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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Keith Rowe
The Room Extended
ErstSolo 004-4

I remember first hearing Keith Rowe’s “A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality” when it came out in the early ‘90s. I knew Rowe’s playing as a key component of AMM but this was the first opportunity I had to immerse myself in his solo vision. In the liner notes to that release, John Tilbury talked about the “subversive and disruptive features” of Rowe’s playing and described the music this way: “... the phrasing and articulation ‘situational’, determined spontaneously by the idiosyncrasies of individual sounds at particular moments, by the ambience and its acoustical properties, by the dimension and character of the performing space.” While these elements of Rowe’s playing were paramount to his contribution to AMM, they were laid out with a particular focus in his solo playing on this release. In the time since, Rowe has put out a handful of solo recordings, primarily documenting live performances, the notable exception being The Room a 2007 release which kicked of ErstSolo, an imprint of Erstwhile records dedicated to solo recordings.

As Tilbury notes above, “dimension and character of the performing space” are always integral elements to Rowe’s live performances. Listen to “Concentration of the Stare,” recorded at the Rothko Chapel, or “September,” recorded in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2011 and both time and place fully imbue the trajectory and densities of Rowe’s playing. The solo from the Rothko Chapel builds with a slow, introspective buzz and hum while “September” has a harsh intensity tempered by sections of classical music dropped in. Rowe talked about his decision to begin utilizing long sections of classical music in this description of his preparation for a 2008 solo concert in Tokyo, which was released on Erstwhile as ErstLive 007. “Thinking about the forthcoming solo, I felt the need to somehow make clear “who I was”: what my background is, what are my concerns? Something about my interest, the music I love, the sounds that have influenced me, during the performance I came to realise[sp] these could be regarded as “Cultural Templates”. Also important was the desire to feel a freedom with regard to the performance’s shape and content, along with the freedom to break rules. For almost half of the solo’s duration, I utilize[sp] long sections of pre-recorded classical music unprocessed, unaltered, and presented as it is, I considered this a break from the normal expectations.” Rowe often talks about collaborations as musicians acting as accompanists to each other and this sensibility is carried through to his solos where he constantly balances and shifts layers which build on each other.

The release of The Room Extended, a 4CD set clocking in at 246 minutes, almost a decade after The Room, is a groundbreaking opus for Rowe, bring together threads of his work over a 50-year career into a beguiling, multi-layered piece. One can hear seeds of what he builds here in The Room, in the way that multi-layered densities accrue and dissipate. For that release, Rowe spent days recording at home, pouring through the dozens of hours he captured to pull together the final piece. One hears a tensile balance between the spontaneity of his live improvisations and the compositional placement of events across the ensuing structure. Rowe started on The Room Extended in 2013 and worked for the next four years, gathering together core components from fragments of live performances, sections from recordings, and cataloging of the sounds of his treated, modified, and prepared guitars. As always, radio grabs become intrinsic elements along with carefully compiled recordings of Western classical and non-Western musical fragments. In performance, Rowe has often utilized the amplified sound of drawing and those activities are evident as well.

Working in a painterly fashion Rowe contemplatively layers multi-hued striations of parallel events. His placement of every sound and silence is tracked within the mercurial undercurrents of the overall form across the entire 4-hour duration. It is enthralling to hear how the entire recording works as a whole. But at the same time, each of the four CDs seem to stand on its own. It is as if each CD is a movement in the overarching structure. The recording was originally considered for release on DVD/Blu-Ray Disc, but that was eventually rejected, instead, opting for a 4-CD set. And with Rowe’s hyper-focus on placement of sound and silence, one assumes that the split of each CD was as clearly orchestrated as the music contained. The start of each CD is so strong and the endings so definitive, yet the thread is continued from one disc to the next.

Forceful slabs of density surface and recede against transitory wafting, stratified events. Rowe draws on a rich palette of electronic sounds, with hums and hiss set off against buzzes and crackles, each pop and click creating warp and weft of the bristling scrim. The depth and range of density and timbre he conjures are enthralling throughout. Abraded textures of scraped stings and surfaces provide gestural counterpoint as does his use of resonating plucked and struck strings which are particularly striking as they emerge out of the mix. Inky silences are placed throughout, sometimes with artifacts of room ambience and other times, just empty space. Both the placement of these silences and their duration are definitive and foundational to the piece, providing gripping interludes and pivot points for the music.

Radio grabs and sections of unprocessed recordings also provide major touchpoints throughout. Rowe’s use of radio grabs have become a signature element of his playing, too often appropriated by musicians who lack his keen ear. Though seemingly random, they are anything but that, as he carefully tunes, catalogues, and queues things to be introduced with reflective purpose. During the course of the piece, Western classical instrumental and vocal music provides focal points which Rowe lets run, often for extended periods. Non-Western selections also emerge with enough presence to catch attention but not quite enough to fully identify (at least to my ear.) Radio segments are also introduced, at times providing the merest trace as they are tuned in and out, at other times providing an almost jarring placement intruding on the sonic landscape.

Ultimately, what is central to the piece is the predominating sense of place; the ambiences and sonic qualities of a personal space. This sense of a Room Extended imbues the entire recording fixing it in time and creating a singular sonic presence. There is a labyrinthine progression that emerges bereft of linear development, instead, informed by references that pop up and fold back on themselves. During the recording process, Rowe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, symptoms of which had been emerging over the last few years. (The cover images are scans of Rowe’s brain.) This knowledge adds nuanced depth and poignancy when listening to this epic work. Concerted listening to this over the past month has been a profound experience, particularly in a time that is quite troubling on so many fronts. And even after repeated listens, I feel like I am barely scratching the surface.
–Michael Rosenstein


Aki Takase + David Murray
Cherry – Sakura
Intakt 278

Expectations often run unfairly high when two musicians of this stature meet for a recording. The catalogue is filled with as many misses as hits, since personalities so distinct and established sometimes don’t mesh so easily. Have no fear in the case of the Murray/Takase summit, focused on each musician’s compositions. On this disc of admirably succinct length, they serve up a program that’s elegant, varied, expressive and pretty darn fun.

It’s an interesting move to open with the searching, balladic title track, but it’s effective. More than just emotional ambiance created by fulsome piano and Murray’s assured long tones, “Cherry – Sakura” (the famed Japanese cherry blossoms, in case you’re wondering) sounds midway between a Mingus threnody and something Murray and Butch Morris might have co-written. It’s easy to get lost in how majestic Murray’s tone remains when listening to him on a lyrical piece like this, but the pair take the tune to the outside as well, goosed by Takase going ever so slightly craggy or spiky. But after this relatively subdued opening statement, the duo dives into the uproarious, bustling “A Very Long Letter.” They let loose in a display of serious chops, and from the tangle of long spooling lines and big cloud chords, the tasty post-bop head pops up as the closing statement.

Murray’s earthy bass clarinet grounds a sweet, winsome version of Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” where Takase’s multi-directional playing is exceptional, evoking Jaki Byard in places. This kind of stylistic range is emblematic not just of the record’s sequence but of these two musicians’ own compositional imagination. They range from the somewhat more conventionally lyrical ballad “To A.P. Kern,” to Murray’s challenging boppish workout “Stressology” (whose speed and harmonic complexity they navigate impressively); from a nice slice of blues to the big-toned, anthemic closer “Long March to Freedom.” But a special highlight, worth singling out, is “Nobuko,” one of Takase’s most affecting themes. It’s given a fascinating performance: Murray hews very closely to the line, but Takase’s own solo is highly abstracted for much of its duration, only late gathering up fragments for reassemblage. The record is top drawer, with nary a dull spot. Here’s hoping Intakt is lining up a second helping.
–Jason Bivins


Various Artists
Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49
Mosaic 264

Following up on their recent collections documenting Lester Young with Basie and the complete sessions from Bee Hive records, Mosaic Records presents a capacious collection of music from one of the most important labels of the bebop era. When jazz impresario Teddy Reig began producing records for Savoy in 1945, it wasn’t long before he directed Charlie Parker’s first recording date as a leader, helping to introduce the newest development in jazz to a mass audience. Over the next four years Reig would produce dozens of bebop, swing, and blues sessions for the label. The thirty-four sessions in Mosaic’s Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49, which are spread across ten discs, include all of the bebop sides recorded for Savoy during Reig’s four years there, most of which he produced. However, the set does not include Bird’s canonical recordings, as they are widely available. While Savoy was one of many labels recording bebop at this time, Mosaic’s collection presents a panoramic view of the musical revolution that forever changed American music while offering a window into the diversity of practices labeled “bebop.”

One of the set’s major hallmarks is the stunning number of recordings by artists making their debut appearances as either sideman or leader. Sonny Stitt and Kenny Dorham’s August, 1946 session was their first as a leader. At 22 and 21 years of age, respectively, Stitt and Dorham sound almost fully formed. Stan Getz’s debut as a leader, which featured Hank Jones, Curly Russell, and Max Roach, is quite a surprise when compared to his iconic bossa nova albums; at 19 he was already one hell of a bebopper. The only Savoy bebop session to exclusively feature vocals was Kenny Hagood’s 1947 debut outing, on which the Benny Carter big band alum was backed by John Lewis’ septet. The date’s three cuts showcase Hagood’s expressive baritone and Lewis’ lush arrangements. The collection also includes the first recordings that Serge Chaloff, Leo Parker, Allen Eager, and Fats Navarro, among others, made as leaders.

Bird, Miles, and Monk are just about the only major bebop figures from this time period who are absent (Dizzy appears on Ray Brown’s debut session under the name Izzy Goldberg). The set is loaded with sideman appearances by players including Bud Powell, Max Roach, Hank Jones, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy and Percy Heath, and Billy Eckstine. One hears Rollins serving as J.J. Johnson’s counterpoint; Blakey propelled the Dexter Gordon Quintette five days after doing the same for the Fats Navarro Quintette; and Jones was the pianist of choice for several leaders. A pleasant surprise is the appearance of French horn player Julius Watkins, who appears as a featured soloist on dates with Kenny Clarke and Milt Jackson.

Aside from the musical and historical importance of these cuts, what really becomes apparent is the inadequacy of genre labels, which is made ever more so given that the mid to late ‘40s occupied a transitional moment in the music’s development. For instance, take Leo Parker, whose monstrous bari sound and facility is felt in the playing of Pepper Adams, Gary Smulyan, and others. On his March 23, 1948 session he unleashes ripping bebop lines on “Dinky” and mixes bebop and swing vocabularies on “Leo’s Bells (Leo’s Blues),” while “Chase ‘N’ Lion” is a straight up bar-walking boogie woogie. There are also some intriguing front line pairings: Eddie Davis is joined on his December, 1946 session by Fats Navarro. The dialectic juxtaposition of Navarro’s lithe bebop sentences against Davis’ brawny swing tenor (dig the “Oh Susanna” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” quotes!) make for riveting music that is neither swing nor bop. Many of the sessions also come out of swing more so than bebop, especially in terms of tenor playing. While Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Rouse are clearly rooted in bebop, Lester Young’s legacy is strongly represented in performances by Allen Eager, Brew Moore, as well as Stan Getz’s 1949 date, which included Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. And there are several sidemen appearances by players who would make their name in West Coast/cool jazz (itself a problematic label) such as Shelley Manne, Shorty Rogers, and Gerry Mulligan. That all this stylistic variation, intermingling, and juxtaposition exists under the umbrella of bebop demonstrates and emphasizes the ways in which labels tend to place arbitrary divisions within fluid fields of artistic practice and flatten the dynamism of a musical and cultural milieu.

The only thing to quibble about this set is the sequencing: alternate takes appear right next to the masters rather than placed at the end of each disc. As great as Leo Parker’s All Stars are (the group includes Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, and Hank Jones), hearing four consecutive takes of “Wee Dot” followed two tracks later by four consecutive takes of “The Lion’s Roar” doesn’t exactly make for a captivating listening experience. Instances like this appear on each disc. That being said, after putting each of them on my computer I made several playlists, including one of only master takes, a Dexter Gordon one, a Fats Navarro one, and so on. The set contains so much music that one can organize it in any number of ways, whether creating a single disc’s worth by one artist or building a “box set” within the set itself.

As with every Mosaic set this one is exceptionally produced. The sound quality is excellent, Neil Tesser’s and Bob Porter’s liner notes are informative, and there are dozens of photographs, although most of them come from recording sessions these musicians made for Blue Note. For those who can afford the $169.00 price tag, Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49 offers a collection of bebop with the breadth and depth that few others can match, making it an essential addition to every jazz fan’s library.
–Chris Robinson

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