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Reviews of Recent Recordings


The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues
Cuneiform Rune 425

Eleven years into its career resurgence, The Microscopic Septet has released as many albums in its second phase as it had during its first, which ran from 1980 to 1992. Reformed in 2006 to celebrate the reissue of the band’s seminal releases, co-founding soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester decided to reactivate the ensemble, yielding another spate of timeless records. Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is the venerable unit’s fourth recording since its reunification, following 2014’s Manhattan Moonrise, 2010’s Friday The 13th: The Micros Play Monk, and 2008’s Lobster Leaps In, all issued by Cuneiform.

The Micros’ latest effort takes the same irreverent view of genre as its prior releases. As stated by Johnston, the band’s ethos has always been to “break all the rules and respect all the saints,” while simultaneously hewing to the band’s prime directive that “it’s gotta swing ... that’s the foundation of what we do.” As with previous projects, Johnston and Forrester split writing duties, drawing from a dense playbook of unrecorded songs that eschew conventional forms in favor of a more episodic approach, invoking various eras of jazz ensemble arrangement, as well as the influence of rock, R&B, and related styles.

Although the blues have long been a foundation of the group’s work, they’re used merely as a launching point. The septet evokes a noir atmosphere on the cinematic opener “Cat Toys,” and Ellingtonian splendor on the lush “12 Angry Birds,” with other tunes ranging further afield. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, “When It’s Getting Dark” – originally written for Public Servants, a rock band that featured a number of Micros – employs a jagged riff similar to the Batman theme, while Forrester boldly revamps the classic Christmas carol “Silent Night” as a moody existential blues.

Longstanding band members are heavily featured throughout the set: Dave Sewelson drives the jaunty angles of “Blues Cubistico” with his brawny baritone; the stomping “Don’t Mind If I Do” finds altoist Don Davis and tenorist Mike Hashim alternating sinuous leads; Dave Hofstra provides a lyrical introduction to the sultry “Dark Blue” on upright bass; and drummer Richard Dworkin imbues the proceedings with lively swing, no matter the meter. The co-leaders get their fair share of the spotlight too. Johnston’s introspective soprano adds cerulean hues to “12 Angry Birds,” while Forrester’s whimsical angularity takes center stage on “Quizzical,” with subtle nods to Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols.

Embracing the blues in spirit, the Micros’ eighth long-player is another standout in the discography of creative improvised music’s most enduring neo-traditionalists. Brimming with uproarious melodies, ebullient shout choruses, driving rhythms and a bevy of probing solos, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me transcends time and place, combining the primal jubilance of early jazz with a singularly contemporary aesthetic.
–Troy Collins


Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Loafer’s Hollow
Hot Cup 161

Since its inception in 2003, self-proclaimed “terrorist bebop” band Mostly Other People Do the Killing has been steadfastly reinforcing its reputation as a group of post-modern pranksters. Over the last few years, the unit has undergone significant personnel changes and occasionally augmented its ranks, without ever effecting its overall sound or approach. Bassist, principal composer, and bandleader Moppa Elliott has stated that the ensemble was “founded on the idea that not only is jazz still alive and vibrant, but it can and should be fun, engaging and thoroughly contemporary.”

In that spirit, they have been anything but predictable; a deconstruction of smooth jazz appeared on 2013’s Slippery Rock!, followed a year later by Blue, a note for note recreation of Miles Davis’ classic, Kind of Blue. In-between these two diametrically opposed releases, the band issued Red Hot, its first foray featuring extra players – and significantly – the first effort by Elliott to draw inspiration exclusively from Pre-War jazz styles.

Loafer’s Hollow comes as somewhat of a surprise then, being the first album in the group’s discography to cover previously explored territory. The record sounds like a natural follow-up to Red Hot; the material is even executed by a familiar roster. The core personnel of Elliott, longstanding drummer Kevin Shea, co-founding saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and most recent member, pianist Ron Stabinsky, are joined once again by banjo wizard Brandon Seabrook and legendary bass trombonist David Taylor, with iconic slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein filling the void left by former trumpeter Peter Evans.

Named after a small town in Pennsylvania, Loafer’s Hollow draws heavily from the 1930s-1940s swing era for its infectious motifs, regaling with irreverent takes on Dixieland (“Hi-Nella”), blues (“Honey Hole”), and even aleatoric abstraction (“Kilgore (for Kurt Vonnegut)”). Partially inspired by the writing of Elliott’s favorite authors, these vivacious tunes incorporate a dizzying array of quotes and interpolations; “Mason and Dixon (for Thomas Pynchon)” borrows the rousing theme of Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” while “Meridian (for Cormac McCarthy)” invokes none other than the saccharine waltz-time melody of Huey Lewis and the News’ 1983 pop hit “If This Is It.”

But for all the band members’ capriciousness, their cheeky hi-jinx never overwhelm the proceedings. Bernstein’s serpentine cadences, Taylor’s guttural tailgating, and Seabrook’s blazing fretwork add authenticity to the set’s period sensibility – emboldened by a modern, avant-garde edge. Irabagon’s freewheeling sopranino excursions extend Steve Lacy’s unique vocabulary and the rhythm section plays fast and loose with harmony, melody and rhythm, keeping the music fresh and unpredictable, despite the familiarity of Elliott’s captivating themes.

Encompassing everything from Ragtime to pop, Mostly Other People Do the Killing never fails to surprise and entertain. Far from staid or formulaic, Elliott’s writing captures the feel of a bygone era, while simultaneously imbuing venerable forms with his own idiosyncratic aesthetic. Loafer’s Hollow might not break new ground, but it is one of the band’s most accessible offerings, and an excellent entry point for the curious.
–Troy Collins


Musica Electtronica Viva
Symphony No 106
Victo cd 129

From their inception in 1966 in Rome, Musica Electtronica Viva has always operated at the intersections of the disparate experiences of the collective membership. The core of the group, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum, all came from formal compositional backgrounds steeped in 20th century modernism. Curran studied with Elliott Carter at Yale; Rzewski with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Harvard and Princeton; and Teitelbaum with Mel Powell at Yale, and with Luigi Nono while on a Fulbright scholarship in Italy. By the time the three had settled in Rome in the mid-60’s, they joined forces with expats including Allan Bryant, Ivan Vandar, and others, and had begun incorporating electronics, contact microphones, early synthesizers, and tape manipulations into their work. The resulting open-form structures and raw sonic experimentation were a rough-hewn response to the formal strictures of their academic backgrounds. Over the course of the next five decades, the core trio has continued to extend and refine their strategies, collaborating with musicians from a variety of backgrounds, notably Steve Lacy, George Lewis, and Garrett List.

Early recordings like Spacecraft reveal unbridled spontaneity bristling with anarchic energy, coaxed from the clatter of amplified glass plates and springs, scavenged junk, Moog synthesizers and hacked electronic organ, and skirling saxophones. The music exploded with ideas crashing into each other with brash abandon. By the late ‘80s (as evidenced by pieces included on the MEV 40 box released on New World Records), they were a tighter unit and the advances in synthesizers and samplers they were working with somehow had a leavening effect on their music. Fast forward to their set at the 2016 edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, and one encounters three musicians with years of experience and state-of-the-art technology working their way through a concert-long continuous performance incorporating a variety of electro-acoustic interactions.

Rzewski’s piano stands out against the scribbles, sputters, and sonic washes of Curran and Teitelbaum’s synthesizers and samplers. Harmonica, shofar, and vocals peek in and out, including the harrowing story Rzewski tells about his grandfather being kidnapped by Cossacks in 1914. The playing is accomplished and polished throughout, particularly Rzewski’s piano, which incorporates flashes of his stately solo piano compositions. At just over an hour, the collective improvisation wends its way along in an episodic manner, but the shambolic transitions too often, particularly those triggered by samples of pop and hip-hop, seem more arbitrary than integral to their overall strategies, diluting the arc and energy of the overall piece. That said, there are strong moments throughout this piece and one certainly applauds the longevity of this group and their many achievements.
–Michael Rosenstein


Ivo Perelman/Karl Berger/Gerald Cleaver
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 1
Leo Records CD LR 771

Ivo Perelman/Matt Maneri/Whit Dickey
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2
Leo Records CD LR 772

Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp/Gerald Cleaver
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 3
Leo Records CD LR 773

Ivo Perelman/William Parker/Gerald Cleaver
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 4
Leo Records CD LR 774

Ivo Perelman/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 5
Leo Records CD LR 775

Ivo Perelman/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver
The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 6
Leo Records CD LR 776

The prolific Ivo Perelman recently released six albums recorded during 2015 and 2016 that document his take on free improvisation in a trio setting. Each disc features different personnel and instrumentation, revealing how Perelman approaches playing in different contexts. The participants are also frequent collaborators of Perelman’s, so these sets lie somewhere on the spectrum between a pickup date and recordings by a few dedicated working bands. As a whole, the collection contains some stellar playing, as well as a couple very good albums. But it is also inconsistent, at times frustrating, and occasionally flat. Moreover, these six albums also ask larger questions about artistic production and the best ways to present one’s work.

The key to each volume’s success can be thought of in terms of the balance between proactive and reactive playing. In the liner notes Perelman describes his role as that of the provocateur. On the other hand, Gerald Cleaver – who appears on all but one volume – is described as being tasked with reacting to Perelman’s provocations. Upon digging in to each recording it appears the third member moves between both roles. When the trio asserts itself as a unit, things begin to come alive; when reaction predominates, the music stagnates.

Volume 1, featuring Karl Berger – on piano, rather than vibes – is an example of what happens when the former approach dictates terms. Perelman is in a somewhat rhapsodic mode throughout (although there are several moments of agitation and anxiety), the textures are relatively thin, and Berger integrates more impressionistic voicings and colors. But on the whole one gets the feeling that this is a group that hasn’t played together and has yet to find its identity and voice. What is their shared goal? What direction do they want to take the music? What do they want say? At times it feels like the trio is not sure where the answers can be found.

The other album with the tenor/piano/drums lineup is Volume 3, which features Matthew Shipp and has a clearer sense of direction and purpose. Shipp provides much of the album’s intrigue, as he presents Perelman and Cleaver with mazes and puzzles, colors and rhythms, and questions that require responses. Throughout Perelman favors his subtone and there are plenty of quieter, more introspective moments.  The rapport the trio shares is abundantly evident (“Part 5” really cooks), yet despite the incredible level of musicianship and inventiveness of the players, surprises are few and far between. Volume 3 is a solid record, but the envelope wasn’t pushed enough.

The two discs with the more standard tenor/bass/drums configuration – volumes four and six – get closer to striking the right balance between proactive and reactive playing. On Volume 4, Cleaver and William Parker work well together, locking down both implied and explicit tempos and different grooves and rhythmic feels. During the album’s forty-minute centerpiece the pair pushes Perelman while he systematically works out endless ideas. Yet, it is almost as if Perelman is so caught up in his improvisation that he doesn’t take full advantage of Cleaver and Parker, as there seems to be little two-way interaction between him and the rhythm section. It isn’t until the final minute in which he meets his bandmates halfway; it’s fresh and compelling, and an all-too-brief glimpse into what might have been.

Featuring Joe Morris on bass, Volume 6 is a completely different affair from the Parker-anchored trio; it is easily the strongest album of the series from top to bottom. Recorded live at The Manhattan Inn in Brooklyn, the trio’s performance is inspired and holds the listener’s attention. Right out of the gate Morris and Cleaver supply a healthy dose of horsepower, which Perelman puts to use in productive ways. One gets the sense that Perelman is pushing things and moving beyond his comfort zone of relentless runs and altissimo acrobatics. Over the course of the forty-four minute track the listener encounters a greater diversity of moods, textures, ideas, and dynamic contrast. Where much of Volume 4 was a lot of the same again and again, Volume 6 offers variety and narrative: brief moments of tenderness segue into a medium walking swing; references to “Everything Happens to Me” set up altissimo tenor runs; Perelman fades out, Morris’ inventive arco solo fades in. Where the former album suggested a divide between Perelman and the rhythm section, the latter reveals three players working as one. While this is an excellent record, one wonders how much better it could have been if this band was Perelman’s primary focus. The results could be stunning. As it is, it is a one-off in a series of one-offs.

Volume 5 also features Morris, this time on guitar. Like the first three volumes, this album contains a series of shorter improvisations as opposed to centering the album on a forty-plus minute workout. Each piece is distinct and conveys its own character and vibe. Throughout the album Perelman and Morris converse and spar, and on a few occasions whip up a frenzied whirlwind. The trio also tells stories, with many pieces offering a clear narrative and direction. Perelman steps back more often as well, opening up space for his mates to solo. Like much of the rest of the collection there aren’t many moments of astonishment or surprise; this set’s take home is about appreciating and enjoying the group’s interaction.

Another of the collection’s standouts is Volume 2, which is the only volume without Cleaver; here, Whit Dickey sits behind the kit. Matt Maneri rounds out the trio and proves to be an ideal match for Perelman. The pair are equal partners, and in almost every sense – melodic shape, timbre, rhythm, range – they overlap just enough so at times their sound and ideas almost disappear into each other before emerging on the other side in unexpected places (the overtones the pair produce on long held notes are stunning). It is as if each player is seeing who can work out the solution to the same problem in the quickest and most novel way, which makes for stimulating and at times exciting listening. Like Volume 6, this album exudes intensity, drive, and sense of purpose while demonstrating that improvisation is made more compelling and spontaneous when all parties are tasked equally with provoking his peers and responding in kind. The album’s only weakness represents one of the collection’s issues as a whole. Volume 2 is a really great thirty-five minute album. The only problem is it that it is fifty-one minutes long and has three cuts that, while fine on their own, don’t add much to the album. And therein resides the elephant in the recording studio: editing.

Taken together, these six volumes prompt a number of questions, most of which have to do with the sheer amount of music here as well as in Perelman’s recent discography. Just last summer he released five other albums: another duo outing with Shipp; one with Berger; one with Morris; a quartet date with Shipp, Dickey, and Michael Bisio; and another quartet date with Maneri, Morris, and Cleaver. And as of this writing he just released a seven-disc collection of duos with Shipp. Eighteen albums in nine months is an awful lot of music, and in the Village Voice’s review of the seven duo discs with Shipp, Perelman suggests that 2017 may see more releases from him. Does any musician – no matter how important – need to release so much work so quickly in such a short amount of time? I would think not. Does Perelman’s massive recent output dilute the body of his work? Absolutely. It is incredibly hard to be consistently captivating and innovative when recording so often. And as is the case with other musicians with similarly rapidly expanding discographies such as Satoko Fujii, Anthony Braxton, and John Zorn, a lot is bound to get lost in the shuffle. Volume 6 deserves an audience, but will that audience be able to pick it out of a lineup with seventeen other Perelman albums? Ultimately, the listener must ask herself: how much of Perelman’s music is essential? With so much to sort through, she may never find out.
–Chris Robinson

New World

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