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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Lisa Mezzacappa
Clean Feed CF401CD

Lisa Mezzacappa’s avantNOIR is an album-length suite for sextet, inspired by the contrabassist’s lifelong fascination with noir genre fiction. Mezzacappa (who relocated from New York to San Francisco 13 years ago), views the work as an abstract aural companion to the soft-boiled crime stories of Paul Auster’s 1980’s New York Trilogy, and the hard-boiled 1920s-era detective fiction of West Coast-based author Dashiell Hammett.

Unfolding incrementally like a private eye’s investigation, the music builds a compelling case from myriad clues, such as maps, letters, numbers, and places. The labyrinthine compositions expertly balance acoustic and electric tonalities with pre-written and improvised materials, augmented by field recordings and sampled dialogue from film noir classics. Interpreting “unsolved” musical elements like cryptograms, the band members generate different versions of the piece each time it is performed live.

Cinematic in scope, the music evokes a seedy metropolis after dark, alternating passages of dramatic tension with action-packed sequences. The net-effect is similar to John Zorn’s “Spillane” (from the landmark 1987 Nonesuch recording of the same name), albeit less frenzied in its stylistic transitions. Zorn used concise genre themes and pithy solos with voice-over narration to striking effect, whereas Mezzacappa employs contrapuntal orchestrations, interlocking rhythms, and non-linear structures that encourage extended improvisation, with spoken-word interjections used to accentuate the action; “Bird in the Hand” features audio samples from The Maltese Falcon, for example.

Mezzacappa is joined by guitarist John Finkbeiner and tenor saxophonist Aaron Bennett, who have been members of the leader’s Bait & Switch quartet for nine years; their interplay fortifies the lyrical foundation of this inspired unit. Rounding out the rhythm section is the versatile Jordan Glenn, one of the Bay Area’s most in-demand drummers; Tim Perkis, the esteemed laptop improviser whose contributions add kaleidoscopic layers of sound; and veteran percussionist William Winant, playing vibraphone and Foley sound effects like hotel desk bells, rotary phone, typewriter, etc. – generating familiar sounds that firmly reinforce the proceedings’ underlying concept.

As a cumulative gesture, the album’s final cut is emblematic. “Babel” is an unconventional structure that begins with a faded voiceover, Bennett’s breathy ruminations, and Finkbeiner’s volume swells swirling over a sauntering backbeat, which builds – underscored by Winant’s scintillating vibes – to a dramatic crescendo, driven by the leader’s steadfast basslines. The ensemble shifts between fractured time and overdrive, with frenetic unison choruses and a grooving pulse fueling Perkis’ burbling electronics and the saxophonist’s brawny tenor. A brief understated coda suddenly concludes the session with an unexpected flourish of mystery, apropos of its subject matter.
–Troy Collins


Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
FPE Records FPE 012

Nicole Mitchell is widely regarded as one of today’s most innovative flutists. Over the past decade, her abiding interest in science fiction has gradually revealed itself in long-form compositions based on futuristic themes. In 2008 she issued Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (Firehouse 12), followed two years later by Intergalactic Beings (FPE), an experimental tone poem inspired by Butler’s fiction.

Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is Mitchell’s second release for FPE Records. The album-length suite uses a science fiction-based backstory to pose the question, “What would a world look like that is truly egalitarian, with advanced technology that is in tune with nature?” In addition to Butler’s writing, Mitchell’s latest work was inspired by anthropologist Reine Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. In her book, Eisler re-examines history through the lens of two different societies, addressing the duality of creative and destructive cultures – one feminine (chalice), and the other masculine (blade). Rather than merely portraying a dystopian or utopian future, Mitchell merges the chalice with the blade, yielding a hybrid that is equal parts female and male, rural and urban, acoustic and electric.

The world premier concert recording (taped at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May of 2015) features an expanded version of her longstanding Black Earth Ensemble, performing in tandem with Ulysses Jenkins’ video and lighting displays. Although devoid of a traditional script, the work conveys its narrative through Mitchell’s eclectic score and Jenkins’ striking visuals. Incorporating lyrics into predominantly instrumental arrangements, Mitchell explains “I have felt the need to have a clearer message in my music – pure instrumental music hasn’t been enough for me for a while.” The current version of Mitchell’s Ensemble features many longtime collaborators, including violinist Renée Baker, cellist Tomeka Reid, electric guitarist Alex Wing, and percussionist Jovia Armstrong, who are joined by bassist Tatsu Aoki, shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, and the poet avery r young.

The work explores what Mitchell describes as a “collision of dualities,” recounting the journey of a couple caught between the World Union, a (masculine) society in decline, plagued by injustice and inequality, and Mandorla, a (feminine) utopia where spirituality and technology coexist with nature. Like her prior efforts, this Afrofuturist opus incorporates an array of genres, seamlessly fusing contemporary classical, indigenous folk, and gospelized funk with electrifying post-rock and rousing spoken word passages.

After a percussive fanfare, amplified by Wing’s scorching fretwork, the set progresses through a variety of moods, ranging from the pastoral ambience of “Dance of Many Hands” to the exotic Asiatic groove of “Listening Embrace.” Funky vamps underscore young’s soulful testimonials on “Staircase Struggle” and “Shiny Divider” towards the end of the program, with lyrics like “we keep on doing the same thing over and over and over again” reinforcing Mitchell’s message. Despite its futuristic setting, Mandorla Awakening speaks to our current socio-political climate, seeking a way ahead against what seems like insurmountable odds.
–Troy Collins


Jason Rigby: Detroit-Cleveland Trio
Fresh Sound New Talent 505

Jason Rigby is an impressive saxophone player purely in terms of ambition, eclecticism, and technique. Tenor is his favored sax and there’s a lot of John Coltrane in his sound and his shattered phrasing. You hear that from the very first  track, the sax-drums duet “Dive Bar,” and though he does not get to screams or multiphonics, mid-‘60s Trane runs through much of the album: flurries of fast lines, lots of nagging at three-note licks, repeating them, sequencing them. In his one soprano sax solo, “Speak Like a Child,” he alternates passages of nagging at little licks with passages of fast, twining, down-turning phrases, a form that hints at Coltrane’s cyclic-form solos, “Out of This World” for instance. His “Dewey” solo climaxes early with a three-note lick that rises, peaks, and is then varied and evolved at length – it’s a set piece, his showpiece.

This description certainly doesn’t fit his “Dorian Gray” solos, which are melodic, with longer phrases that twist and curve like freebop and hard bop. Here Rigby’s way of motive evolution suggests a more subtle concern for form. The album includes two imaginative standard songs. “You Are Too Beautiful” again shows his lyrical side, a hard-bop mood with free interruptions. “Embraceable You” is unaccompanied. Snatches of the theme peep out of a jungle of decorative lines, in a work that’s more oblique than Ornette Coleman’s classic version. I feel these three pieces; the others, for me, somehow seem distant.

Here’s cheers for Gerald Cleaver and Cameron Brown. The low, liberated thunder of Cleaver’s toms and cymbals opens “Dive Bar,” and his intensity is especially welcome throughout that hot duet. Elsewhere, the strong drummer and bassist Brown take short solos. Otherwise, Brown is more than an accompanist. He’s a sensitive player, his low, low notes dance, they’re buoyant and powerful, they uplift. Against Rigby’s dense solos, Brown plays busy, lyrical counterpoint that adds an ongoing line of intrigue, a kind of musical noir. The CD, then, is Brown’s and Cleaver’s well-being and Rigby’s searching.
–John Litweiler


Günter Baby Sommer
Le Piccole Cose: Live at the Theater Gütersloh
Intuition INTCHR 71321

Günter Baby Sommer leads an alert, lively quartet with trumpeter Manfred Schoof, reed player Gianluigi Trovesi, and bassist Antonio Borghini in a delightful concert recording from 2016. The music is rooted in the free jazz of the ‘60s, with nods to Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Albert Ayler, but that’s merely the starting point for some ebullient and witty music. Schoof’s “Like Don” sports a faux naïve melody that is very much like Don Cherry, but the performance is very much the band’s own. For one thing, Sommer sounds like no one else and his solo intro jumps lively with snap and vitality and its own sense of tension and release, direction, and economy of means. Schoof maintains a changing relationship to the underlying pulse, sometimes engaged in a close conversational back and forth with Sommer and Borghini, sometimes pinwheeling and soaring over them. Another Schoof composition, “Mellow Mood,” is also a descendent of Cherry’s world music innovations, in which the improvisations grow directly out of the written melody.

Sommer’s pieces provide some of the album’s highlights. His playful “Inside Outside Shout” begins with his vocal moans and shouts accompanied by toms and snare. It’s a shocking introduction to a rapidly mutating performance in which tempos, collective and solo improvisations, and Sommer’s colorful drumming create an ever-shifting sound collage. The drummer’s precise phrasing and explosive articulation usher in the march beat that undergirds much of “Andartes.” The horns dart around the edges of the beat, flirt with it, ignore it, reject it, as Sommer gradually loosens up it up into free energy. “Marias Miroloi” feels cinematic, as the horns swap parts of the melody between them and Sommer plays orchestra bells and sings a wordless lament. Trovesi’s keening alto over the pitter-patting of cymbals seems like a portrait of a funeral in the rain. The solemn “Hymnus,” played with dignified restraint by the band, ends the concert with a benediction.

The album closes with an eleven-minute interview with Sommer in German, but if you don’t sprechen Deutsch, there’s nearly an hour of first-rate music, the universal language.
–Ed Hazell

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