Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Steve Lacy Quintet
Last Tour
Emanem 5039

This good ‘un is the next-to-last concert of Steve Lacy’s life, in March, 2004. It’s a group that attracts with extreme contrasts, cool Lacy and hot George Lewis match rather like Miles Davis and John Coltrane 60 years ago. Bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch  together create a generous, buoyant, inspiring swing. Lewis plays long, effusive solos full of high spirits on his trombone, a horn with a wide high-low range. After his double-timing, quadruple-timing multiplicity of notes comes endlessly calm Lacy, with his comparatively light, pure (overtoneless) soprano sax sound with its small, two-octave or so range, as he ever so patiently stalks that elusive creature, the Beast of Melody.

Three of these themes are in his familiar compositional style: simple licks repeated, sequenced down and/or up. The other five themes are settings of short poems by poets of the mid-20th century. These have more interesting melodies, mainly in AABA forms, sung by Irene Aebi – the Dada lines of “Naked Lunch” fit her voice, range, and expression just right. Lacy’s soloing is in his familiar free style, seemingly in slower tempos than the animated Avenel and Betsch. Rhythmically his phrasing is archaic, pre-Konitz, pre-Pete Brown. He invents variations on simple theme motives, or he doggedly repeats little singsong phrases until they yield new lines to pursue. In “As Usual” his winding route leads to a quacking, growling climax; “Baghdad” and “Naked Lunch” are other soprano successes. He eventually runs out of gas in some long solos, then he slips into three- or four-note licks that he sequences up and down, mostly down.

No doubt the best swing trombonists would enjoy the sound of Lewis’s trombone, so rich and ripe in the wobbly note that opens his “The Bath” solo; his chattering lines and growls in “Naked Lunch”; his conflicts and slashing climax in “As Usual”; his muted solo, including gonna-get-ya wa-was, in “Baghdad.” “Blinks” has his best-sustained trombone solo, but even after that, the tension of Lacy’s solo, mounting ever so slowly with simple lines to a tail-chase climax, is the track’s high adventure. Incidentally, the CD envelope prints the poems that Aebi sings, including a Bob Kaufman poem ending in “Streets paved with opal sadness, / lead me counterclockwise, to pockets of joy, / and jazz.” Yes.
–John Litweiler


Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
Celebrating Fred Anderson
Nessa ncd-37

Roscoe Mitchell
Sustain and Run
Selo Sesc CDSS 0065/15

Roscoe Mitchell has seen a spate of recorded activity over the last few years, including strong duo releases with both Tyshawn Sorey and Craig Taborn (along with guests) on the Wide Hive label and a trio recording with James Fei and William Winant on Rogue Art. That run is continued with two live releases, a heartfelt tribute to Fred Anderson and a solo set from the Sesc Pompeia Festival in Brazil. Mitchell’s association with Fred Anderson goes back to the early ‘60s when he returned to Chicago after serving in the US Army. While the two were never in standing ensembles together, their musical paths often crossed at various ad hoc sessions until Mitchell left to settle in Paris with the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the late ‘60s. They reconnected on and off when Mitchell made trips to Chicago or when Anderson jointed Mitchell’s quintet as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago for a few performances in 2002. So it was fitting that Mitchell was invited to lead a posthumous birthday celebration for Anderson in 2015 at Constellation in Chicago.

Rather than convene one of Anderson’s working groups or bringing one of his ensembles, it was great that Mitchell assembled a cross-generational group of members of the AACM including drummer Vincent Davis, bassist Junius Paul, and cellist Tomeka Reid. The set, comprised of some of Mitchell’s own themes for the ensemble along with Anderson’s “Bernice” and “Ladies in Love,” offers up an apt tribute to a musician who was a stalwart individualist throughout his career. Things kick off with spare contrapuntal freedom as soprano, cello, bass, and drums gradually come together around the propulsive theme of “Song for Fred Anderson,” building density and momentum around Mitchell’s serpentine, circuitous spirals. The leader’s laser intensity goads the entire group into fiery collective energy.

The group improvisation flows seamlessly into a reading of the pensive beauty of Anderson’s “Bernice” with legato alto lines and arco cello expanding the stately theme over quietly chattering drums and dark, churning bowed bass. “The Velvet Lounge” follows, providing a setting for solos by Reid, Paul, and finally Davis, and each build compact forms that flow together, bursting into “Hey Fred,” an explosive piece. The group is fueled by Mitchell’s incendiary alto which buffets and bucks from one peak to another with an indefatigable vigor by all the players. Anderson’s “Ladies in Love” provides a calm to the momentum as the four gradually decompose the theme into abstraction, with Mitchell’s overblown harmonics and guttural vocalizations steering the quartet into textural interplay. “Cermak Road” closes things out; a 4 and 1/2 minute jaunt with the ensemble locking in under Mitchell as he wends from swing to freedom and back, settling into a decisive close. What is striking throughout is how adeptly these four come together, forging heartfelt ensemble music.

Mitchell’s solo recordings have always been amongst my favorites, from Solo Saxophone Concerts from 1973 and Nonaah from 1976 and onward. He hasn’t released a solo set since the three disk set on the Mutable label from over a decade back, so this missive from a series of concerts that he played in Brazil in August 2013 caught my eye. Mitchell performed two concerts at Teatro Sesc Pompeia in São Paulo, Brazil and, for this disk, he selected four pieces for soprano and sopranino. Mitchell’s rigor, nuanced concentration, and ascetic sensibility has always defined his playing, particularly in solo settings and that has always particularly come through on the higher horns. The four pieces here are all constructed around a riveting sense of internal form and structure, the lines and arc stripped to foundational elements which are hewn into bracing solo statements.

Going back to pieces like “Nonaah,” Mitchell has fully embraced an almost obsessive sense of sonic investigation, teasing, prodding, and picking apart simple phrasings with an austere absorption. Four decades on, while Mitchell’s vocabulary may sound less radical than those early endeavors, he has continued to refine and advance his steadfast introspection and masterful stamina. Listen to the second piece here, “Thanks for the Call,” constructed from simple, oscillating intervals which are twisted, inverted, looped, and refracted over the course of 9 and 1/2 minutes. The 25-minute sopranino piece “Conversations from Stage Right” is even more immersive, working its way across spare, open phrases full of burred overtones, shredded harmonics, and quavering shadow lines with methodical deliberation and unwavering potency. It is only 15 minutes in that Mitchell starts to modulate the velocity of the lines, building density and velocity with infinitesimal precision. This one is a welcome addition to Mitchell’s solo output and well worth searching out.
–Michael Rosenstein


MMM Quartet
Rogue Art ROG-0063

Recorded August 8, 2014 at the Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon, Portugal, Oakland/Lisboa is the second recording from the MMM Quartet. The pedigree and background of the members tells the listener all they need to know about how this stunning live set shakes out. Aside from her extensive work with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy, bassist Joëlle Léandre was a member of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Fred Frith’s free jazz credentials are unassailable, while pianist and electroacoustic composer Alvin Curran studied with Elliott Carter. Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber is less well known to American audiences despite having worked with folks like Marilyn Crispell and Joe McPhee. Together the group – three-fourths of whom have either taught or currently teach at Mills College in Oakland (where Darius Milhaud taught for many years) – create music that straddles and blurs the lines between free jazz, new music, ambient, and a whole host of other genres. It is simply unclassifiable.

The group’s name (MMM stands for Mills Music Mafia) nods to their ties to Mills while suggesting their music’s transgressive nature. It challenges the listener’s preconceptions about how to listen to music and what to expect from it – even those who are quite familiar with this sort of improvising. It is amelodic, atonal, ametric, and the musicians have no defined role. To focus on the shifting ideas and interaction between band members and to attempt to unlock the music’s grounding logic – as I initially did – is to miss the point. It’s best not to focus on the details and ascertain the “why”; rather, the music demands a certain distance from which to observe it, as one does when watching the slow progression of puffy cumulus clouds as they briefly morph into quasi-recognizable shapes before drifting away.

Save for Curran’s samples of vocals, orchestral trumpet, rumbling blast from an ocean steam liner whistle, and other surprises, it is often unclear who is doing what, as each musician has the chops to mimic the timbral possibilities of the other instruments. Frith, Leimgruber, and Léandre’s series of shrieks, scrapes, squeals, and scampers, especially when juxtaposed against Curran’s piano, electronics, and eerily disconcerting vocal samples makes this all about shifting colors, textures, and tones. Oakland/Lisboa is less focused on making concrete and discernible statements than it is about the suggestion of ideas, secrets almost revealed, truths partially told, stories warped, histories erased and rewritten. This is postmodern improvisation at its best: the bricolage of styles; floating signifiers (What is the vocal sample of what sounds like an auctioneer doing and why is it there? How does Curran’s brief pseudo-chorale function? Ditto for Frith’s humpback whale imitation.); and the refusal to adhere to accepted conventions about form, narrative, and genre. To put it simply: Oakland/Lisboa is a special example of searching, vital, and provocative music.
–Chris Robinson


Moondog (aka Louis Hardin)
Round the World of Sound
New World Records 80774-2

In December, 1971, Louis Thomas Hardin aka Moondog (1916–1999), released his second album for Columbia Records. Consisting of twenty-five madrigals, the album represents a significant body of Moondog’s work composed during the 1950s and 1960s while living as a bohemian in Manhattan. Round the World of Sound is a recreation of that album by the French new music group Dedalus, led by Didier Aschour, and the performance collective Muzzix. Modeled after J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, these madrigals, which Moondog collectively titled Madrigal Book I, are structured similar to Bach’s canonical work. The twenty-five madrigals pass through each major and minor key, with each progressive track moving around the circle of fourths. The first piece “Bells Are Ringing” is in C major, the second, “Voices of Spring,” is in A minor, the third, “What’s the Most Exciting Thing?” is in F major, and so on.

Primary vocalists Vincent Bouchot and Nathalie Duong are accompanied by a various mix of guitarists, keyboardists, saxophonists, brass players, and percussionists, who also occasionally sing. Each piece features a unique combination of instruments, from the guitar duo on “Be a Hobo” to others with the full ensemble. The instrumental accompaniment is generally very light and buoyant, which serves to accentuate the whimsical and playful nature of many of the music. The tunes are all quite short, the longest is just over three minutes, and are split about evenly between male only, female only, and mixed vocals. Many of the madrigals feature rounds, both in the instrumental and vocal parts, and are often in Moondog’s trademark 5/4 or 7/4 meter. His writing is deceptively complex and unorthodox, with accents disguising the meter or and the beginnings and endings of phrasings appearing at surprising times, and he is also adept at text painting: one mention from the vocalists of bouncing and the music begins bouncing. The subject matter is all autobiographical, and deals with everything ranging from the joyful bliss of being in love, coffee, and expressions of melancholy to optimism and springtime.

For those unfamiliar with the music by “The Viking of 6th Avenue,” Round the World of Sound provides an engaging, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable way in to one of America’s most enigmatic and singular composers.
–Chris Robinson


Richard Poole + Marilyn Crispell + Gary Peacock
In Motion
Intakt CD 264

A bit of a Woodstock improv summit here, ostensibly led by the relatively unknown Poole. As is the case with much of Crispell’s music over the last two decades, much of this playing is understated and lyrical (if unpredictably so). This subtlety is matched by Poole and Peacock, and the disc opens in a gorgeous and limpid space where all three gently probe simple intervallic figures. Poole stands out for his sensitivity and reserve, with his spare cymbal work on the deeply melancholy “Ahzan” keeping things in a kind of incandescent space. This is the method on the majority of these mostly improvised pieces: a slow, patient fanning of flames that eschews eruption in favor of resonant tensional space.

This isn’t to say that there’s no contrast or drive here, only that it’s contextualized smartly and elegantly. “Backseat of the Galaxy” seems to rumble forward with intent, but then backs off into a kind of stuttering, three-way staccato. “Dichotomy” fittingly swerves between Peacock’s ruminations and aggressive percussive playing from Crispell and Poole (who sounds marvelously like Baby Sommer here, setting up a really nice set of rolling patterns that contrasts with Crispell’s jabbing angles). And they even dip into an understated, abstracted South African groove on “Serakunda,” with some gloriously bright pianism at the end, unfurling in double-time. But while I dig these quicksilver moments, including Poole’s careful use of tuned toms on “Blue Streets Up and Down” or the lithe swing on “Gary’s Theme,” I have to say that I still fell most of all for the ballads. Whatever your preference, it’s a very strong date from Crispell and company.
–Jason Bivins


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