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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Barbara Monk Feldman
Soft Horizons
New World Records 80765-2

Name recognition matters, particularly when stumbling upon a disc like Soft Horizons, a survey of compositions by Barbara Monk Feldman, who has a very slender discography and may be unknown even to some New Music enthusiasts. The name in question is not the composer’s, a surreal combination of Thelonious Monk’s daughter’s name – the dedicatee of “Boo-Boo’s Birthday” – and Morton Feldman, to whom Monk Feldman was briefly married before Feldman’s death in 1987. It is Aki Takahashi, whose Aki Takahashi – Piano Space remains one of the more iconic surveys of 20th Century piano music more than 40 years after it was recorded. Her presence on any recording justifies the effort of setting aside serious listening time. Frontloading Takahashi’s reading of “Soft Horizons” proves to be a masterful stroke in sequencing the collection, as it is her mastery of feathered colors and delicate articulation that gives Monk Feldman’s use of slight rhythmic variations in triplet and quintuplet figures their quavering iridescence, and enhances the aura of plasticity in the composer’s use of extreme registers to deform harmonic relationships. As a result, the convergence of the material to the central register, sometimes in unison, has a slow, tidal ease to it.

“Soft Horizons” is a transporting performance when heard alone; however, the implications of the piece deepen when heard prior to “String Quartet No. 1 (Desert-scape)” and “The Chaco Wilderness” for flute, clarinet, piano, vibraphone, guitar and mandolin, both of which were inspired by the New Mexican high desert. The ensemble works respectively address how the simplest of environmental elements – a distant mountain ridge, a deeply cut ravine, or late-afternoon light – can give these barren and unforgiving spaces elegance, even beauty. Even though the pace of both pieces is gentle, neither has a simple gentleness. Still, the occasional serrated textures and piercing clusters embedded into the string quartet have an unlikely smoothness in the hands of FLUX Quartet (Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violins; Max Mandel, viola; and Felix Fan, cello). Clocking in at just over a half-hour, the string quartet has the time to suggest timelessness. By contrast, the three movements of “The Chaco Wilderness” is less than a third in duration, yet Feldman achieves the stillness of the longer pieces, through the delicate layering of colors and the patience to let most of the long tones and fragmentary phrases thoroughly decay before applying another. The DownTown Ensemble (flutist Margaret Lancaster; clarinetist Daniel Goode; guitarist/mandolin player Larry Polansky; pianist Joseph Kubera, and vibraphonist Chris Nappi) milks every note, and are equally effective at letting colors bleed into or bounce off one another.

Soft Horizons is a welcomed confirmation that there are still expanses to be discovered and explored in New Music.
–Bill Shoemaker


The New Jazz Orchestra
Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe
Dusk Fire CD 110

The last decade and a half has seen a renaissance of interest in British jazz of the 1960s and ‘70s, halcyon years when musicians in England, as elsewhere in Europe, were finding their own approaches based on homeland traditions, rather than copying their American counterparts. At least that’s the story we’re often told, though it’s arguable that in most places, a strong localized approach to improvised music was prevalent from the moment that “jazz” became an exportable thing prior to the Second World War. While not perhaps spoken about as often as his peers, pianist, composer and arranger (and well-regarded author) Neil Ardley (1937-2004) was one of the most significant voices in British jazz of the 1970s, mostly associated with saxophonist Don Rendell and trumpeter/flugelhornist Ian Carr.

Ardley only made eight proper “jazz” albums in his lifetime, most of which are highly sought-after collectors’ items, and all feature larger ensembles. The first of these groups, the New Jazz Orchestra, was convened in 1963 as a vehicle for lush, colorful and economical arrangements of the Miles, Mulligan and John Lewis books. This work resulted in a 1965 LP on Decca, Western Reunion, which featured nineteen top-notch British improvisers including Carr, trombonist Paul Rutherford, drummer John Hiseman, bassist Tony Reeves, saxophonists Trevor Watts and Barbara Thompson. Three years later, Ardley changed up the personnel slightly, but the NJO still represented a sterling cross-section of British jazz including trumpeters Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther, saxophonists Dick Heckstall-Smith, Dave Gelly and Jim Philip, and vibraphonist Frank Ricotti. With bassist Jack Bruce in for Reeves (who engineered the session), the members of the NJO went into a London studio to record Le Déjeuneur sur l’Herbe for Verve, a departure from Western Reunion in that the selections were mostly composed by young British artists, though Davis’ “Nardis” and Coltrane’s “Naima” do make appearances.

By 1968, the crossover between jazz, creative music and progressive rock was pretty clear in England – Bruce was already turning heads in Cream, and Reeves, Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith had formed the prog band Colosseum. Composer-pianist Mike Taylor, also a new rock confrere, contributed two pieces to this program, “Ballad” and an arrangement of Segovia’s “Study.” Though he died shortly after these sessions were taped, he’d already recorded two unique jazz albums for Columbia-Lansdowne. Such cross-pollination would continue apace and mark a very compelling aspect of British jazz, not just glinting off of Ardley’s music, but that of a number of players in the theatre of progressive improvisation.

The opening title tune of Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe is a prime example of what the NJO was about, with Gil Evans-like arrangements graced by a surly bottom and clarion, floating lines, Carr and Thompson striking out atop a syrupy, yanking waltz. Their soli are full-bodied, with glassy ensemble interjections as Hiseman, Bruce, Ricotti and tubaist George Smith hold down accented rhythmic punches. The piece never repeats itself, continually adding thematic flesh and improvisational density as Heckstall-Smith chomps at the bit, sideswiping brassy thickets and sandy tonality, the whole operation maintaining an interleaved swing. “Naima” follows with a nearly ideal orchestral arrangement, gentle swirls on an open plain chewed at by Jim Philip’s tenor, whose plangent exhortations are buttressed by ambiguous, full harmonies, pushing towards a stately, resolute and upturned conclusion.

Pianist Howard Riley recorded his second LP, Angle, in 1968 for CBS-Realm. Here, that record’s signature piece is given an incredibly knotty reading, rooted in the taut contrast of sawing brass and twittering flutes with pulsing rhythm and brief passages of small-group improvisation. Written for a specific trio, it’s hard to imagine being read by a seventeen-piece orchestra, but the thing about the NJO is that their music retains a small-group approach, weaving through crack arrangements as if no larger than a sextet. Another Rendell-Carr associate, pianist Michael Garrick, penned “Dusk Fire” (also the name of one of the group’s LPs) and like “Angle,” it provides an opportunity for the band to show its mettle as both athletic unit and a purveyor of necessary mass. The core improvisations are by Philip, whose solo builds from fleet, metallic cadences to heel-stomping, molten torrents, and by Hiseman, limber and particulate in his stoked inventions. Tension aside, the lining is gorgeous and moving, heralded by soprano and vibraphone against brash, golden walls.

Released to critical acclaim but evidently not manufactured in large numbers, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe quickly became an album more hunted for than heard. The NJO would continue through the early ‘70s, including a fine live performance at the Camden Festival (Camden ‘70, Dusk Fire 105). Ardley’s compositions became more cyclical and involved, well represented by A Symphony of Amaranths (Regal Zonophone, 1972, also reissued by Dusk Fire), and he continued recording through the end of the decade – including with guitarist John Martyn. While his music may seem to have been confined to a temporally narrow flourish, Neil Ardley’s few records are intriguing statements of conviction, standing curiously apart from much large ensemble jazz of the period – and unlike some of his brethren, now all have made it to disc.
–Clifford Allen


Mike Osborne
Cuneiform Rune 392

This is an aptly titled collection, since “dawn” is not only synonymous with sunrise, but, in its verb form, realize. The three sessions compiled on Dawn – including his very first – document two of the most important partnerships in alto saxophonist Mike Osborne’s truncated career at first light. A four-track 1966 quartet session finds Osborne sharing the front line with John Surman, with whom Osborne would work with in numerous ensembles, including the groundbreaking saxophone trio SOS. Six tracks from two 1970 dates with bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo predate Bordercrossing, the first of the trio’s classic Ogun albums by five years. However, the reason this is one of the better archival releases of the past few years is that the music exudes the simultaneous collective realization that they were really on to something vital.

This aura of realization is reinforced by the Pinteresque sequencing of the material, which places the latter trio sessions before the quartet date. By 1970, Osborne’s sound had thickened, his cries often bursting into chesty howls, his lines largely propelled by a hoarse tone. The gloriously incessant drive of Miller and Moholo rarely lets up, even on the folkish title tune, where most tandems would have been content to stick with atmospheric arco bass and malleted cymbals throughout the entire piece; however, they portray dawn, as much as anything, as a time to get your ass in gear. This is reinforced by the trio seguing into Herbie Hancock’s sprinting “Jack Rabbit,” an excellent example of how Osborne amalgamated Jackie Mac’s serrated, off-center take on bebop and Ornette’s rollicking hollers.

The quartet session suggests that the intensity that would soon send not only Osborne’s music, but that of Surman and others, farther out, had yet to peak. Tellingly, the session is mostly comprised of covers: Pharoah Sanders’ Cherryish buoyant “Seven by Seven,” Carla Bley’s intriguingly fragmentary “And Now the Queen,” and Booker Little’s hard-hitting “Aggression.” By comparison, Osborne’s “TBD” is a rather simplistic two-chord head, albeit one that sets up some of the more heated blowing of the session. Subsequently, the quartet – rounded out by Miller and the forgotten man of British jazz drumming, Alan Jackson – comes off as having a finely tuned barometer for the contemporary, but not the full-blown horizon-extending creativity both saxophonists would soon exemplify. And, while Osborne plays with an unvarnished joy and a winsome, athletic energy, he is upstaged by Surman, whose serpentine lines on soprano and nuanced baritone go a considerable distance to explain why his emergence was such big news in the UK.

It’s impossible to discuss Osborne’s music without mention of what were then his future disabilities. To have a full appreciation of them, you need representative “before” shots. Dawn provides them, snaps of a gifted young man with a bright future.
–Bill Shoemaker


Lennie Tristano
Chicago April 1951
Uptown UPCD 27.78/27.79

Few musicians have possessed Lennie Tristano’s determined individual vision. A dedicated theorist of jazz practice, his reputation as a teacher eventually eclipsed his public performances, creating a cult-like aura around the pianist. This two-CD set presents previously unreleased recordings from a week-long stint by the Tristano sextet at Chicago’s Blue Note Jazz Club. As was his custom, the band is staffed by students or former students on horns, but what students! The saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, his most frequent and greatest ambassadors, are joined by trombonist Willie Dennis, better known for associations with Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan.

The Chicago trip likely dictated a local rhythm section, inconspicuous even by Tristano’s standards (he’d sometimes overdub them or play to pre-recorded tapes) and made more so by the recording – bassist Burgher “Buddy” Jones and drummer Dominic “Mickey” Simonetta sometimes disappearing into Tristano’s piano and the undercurrent of conversation, though they’re fine on the sessions when they’re clearly audible. The horns and piano, though, are very well recorded and the moods range from exuberant to ethereal.

Tristano’s emphasis was harmonic extension; some say to the detriment of rhythm. The music here – mostly originals by Konitz and Marsh – is profoundly engaged in developing harmonic possibilities, but it also has its own rhythmic energy, particularly evident in Tristano’s solo on “I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me Variations” (first version, both composer credits to Marsh) when the recording allows Jones and Simonetta to come to the fore. The first version of “All the Things You Are” highlights a rapid-fire creativity on the part of Dennis, a stellar trombonist whose lines can match the others’ long fluid lines of even notes. Marsh is one of the true originals of jazz and not widely appreciated, his light, clear tenor sound facilitating the most remarkable linear and harmonic invention, often focused within a relatively narrow range and creating a striking chromaticism. For his part, Konitz sometimes assembles a formally compelling solo out of a series of abstract and unpredictable wisps of sound.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Tristano’s music was his fondness for collective improvisation, making him a keeper of a great tradition. Final choruses are often given over to simultaneous soloing by the three horns, Tristano’s own ensemble role rising too to single note lines. Until 1950 guitarist Billy Bauer had been his most frequent associate. His absence here gives freer rein to Tristano’s solos; as Bauer’s replacement, Willie Dennis’s trombone might almost reference the collective sonority of traditional jazz, marking Tristano as the keeper of a great tradition.

This is music of the first rank. Tristano recorded little in the early ‘50s, and this exceptional set fits neatly (and with better sound) between a 1950 New York session and one from Toronto in 1952. While it’s clearly archival material, it’s also living, breathing creative music with some stunning highlights.
–Stuart Broomer


Trevor Watts
FMR 377–0714

Solo saxophone records are all about choices. For the artist, it must be a bracing, and, ultimately, epiphanic process. It’s a vast terrain: from Anthony Braxton’s early, discrete series of experiments (For Alto) to Steve Lacy’s ongoing encounters with Thelonious Monk’s music, from the voluble jazzman (Sonny Rollins, The Solo Album) to the fearless innovator (John Butcher).

For Trevor Watts, Veracity marks his second solo set, nearly a decade after his first, World Sonic (Hi4Head). His ground: 13 pieces, each with a clear compositional sense, a series of declarations – in texture, melody, and rhythm – fueled by an acute sense of what a saxophone (and its audience) will bear in a single set of music.

That element – a wonderful sense of scope and perspective – gives Veracity something deceptively simple: you can hold the whole disc in your mind’s ear. Tie these pieces together, or consider them on their own. But however you approach it, many of the familiar, formal aspects of Watts’s playing are present. Circular breathing plays a key role – as a textural device, as the rhythmic axis, or as way to deepen the drama – working hand in glove with these long, swirling minimalistic lines. The hum of recurring motives is clear (and constant) – slow, grand ones to start (“Solus”) or, then, as a kind of warming up and stretching out (“Alto Prestissimo”). But there’s also a terrific, sixties-esque drone (“Afrocentricity”), a jerky bit of Eastern dance music (“Monadism”), a sneaky faux electroacoustic buzz (“Space Signal”), and a pair of travelogues (“Quito Nights,” “Iberiana”). When a piece is just two or three minutes long, as many of these are, Watts can bring you into his miniature musical world, hold you there – just briefly – then let you go.

There’s nothing fraught or especially experimental here. Nothing too delicate; nothing overwrought. There’s just a great deal of excellent alto saxophone being played: direct, emotionally clear-eyed. “Veracity,” the longish finale, is the album’s watermark – its simple truth if you will. Watts returns to many of the date’s earlier gestures, but he seems to slow down; he’s listening now, too. To me, there’s real pleasure in that: to hear the artist turning his work over and over again, examining and reexamining just how these sounds, how these rhythms, might come out of this horn.
–Greg Buium


Kenny Wheeler
Songs for Quintet
ECM 2388

Much has rightly been made of the melancholy in Kenny Wheeler’s voice as a composer, “voice” being far more applicable to him than most. So, it’s not surprising that this quality permeates the compositions of his adieux, recorded in late 2013. What may not be immediately recognized by all but the most avid of Wheeler’s listeners is the inclusion of a trio of older compositions of various vintages, which reiterates the arterial nature of melancholy in Wheeler’s music over the decades. Still, there is nothing resigned about the music on Songs for Quintet: the keening, even heraldic pronouncements; the romantic entreaties; the sinewy syntax with which he refracted the robustness of hard bop and modal jazz – it’s all there.

To really do Wheeler’s music full justice, one must know when to burnish and when to scuff its elegant contours. Along with vocalist Norma Winstone and pianist John Taylor – collaborators in Azimuth, large ensembles and small groups for more than 40 years – saxophonist Stan Sulzman, guitarist John Parricelli, and bassist Chris Laurence were among the most constant and adept in this regard, with relative newcomer drummer Martin France coming on fast in recent years. They were an impeccable ensemble, each of them dropping well-timed, concise asides at precisely the right moments. As soloists, they knew how to navigate the hairpin turns of phrase and sudden harmonic shifts Wheeler regularly embedded in his compositions, and adhere to the subtle emotional shading of a given piece, while maintaining a sufficiently loose feel.

While advances in mouthpieces have made the flugelhorn less demanding than when he started out, Wheeler’s decision to only play the less forgiving instrument was ballsy, nevertheless. Wobbly and wane notes are surprisingly few, well outnumbered by the moments where Wheeler sticks the landing when he leaps between wide intervals, even those of an octave or more apart. Even though Wheeler was almost the antithesis of the jazz hero, his playing on Songs for Quintet has a palpable sense of bravery about it.

Windmills are safe for the time being.
–Bill Shoemaker


Carlos Zíngaro
Live at Mosteiro de Santa Clara a Velha
Cipsela CIP 001

Violinist Carlos Zíngaro has a substantial international reputation as a free improviser, with a career spanning more than four decades and including extended collaborations with such partners as Joëlle Léandre and Richard Teitelbaum and groups like Canvas Trio and the Mitteleuropa Orchestra. Some of his finest work, though, is intensely local, growing from his engagement with the resonant spaces of his native Lisbon, including a solo CD recorded in the vast Jerónimos Monastery and a duet with saxophonist Joe Giardullo amidst the waterfall and echo of the Mae de Agua or “temple of water,” part of the city’s 18th century aqueduct.

Live at Mosteiro de Santa Clara a Velha takes Zíngaro 130 miles from Lisbon to the smaller city of Coimbra (for the 2012 Jazz ao Centro Festival), but the setting is congenial: the ruins of a 14th century monastery, a large stone edifice that provides an engaging mix of resonances, both spatial and historical. A fascinating dynamic emerges with the inevitable mass of the building and a certain ecclesiastical- political-imperial burden finding a kind of double and counter in the sheer brilliance of Zíngaro’s technique and tone (he can muster the perfect sound and intonation for the Bartok sonatas).

Zíngaro is a great solo improviser, his technique extending to an awareness of every subtle nuance of his instrument’s harmonic architecture. His musical reflections have a strong sense of a linear continuum, moving naturally, whether through incremental variations of melodic fragments or forward-surging lines, and they break up just as inevitably, only to reassemble in a slightly different form. Along the way there are brief digressions and interludes: a play of dynamics, a sudden shift in volume that summons up different responses from the surrounding stone arches; a muffled pizzicato run at lightning speed; then stratospheric highs and repeated multiphonics that spark off the bow as if it were flint. In his hands, the forms invoked become malleable, subject to mutation and change, surrendering to the individual impulse. His titles here insist on underlying struggles and a certain resignation, from “Crushing Wheels” to “Portions of Life” to “Twisting Chords” and “Scroll of Fate,” but the music also speaks of exchange, co-existence, triumph and transformation.
–Stuart Broomer

Hat Hut Records

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