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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suite
TUM CD 041–2

Wadada Leo Smith + Jamie Saft + Joe Morris + Balazs Pandi
Red Hill
RareNoise RNR044

Wadada Leo Smith is in the middle of an extraordinary outpouring of late-career mastery. It’s now been 14 years or so – beginning, say, with the formation of the Golden Quartet (Tzadik 7604) at the start of the new century, and hitting a high-water mark in 2012 with Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform 350–53). Summers was the masterwork he’d long envisioned: a two-and-half-hour, four-disc program, with large and small ensembles tackling (and, ultimately, overhauling) the way we see an entire era in American history, the civil rights movement.

Even now, three records later, we’re still in its afterglow – yet Smith’s ambition remains. The Great Lakes Suites debuts a new quartet and gives voice to another programmatic work, inspired, this time, by the fresh-water seas straddling the Canada-U.S. border. It’s an august cast – saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Jack DeJohnette – one that speaks to Smith’s own past along Lake Michigan (he and Threadgill and DeJohnette go back to 1960s Chicago) and his more recent collaborations with this bass-drum team.

The Great Lakes Suite is tightly focused, yet filled with glorious stretches of small-group interaction. It rewards repeated listening. Indeed, after a 91-minute run, you’re reminded of the incredible resources these men draw on. They’re by turns brash and careful, tough and considered, virtuosic and austere, and at 53, Lindberg is the cub among them. Smith (71), DeJohnette (70), and Threadgill (68) force us to reconsider the limits of old age.

In the six pieces here – named after each of the Great Lakes as well as Lake St. Clair – there is a mixture of written forms and open improvisation. The preconceived elements are often spare: Smith and Threadgill in unison, in shards, spare declarations, or jagged riddles, and gentle dissonance. There are signposts throughout – the pieces are themselves suites, ranging in length from nine to 21 minutes – and they land in between periods of churning, three-way improv (“Lake Michigan”), keening bass-driven ruminations (“Lake Huron”), or far-reaching horn dialogues (“Lake St. Clair”). It is a quartet conceived in four parts; improvisations shift from soloist to soloist, woven in and out of the ensemble and, by the end, it feels as if everyone has stepped forward in equal measure. Hearing Smith and Threadgill together feels fresh, a genuine renewal of the AACM spirit. But there are spells where Smith just seems happy to listen to the bass and drums. Lindberg and DeJohnette are a powerful axis point; there’s a fascinating space between them, the bassist’s elastic (and sharply observed) approach to support and the drummer’s grand sense of texture and time. Together, they bring something deeply substantive to the heart of things.

Admittedly, the project’s overarching vision – it’s thematic aspect – did feel a little out of reach. Listening, do you feel a sweep of aquatic energy or geographic wonder? Are you put in mind of the magnificent industry, ports, and urban life of the Great Lake metropolises, Chicago or Cleveland or Toronto? I couldn’t make the leap. Yet this shortcoming doesn’t diminish how good the music really is. Smith calls this the Great Lakes Quartet: historically, that resonates. (Lindberg grew up near Detroit.) Nevertheless, the entire package is quite beautiful – excellent notes from John Litweiler, a wonderful series of pinkish-purple abstractions by Finnish painter Markus Konttinen. It reminds you how majestic the poor, put upon compact disc can still be.

There’s nothing programmatic about Red Hill, an old-fashioned, one-off cooperative. Here Smith, Jamie Saft (piano, Fender Rhodes), Joe Morris (double bass), and Balazs Pandi (drums) perform six improvisations, without preparation, conversation, or notes of any kind. It is searing, soaring, feathery, and wildly infectious.

“Gneiss” and “Janus Face,” the opening pair, feel like proclamations. We’re introduced to the sound of the unit; we’re confronted with each of these players. Smith, muted to start, practically inert, straddling space and clutter, searching as he pushes outward. Soon, the mute is gone and he’s drawn, step by step, into a collective squall. Morris, his terrific chatter, gut-defying bottom end, a remarkable gift for running conversation down low. Saft, on piano, bounces from these poised, chamber jazz flourishes to spacey, stuttering threads on the Rhodes. Pandi’s contribution: rolling, chattering, chittering, a dynamo of energy and fire and control. They can all lock in together, sawing and pulsating and roaring (for the middle third of “Janus Face”). They can groove (“Arfvedsonite”). Or they can produce sparse, spaced out beauty, something that feels crafted, predesigned (“Debts of Honor”). On “Tragic Wisdom,” Saft’s kinder exercises are grafted onto Morris’s rolling bass, and Pandi’s incredible bobbing figures. Smith’s open horn enters, long tones, abbreviated phrases, a sudden, out of joint groove, Saft pokes and prods and the group takes off.

There’s this great, foggy echo to the date. It gives the band a weird, surreal glow. When they put all these microscopic stories into play, it sometimes feels like a dream. Red Hill is certainly a gift – a model for the very highest levels of free improvisation.
–Greg Buium


Vinnie Sperrazza
Loyal Label LLCD014

Rarely are debut albums as auspicious as Apocryphal, the first release from Brooklyn-based drummer Vinnie Sperrazza under his own name. Sperrazza has contributed to a number of recordings in the last few years: as part of a standards trio with pianist Jacob Sacks and either Dave Ambrosio or Masa Kamaguchi on bass; as a member of the co-operative quartet 40Twenty with trombonist Jacob Garchik, Sacks and Ambrosio; and as a sideman to forward-thinking peers like Ben Holmes, Liam Sillery and Jeremy Udden – but none of his prior collaborations sound quite as singular as this unique session.

Joined by mainstream alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, experimental guitar wizard Brandon Seabrook and bassist Eivind Opsvik, Sperrazza and company expound upon a half dozen of the leader’s evocative originals, which range from languid to feverish. Sperrazza’s impressionistic writing recalls both the atmospheric abstractions of Paul Motian and the innovative fusion experiments of Tony Williams; he even claims Motian’s Tribute (ECM, 1974) and Williams’ Ego (Polydor, 1971) as touchstones for this similarly distinctive endeavor.

Opsvik’s stalwart timing and robust tone make him an apt foil for the leader, whose nimble trap-set technique keenly balances finesse and fury. The former approach can be heard underpinning the dramatically escalating dirge “Floor Phrase,” while the latter emerges during the spiky freeform interplay of “Thanksalot.” Together, Opsvik and Sperrazza ply elastic rhythms that swing with a graceful ebb and flow, challenging and supporting the frontline in equal measure.

Although known for his tart lyricism, this date finds Stillman venturing further into vanguard territory than usual, keeping pace with Seabrook’s mercurial detours. Much of the session’s enigmatic appeal results from the rich contrast between Stillman’s moderation and Seabrook’s capriciousness – as revealed on the introspective “Plainchant,” which juxtaposes honeyed alto ruminations with phantasmagoric fretwork. They conspire on “Mendicant” however, interweaving blistering cadences emblazoned with ardent split tones and squalls of howling feedback during the number’s roiling climax.

Seabrook typically veers between stylistic extremes, employing everything from delicate fingerpicking to heavy metallic riffing. In this setting he performs with relative restraint, using an array of effects to provide kaleidoscopic color and texture to the proceedings; he shades the infectiously tuneful “Spalding Gray” with prismatic waves of quavering distortion and bathes the wistful title track in a scrim of shimmering reverb. In addition to capturing some of Seabrook’s most nuanced playing, renowned indie rock producer Bryce Goggin uses subtle studio manipulation to imbue the recording with a modernistic sheen.

With so many young conservatory trained musicians joining the ranks of the contemporary jazz scene, it takes more than mere instrumental virtuosity to stand out from the crowd – it takes the creative vision of a truly original voice. On Apocryphal, Sperrazza displays the sort of imagination required to do just that.
–Troy Collins


Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Oliv & Familie
Emanem 5033

Oliv & Familie is the latest installment in Emanem’s ongoing series of reissues of early Spontaneous Music Ensemble recordings. Oliv was the third SME LP, released on the Marmalade label in 1969. Here that original record – the title “piece” played by two different configurations – is coupled with two takes of “Familie,” the earliest recorded instance of a larger SME group.

Emanem’s Martin Davidson has done impeccable work, despite the many obstacles he found in trying to acquire the original masters. (He recounts these stories in his notes.) In each case, the masters remained unobtainable. So he rerecorded them: in the case of “Familie,” from a noisy acetate that belonged to the late John Stevens; in the case of “Oliv,” from two actual LPs. The sound is often quite excellent, and never a barrier.

The final result is a supreme instance of early improvised music: raw and vital and terrifically alive. Start with “Familie,” the earlier date, from January 1968. Here an 11-piece ensemble performs a slow, dense series of semi-composed and improvised sections, something influenced, Davidson explains, by Gagaku, the Japanese court music. The group is a wonderful instance of the London scene circa 1968 – with two voices (Norma Winstone, Pepi Lemer), piccolo (Trevor Watts), flute (Brian Smith), soprano saxophone (Evan Parker), piano (Peter Lemer), electric guitar (Derek Bailey), cello (Nik Bryce), two basses (Dave Holland, Jeff Clyne), and drums (John Stevens).

The master take begins with a gong and then higher pitched long tones. Female voices. Winds. Waves of sound, in and out. Soon, strings and drums. An incredible massing of instruments. The cumulative effect – this piling on, this drone – is everything. The collective rises, pushes quickly, then dissolves. Each step, you realize, presents a slight shift, different voices ascend, as the original arrangement keeps nudging in different directions, slightly, as if it’s a natural phenomenon – the motion of birds en masse? fish? – a towering collective moving together. Despite spells where, say, guitar or piano are dominant, the idea of the individual seems moot. By the time it gets to a final mass, for the last three minutes, things feel conducted (semi-composed?), as the fraught female voices hang over top an anxious ascent, wild clutter, then a last swoop down. Piano residue. End.

“Oliv I” and “Oliv II,” taken from a date in February 1969, made up Sides One and Two, respectively, of the original album. They are among the first masterpieces of English free improvisation. Version one is a nonet; the second, a quartet. Built on the same theme, with words by Maggie Nicols, the results are wonderfully (and radically) different. On “Oliv I,” Davidson explains, each musician was given a specific role: Kenny Wheeler, on flugelhorn, was the “jazz soloist,” Derek Bailey was free to comment, while the alto saxophonist Trevor Watts and three female vocalists acted as a drone. Call Peter Lemer, bassist Johnny Dyani, and Stevens the jazz rhythm section.

“Oliv” begins with a bizarre bit of Nicols poetry. The first line: “CHI PA ROAF RIVA DOABO” – translates as, “This is for everybody.” Written in a language she created while working as a hostess in Tehran – she was 20 at the time of the recording, her debut – the poem is sung in long tones with chimes and horn in behind. Then, over top a drone, Wheeler and Bailey improvise. Indeed, this is a rare and irreplaceable instance of early Wheeler: dark, abstract, and full-toned. When the rhythm trio enters, a lovely, loping swing, Wheeler continues. He’s cryptic to start, but then he pushes, everything ramps up, and he takes off, poised and driven and filled with remarkable flurries and queries, as the piece becomes this edgy, and deeply accessible, bit of jazz.

“Oliv II” begins in the same way – same chime, same reading. But the jazz concept is immediately set aside. This is a pure, 16-minute quartet improvisation: Nicols, Watts, Dyani, and Stevens. It is an exquisite performance, entirely different, yet as earthy and as easily admired as part one. Dyani and Watts you notice first. The bassist’s sound, an irresistible, classic tone, his lines, fastidious or filled with fire, are always a delight; the saxophonist swoops in and out, squawking and biting, unafraid of basic, sweet clarity. Stevens on his so-called small drum set truly becomes one of four voices, a constant roiling, rolling companion. And Nicols, on her debut, pulses in and out, sharp turns and, in her words, entirely free of consonants (for fear, she said of falling into bebop licks). “Oliv II” ends with two of Stevens’s favored devices. The first, a “Sustained Piece,” has horn-voice long tones and Dyani’s plaintive, deep down calls woven in. The conclusion, a “Click Piece”: a stuttering click track, each instrument on a slight lag, tiny individual flourishes to the end.
–Greg Buium


Horace Tapscott Quintet
The Giant is Awakened
International Phonograph, Inc. FDS-107

Along with Bobby Bradford and John Carter, Horace Tapscott was one of the most influential jazz musicians to emerge in Los Angeles during the post-war years. A community-minded activist and scene leader, Tapscott’s grassroots idealism was truly visionary; he founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) in 1961, four years before Chicago’s ground-breaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was established. But Tapscott’s creative priorities were far from careerist, so when former Impulse! producer Bob Thiele asked Tapscott to record for his fledgling Flying Dutchman imprint in 1969, he initially declined. A year earlier, Tapscott worked as arranger, composer and conductor on Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool), altoist Sonny Criss’ large ensemble effort for Prestige, which was slated to feature members of the UGMA, but never did – infuriating Tapscott. Despite a well-earned distrust of label executives, Tapscott eventually accepted Thiele’s offer at the insistence of his peers and bandmates, convening alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, bassists David Bryant and Walter Savage Jr. and drummer Everett Brown Jr. in the studio on April 1, 1969 to record The Giant is Awakened, his debut album.

Placing a premium on rhythmic invention from the start, an exotic martial cadence underpins the opening Iberian-tinged title track, inspiring spirited solos from each member of the quintet in turn. Blythe leads the fray with rhapsodic variations that bristle with bluesy ardor, while Tapscott’s thematic interpolations proliferate from precisely articulated figures into thorny volleys. A texturally rich contrapuntal bass duet follows, contrasting sinewy arco against robust pizzicato before Brown takes the number out with a valedictory drum coda. Clocking in at just over 17 minutes, “The Giant is Awakened” is a thrilling tour-de-force worthy of its title. Closing what would have been the original LP’s first side is “For Fats,” a brisk rendition of Blythe’s rousing ode to Fats Waller. The tantalizingly brief piece was curtailed by the timing constraints of the original vinyl pressing, but nonetheless manages a series of tricky time changes and extreme tonal shifts in less than two and a half minutes.

Introducing the second half of the set is a raw version of “The Dark Tree,” delivered with a rarely heard fervency – including the titular reading from The Dark Tree (hat ART, 1990). A bold feature for the leader’s spiky pianism, the tune’s jaunty march-like vamp inspires a flurry of jagged lines and dissonant chords from Tapscott, whose angular approach extends the innovations of Monk and Waldron. An epic version of “Niger’s Theme” ends the session, with languid bass ostinati that lag behind Brown’s skittering trap set work in waltz time, yielding a deceptively complex groove for Blythe and Tapscott to navigate. Ushering forth a barrage of recoiling phrases punctuated by altissimo cries and multiphonic smears, the saxophonist’s gift for motivic development parallels the leader’s, whose own arcing statement ascends incrementally from spare motifs and oblique fragments into a riveting chromatic fantasy.

Denied a role in the album’s final audio mix, Tapscott avoided major labels for the rest of his career, partnering instead with independents like Arabesque, Interplay and Nimbus. Remastered and reissued on CD by International Phonograph in a mini-LP sleeve replicating the original cover art and liner notes, this deluxe edition also includes a new essay penned by Bill Shoemaker that documents the fascinating history behind this long out-of-print classic. Widely admired but rarely heard, The Giant is Awakened is a masterpiece of left coast jazz that sounds as vital now as the day it was recorded.
–Troy Collins


Variable Density Sound Orchestra
Evolving Strategies
NotTwo MW 911-2

Founded by Boston-based guitarist Garrison Fewell in 2008, the Variable Density Sound Orchestra has featured a rotating roster of international talent since its inception. The Orchestra’s self-titled debut was issued by Creative Nation Music a year later, followed by Sound Particle 47. Taped in 2012, Evolving Strategies is the ensemble’s third release and first with a somewhat smaller lineup, including legendary multi-reedist John Tchicai (on tenor saxophone and flute), trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Dmitry Ishenko and drummer Reggie Nicholson.

Despite being veterans of the same tight-knit scene, this was the first time Campbell and Tchicai recorded together – but sadly, it was one of the last sessions to which either contributed. Preserved for posterity, this varied studio date captures their dynamic rapport across an array of challenging material.

The program contains a handful of Fewell’s short modular compositions, which allow performers to independently alter the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic outcome of each piece. Although the ensuing call-and-response interplay of these pieces is intriguing, it’s two long takes of Swell’s majestic “Mystical Realities” that set the album’s tone, accounting for almost half its duration. These hypnotic modal swingers bookend the record with infectious rhythms that inspire a spate of fervent testimonials from the group, opening and closing the program with rousing fanfare. Tchicai’s “Return and Breathe” is similarly engaging, transitioning from wispy, flute-driven introspection to a groove-laden vamp that spotlights the rich contrast between Swell’s earthy motifs and the leader’s luminous fretwork. Fewell’s “Voyage from Ra” returns the favor, offering Tchicai an extended showcase for his abstract lyricism, demonstrated on both tenor and flute.

Deferring to his bandmates, Fewell solos infrequently, assuming a magnanimous leadership role by adding colorful flourishes that spur on his associates. The versatile rhythm section underpins each change in direction with aplomb, imbuing impressionistic detours with understated accents and kinetic fare with driving polyrhythms that propel the frontline to expressive heights. Campbell’s burnished embellishments, Swell’s blustery salvos and Tchicai’s craggy ruminations parley throughout the set, revealing years of experience.

Fewell has said of the Variable Density Sound Orchestra that “The goal is to create balance, not allowing individual soloists, collective instant composing or pre-composed material to dominate for too long.” To its credit, the band accomplishes this quite admirably, but considering the passing of Campbell and Tchicai, Evolving Strategies resonates most profoundly as a poignant reminder of their protean artistry.
–Troy Collins

Cuneiform Records

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