made up of decaying sounds) or the way the acoustic material is distributed throughout the tonal spectrum.”

The piece starts out with spare prepared piano notes and ultra-subtle gradations of plucked strings and reedy sho, slowly introducing ringing percussion and shadowy glitched grit of electronics. What is so striking here is the way the ensemble is willing to sit on things, never rushing. The piece proceeds on the accrual and dissipation of detail rather than structural notions of arc of densities or dynamics. Notes are sounded and percussion instruments are struck with attention to attack and decay not only of the sounds themselves, but the way they interact with the ensemble.

Yet there is nothing constrained about the music. Listen to how, 10-minutes in, a section of dynamic activity breaks out, spurred on by sputtering electronics. The same thing occurs about 40 minutes in as a swell of low rumbling electronics rises out of the mix, welling in to collective density in the last section, with string ostinatos playing off of contrapuntal piano and percussion as sho and electronics weave clouds of coloration. But rather than get pulled off into a collective fray, the ensemble absorbs the activity into the overarching flow of the piece, utilizing it to segue in to new balances of texture and timbre while maintaining the methodical pace. Melodic fragments are used in much the same way, as some voices coalesce around an emerging thread while others move in asynchronous paths. This strategy is used throughout to nudge the focus and planes of interaction, maximizing the range of the instrumentation of the ensemble in ever-shifting notions of sonic fields. Another Timbre label-head Simon Reynell has shown a continued commitment to Granberg and Skogen and one looks forward to hearing how this project will develop.
–Michael Rosenstein

> back to contents