Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Tony Malaby Tamarindo
Somos Agua
Clean Feed 304

Somos Agua, the third album from Tony Malaby’s trio, Tamarindo, is dense and demanding and may, in some quarters, feel too oblique to merit a second try. Malaby’s sound, especially on tenor saxophone, but on soprano as well, is often subterranean – filled, as it is, with dead ends and these jerky, knotted lines that pull you under, over, and, ultimately, a long way from the figures he’s composed. Unlike his last Clean Feed disc, Novela (2011) – a nonet expertly arranged by pianist Kris Davis – or some of his work as a sideman (from, say, Eivind Opsvik’s Overseas to John Hollenbeck’s large ensemble), where he also sways from husky, multiphonic shards to wicked, pinpoint puzzles, Somos Agua’s signposts blur. For nearly 60 minutes you feel thrown into a maze.

But what an incredible maze it is. Somos Aqua rewards close, sustained listening. It is filled with queries and quickly shifting scenes and the very highest levels of musical interaction. Tamarindo is often billed as a saxophone trio. It isn’t. Malaby is the only horn, but bassist William Parker and drummer Nasheet Waits aren’t accompanists. This is a cooperative, and an extremely accomplished operation.

Malaby’s six pieces run together like a loose, stripped-down suite. Every motif seems to have sprung from an aspect of the group’s aesthetic; the lines mirror how these men work. So a sharp, lock-step figure (“Little Head”) grows into a sprawling, bouncing improvisation. A subtle, seemingly scripted call-and-response (“*matik-matik*”) becomes an electrifying swinger. Everything is drawn for three. The finale (“Somos Agua”), the date’s only open piece, deepens the intensity of the trio investigation: Parker’s grave, arco introduction, Malaby’s squall – husky and stuttering and poised – as the three examine and reexamine, prod and poke, rummaging in the minute spaces between sound and rhythm.

If this trio has very few peers, Waits’s performance should land on its own end-of-the-year lists. His command of the drum set can be frightening. On “Can’t Find You...,” perhaps the record’s high point, his panorama of percussive color and control sets everything in motion. He’ll reassemble the time. He’ll spur the drama. Midway in, things drop down. Waits pauses, before an uprush (cymbals, snare, high-hat, tom), a swirling, driving, terrifically complex notion of time, as things fade, and a remarkable 20-second roll. Parker’s pulse snaps Malaby and Waits into play and, out of nothing, the drummer conjures up a magnificent bounce. It takes 10 extraordinary minutes to get here: a rugged abstraction morphing into a gallop and an unforgettable groove.
–Greg Buium


The Microscopic Septet
Manhattan Moonrise
Cuneiform Records Rune 370

Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston never intended to reform The Microscopic Septet, as he explains in the liner notes to the outfit’s latest release, Manhattan Moonrise. What was planned as a one-off gig to promote Cuneiform Records’ comprehensive reissue of the Septet’s four 1980s albums in 2006 quickly turned into an official reunion, courtesy of the band member’s enduring comradery. Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform) followed two years later, featuring new performances of previously unrecorded tunes from the group’s extensive songbook, while Friday The 13th, a tribute to Thelonious Monk, arrived in 2010.

Originally formed in 1980 by Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester, The Microscopic Septet was both ahead of and behind the times. Their primary goal was updating the highly entertaining ensemble-driven jazz tradition evinced by bandleaders from Jelly Roll Morton to Sun Ra, which resulted in widespread critical acclaim, but (as is often the case) not sustainable prosperity. Conventional criticism tended to classify most artists at the time as either neo-conservative traditionalists or radical experimentalists, but Johnston and Forrester’s writing didn’t fit neatly into such compartmentalized categories, hence the unit’s relegation to obscurity, and eventual dissolution, in 1992.

Time has been kind to The Microscopic Septet however. Subsequent generations of musicians have followed a similar aesthetic path; what was once considered idiosyncratic, is now less so. Ever the pranksters, the Micros continue to invoke myriad references in their quixotic musical vision, seamlessly unifying disparate antecedents into surprisingly cohesive compositions: “Hang It On a Line” integrates the familiar chord changes of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” into an episodic feature for Dave Sewelson’s protean baritone; “Occupy Your Life” transposes the iconic second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony into an austere tango; and the lilting melody of “Star Turn” deftly evokes Mancini by way of Monk.

Forrester’s longstanding relationship with the music of Thelonious Monk is further emphasized in the modulating rhythms and oblique intervals of “A Snapshot of the Soul,” which includes a conversational duet between the pianist and Johnston that recalls the duo’s formative days. Johnston’s “Obeying the Chemicals” reaches even further back into the jazz continuum for inspiration, alternating the gritty funk downbeats of bassist Dave Hofstra and drummer Richard Dworkin with Forrester’s rollicking boogie-woogie piano figures. The combo’s fondness for tradition is fully realized on the playfully titled “Let’s Coolerate One,” a rollicking swinger highlighted by an animated saxophone battle between Don Davis’ raspy alto and Mike Hashim’s gruff tenor.

Perhaps it was their lengthy hiatus – although an argument could easily be made for the charismatic appeal of Johnston and Forrester’s timeless melodies and sophisticated arrangements – but these fellas still sound inspired. Joyously performed by seasoned veterans, Manhattan Moonrise fits seamlessly into the Micros’ oeuvre, an effort as singularly engaging as the Septet’s earliest recordings.
–Troy Collins


Nicole Mitchell’s Sonic Projections
The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson
RogueArt ROG-0056

Velvet Anderson is, of course, saxophonist Fred Anderson, whose Velvet Lounge is one of those storied jazz haunts remembered with inverse vividness and affection by all those who’ve never actually been there. Nicole Mitchell’s music recasts Fred as the quiet superhero of Chicago music, an unassuming man whose special powers only became evident when he got into costume and whipped out his magical horn. And the likely first reaction to the first track is Shit, it’s movie music! “Bright City” evokes some improbable, futuristic/retro place, an imaginative cross between Sun Ra’s all too quotidian Magic City and Norman Mailer’s brightly lit lunar settlement in An American Dream.

For some reason, musically the set also conjures up unlikely echoes of John Surman’s cartoonish duo concept with drummer Stu Martin in which the (anti-)hero Harry, “man without a country,” slides between workaday adventures. The soundworld here is very different, of course, but there are parallels between Chad Taylor’s bright, insistent drumming and Martin’s more clubbing approach, and there is certainly some similarity between the honking synth work on Surman/Martin’s Woodstock album and the sheer weight of sound conjured up by Mitchell’s flute, David Boykin’s strongly vocalized tenor and Craig Taborn’s piano and Wurlitzer shapes. The point being, I think, that Sonic Projections has the intimacy of a duo, in rotating pairs, while also possessing much of the power of a larger band, and that’s where the parallel with Sun Ra starts to make sense. Interestingly, the inside pack has two photos of the group on the same day and location, but so taken relative to the January light that it looks like two quite different personnels. That’s also the impression of the music, which is all about shape-shifting, hidden identities and concealed power, unison and contention.

Mitchell’s emergence as a leader and performer has been little short of dazzling, but this superb recording has a “mother tongue” feel to it, a sense that while elsewhere (like her equally powerful Xenogenesis Suite) she works at some composerly distance from the music, “interpreting” her own part rather than inhabiting it, here the music gives off that magical impression of emerging only and precisely in the act of performing it. Her flute (and are there moments of alto flute on this as well? – timbre rather than pitching suggests so) is a supple and fast-moving improvisational tool, always accurately in tune with its context but bristling with overtone effects and unexpected harmonics. Even when the pace is slower and more thoughtful, as with the saxophone/flute dialogue on “For The Cause”, the detailing and speed of thought is extraordinary.

Ironically, while Xenogenesis Suite seems bitty and slightly contrived on repeated hearings, a work of fancy rather than imagination, The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson has a remarkable concentration of form and substance, revolving round identifiable cells and intervals, some of which, I suspect, may be intuitive rather than pre-planned or consciously written out. It seems to me an exercise in my favorite science of utopics, a real-time consideration of what it demands to exist and exist ethically in a completely imaginary space. Velvet Anderson occupies his bright city with courage and commitment, and not a little humor. He leaves obvious leitmotifs like bat symbols or Zorro scratches to the lesser guys. The trick in this space is to keep moving at all times, staying one step ahead of foes and friends alike, changing the rhythm, changing the pace, working by misdirection and stealth one minute, full-frontal charge the next.

Time to reveal, I think, that Nicole Mitchell is Wonder Woman. She’ll save us all.
–Brian Morton


Michael Musillami Trio
Playscape Recordings PSR # 112613

Guitarist Michael Musillami has been a steadfast presence in the East Coast jazz scene since the early 1990s, spending his formative years working closely with bassist Mario Pavone and the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin. Yet despite two decades worth of critical acclaim for his various efforts – documented on over a dozen accessible titles as a bandleader on his own Playscape imprint – Musillami’s artistry continues to elude mainstream recognition.

Pride comprises two separate recordings. The first is a studio session that follows a now familiar pattern, featuring the guitarist’s longstanding trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, who are joined by guest musicians. This time around the invitees are rising-star pianist Kris Davis and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene. The second date is culled from a live show, taped in 2007 during a tour for The Treatment, an earlier Playscape release featuring violinist Mark Feldman. Both programs highlight the core trio’s empathetic interplay and ability to adapt to additional musicians, demonstrating their boundless versatility as improvisers.

Each disc contains new versions of previously documented material, rearranged for an augmented ensemble. The first prominently features Davis as soloist, who has been receiving justifiable accolades for her adventurous neo-classical pianism. Although Fonda opens “Bald Yet Hip” unaccompanied, it’s Davis’ sterling contributions that stand out, turning the piece inside and out with an expansive sensibility that veers from probing melodicism to fragmented abstraction. She similarly elevates the opener, “Uncle Fino’s Garden,” extrapolating Musillami’s progressively intricate fretwork into her own free-ranging sound explorations, keeping pace with the rhythm section’s frequent tempo changes. Not to be outdone, Greene demonstrates the full range of his tenor on “Bald Yet Hip,” constructing an architecturally sound statement that builds from the proverbial whisper to a scream, while his second appearance, on “Courageous David B.,” offers a more conventional background for his quicksilver cadences.

In addition to expertly parlaying Davis and Greene’s fearless readings of these venerable charts, Fonda and Schuller regularly spin their own variations on familiar themes. “Uncle Fino’s Garden” and “Mountain Pride” both contain copious examples of their fleet-fingered rapport. The latter tune also spotlights Musillami’s interpretive prowess and attention to tonal detail, with lightning-fast single-note runs punctuated by Wes Montgomery-style octave leaps. Although Musillami rarely uses effects, he dabbles in distortion and overdrive on “Wild Things Music,” an evocative four song suite based on Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, adding scintillating tone colors to complement the story’s fantastical narrative.

Feldman’s eclectic contributions to the concert recording change the dynamics of the group considerably. The violinist’s virtuosic versatility manifests in numerous ways, from the neo-classical tenor he instills in “Today The Angels” to the countrified phrasing that underscores “Human Conditions.” Exceeding twenty minutes, “Beijing” attains an even more overtly Asiatic timbre than previous versions, courtesy of Feldman’s modal filigrees, the leader’s kaleidoscopic, pipa-like musings and Schuller’s ceremonial drum coda.

Running well over two hours, this collection not only highlights Musillami’s estimable gifts as an arranger, composer and improviser – it also showcases his magnanimous leadership abilities. Fonda and Schuller have worked with Musillami for over ten years now, and their simpatico interplay has attained a virtually telepathic concordance; the recurrent challenge for these well-established artists has been how to incorporate new personalities into the mix. By allowing guest musicians the opportunity to freely reinterpret the guitarist’s most cherished songbook numbers, Pride offers a salient example of Musillami as a generous bandleader with an ear for exemplary talent.
–Troy Collins


The Berlin Series no. 3
Another Timbre at75

The latest in Another Timbre’s excellent Berlin location series, this release contains two vivid documents of Berlin improvisation, recorded fifteen years apart. From 1999, Roananax plays a fairly alien and at times aggressive music that ranges about as widely in dynamic as one could conceive. The main ingredients include brass (Axel Dörner on trumpet and the always marvelous Robin Hayward on tuba) that ranges from the softest breath to splatter or braying, and the singular Annette Krebs (electro-acoustic guitar and mixing board) and Andrea Neumann (inside piano and mixing board). They create a ranging bestiary of unpredictable sound, filled with whorls, clatters, homemade steampunk zither-spindle noises, and electronic whines. On their suggestive untitled pieces, Roananax produces all manner of sounds which are so very concrete and yet suggestive of multiple possibilities: an alarm rings while something is being choked, wetly; an airplane takes off, audible over morning din; or a huddle between a creaking metal door, a car failing to start, and a buzzing copter, together like an insect swarm somehow contained in a sruti box. It’s hard to imagine any fan of these improvisers not loving this particular meeting, though as distinctive as their personalities are, some of the best moments here are those subsisting in electric crackle and sustained breath noises that only at length unfold in machine-like cranks or focused howl.

Earlier this year, the trio Obliq (Pierre Borel on alto, Hannes Lingens on percussion, Derek Shirley on electronics) laid down two long tracks in Vienna’s Amann Studios. If the latter qualities of Roananax represent part of their varied approach to improvisation, that intense commitment to sonic merging is something of foundation for Obliq’s aesthetic. In my initial listenings to Obliq, I felt confident that I could distinguish rubbed floor tom from a held reed note from spacious electronics. But subsequently I grew less sure that I could isolate each player’s contributions, and more convinced that it didn’t matter. The music is subtle, super-silent, and what gestures there are tend unilaterally toward self-abnegation, as each player becomes part of an interlocking, spare, laser-focused tone generator. As the music evolves, Obliq focuses intently on contrasts in register, with a low tone floor spooling out into realms rumbling and sub-guttural, so that you can just about feel it tickle your tympanum. In time, shapes emerge (and there are occasional punctuations from Borel or Lingens) as overtones slowly gravitate to the edges of the space delineated (with a tantalizing pitch-bending moment towards the end of the first untitled piece, as things settle briefly, suggestively into a chord). A similar focus comes with the second piece, which begins from almost wincingly high tones (I loved the intertwining of saxophone squeal, electronics, and tightly bowed cymbal) and allows the elements slowly to disaggregate until, after some gruff instrumental contrast, it settles once more into the lower register. Fabulous, entrancing stuff that’s marked by serious unity of purpose. And overall, a terrific release.
–Jason Bivins

New World Records

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