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Rova Saxophone Quartet + Kyle Bruckmann + Henry Kaiser
Steve Lacy’s Saxophone Special Revisited
Clean Feed CF415CD

Recorded in concert, December 1974 for Emanem, Steve Lacy’s Saxophone Special was taped two months after Anthony Braxton’s ground-breaking Arista LP, New York, Fall 1974. Each album featured the first appearance of a saxophone quartet in an avant-garde context, with Lacy’s singular effort augmented by electric guitar and analog synthesizer. Furthermore, both records were issued before the debut of the World Saxophone Quartet, who established the four-saxophone line-up as a new tradition, with Braxton’s experiments credited for the group’s formation.

Rova Saxophone Quartet co-founder, Lawrence Ochs, said that Saxophone Special “lit up the ears of the soon-to-be Rovas.” Over its four-decade existence, Rova has premiered some of the most advanced new compositions in the creative improvised music world. And yet, one of the West Coast-based institution’s most celebrated efforts, Electric Ascension (Atavistic, 2005), is not based on new music, but a radical reinterpretation of John Coltrane’s revolutionary 1965 opus. The group has since performed the long-form piece over a dozen times internationally, often accompanied by musicians drawn from areas beyond jazz. Rova has long prided itself on collaborating with other like-minded artists; the unit’s decision to reimagine a work as unique as Saxophone Special seems almost inevitable.

The 1974 concert featured Lacy and colleague Steve Potts working alongside Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, with incisive, even abrasive commentary from guitarist Derek Bailey, and un-tempered sounds from crackle box inventor Michael Waisvisz. The original program, with its well-documented lack of rehearsal and problematic recording, can now be appreciated as a visionary work ahead of its time – a rough draft open to interpretation by future generations. For its rendition, Rova’s saxophonists (Bruce Ackley: soprano; Steve Adams: alto; Ochs on tenor; and Jon Raskin: baritone) are joined by fellow West Coast guitarist Henry Kaiser, and recent transplant Kyle Bruckmann, playing analog synthesizers. Rova’s version is faithful but not slavish, although the quartet does hew close to Lacy’s original vision; “Sops” was the only cut to feature the saxophone quartet sans guitar and keyboard accompaniment – an arrangement Rova has maintained. The first five tracks replicate the sequence of the original album; two extra cuts originally written by Lacy, but re-arranged by Rova, are appended to the end.

Lacy’s innovations helped shape creative improvised music for decades; Rova’s saxophonists expand upon his developments, exploring intervals in seconds (both major and minor) that make up the capricious melodic foundation of these quirky tunes. Veering from lyrical variations to dissonant extrapolations, they embrace the entire range of their horns, incorporating extended techniques and vocalized sounds that Adolphe Sax likely never imagined possible. Similarly, Bailey and Waisvisz were originally employed as a “noise section” in Lacy’s words; Bruckmann provides a volatile electronic soundscape, while Kaiser’s texturally abstract fretwork is among his most fervent. More than a mere tribute, Steve Lacy’s Saxophone Special Revisited is an enthrallingly masterful collection – and a highly-personalized effort in its own right.
–Troy Collins


Jason Stein Quartet
Delmark DE 5025

Lucille! is Jason Stein’s follow-up to The Story This Time, the 2013 Delmark Records debut of his Quartet. This sophomore effort for the label evinces a somewhat more unified approach, focusing its efforts on a compellingly accessible Tristano-oriented program. Stein, a dedicated bass clarinetist, is one of relatively few jazz musicians to have mastered the instrument exclusively, without doubling on other reeds, unlike, for example, his frontline partner in this lineup, protean tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, who occasionally expands his vast timbral range with contrabass clarinet. Supported by fellow Chicagoan Joshua Abrams on upright bass, and New York-based veteran Tom Rainey on drums, the quartet imbues these nine appealing tunes with a cohesive sonic identity that draws upon the more angular permutations of bebop.

Besides three varied originals penned by Stein, the date includes two classics by visionary pianist Lennie Tristano (“Wow” and “April”), opening with “Marshmallow,” a buoyant swinger written by tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, one of Tristano’s most ardent devotees. An abstract interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” makes a striking appearance, as does a more contemporary inclusion: bassist Robert Hurst’s “Roused About,” originally composed in tribute to Charlie Rouse, Monk’s longstanding tenorist, and regularly performed by Hurst with Branford Marsalis. The program is rounded out by a telling rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity” that acknowledges Anthony Braxton’s influence (and love of Tristano), grounding the session in an adventurous bop-oriented mode that brings it conceptually full circle. Low clarinets are paired on this number, recalling not only the lyrical rapport shared by Marsh and altoist Lee Konitz in Tristano’s ensembles, but Braxton’s own contrabass clarinet interpretations of Parker tunes from such standards-based recordings as What’s New in the Tradition (SteepleChase, 1974).

Working through familiar material, the quartet seamlessly blends standardized chord progressions and impressionistic abstraction, yielding a rich, multi-layered listening experience. Rainey and Abrams modulate effortlessly between in-the-pocket swing, rubato pulses, and moody textural accents, alternately supporting and challenging the horns. Working in tandem, Stein and Jackson weave circuitous lines in unison one moment, punctuating bluesy solo refrains with multiphonic blats and altissimo cries the next. Revisiting established material in novel ways, Stein and company rework once innovative repertoire with the same exploratory zeal as their forbearers; the resultant session is adventurous but accessible, with a modernistic stance fortified by the gravitas of tradition.
–Troy Collins


Sun Ra
The Magic City
Cosmic Myth CMR001

The Magic City is, arguably, the pivotal recording of Sun Ra’s massive discography, as well as a touchstone in mapping his ascendancy in the jazz imagination from the 1950s to the present. This impeccably remastered version is cause for celebration; but at the same time, it provides conclusive evidence that the 1965 album was all but abused for decades since its initial release in a mono version on Saturn in ‘66. Shortly thereafter there was a flawed stereo pressing version on Thoth, Saturn’s subsidiary. In ‘73, Impulse reissued the album in what Victor Schonfield called “hideous fake stereo.” It was not until 1993 that a serviceable stereo remaster was released on Evidence. This new version greatly benefits from the expert restoration work of Ben Young and Joe Lizzi, the archivist-activist principals of the Triple Point label.

The markedly improved sound supports the accolades heaped upon the album by annotators Young, Christopher Trent and producer Irwin Chusid – it gives a familiar recording new bracing presence. However, the increased vividness of Sun Ra’s daring approach to instrumentation, structure, and the co-mingling of improvised and notated materials is cause to once again beg the question of why it had minimal impact upon release. After all, the Arkestra had been in New York for a few years. Sun Ra had networked with a wide band of influential artists – Olatunji, Katherine Dunham and the members of the Jazz Composers Guild. Still, the Arkestra played coffee houses for food and change as often as they had proper gigs as part of the October Revolution and other situations. The ineluctable answer is that, although they were based in New York, Sun Ra and the Arkestra were not of New York, contributing to their marginalization by record labels, promoters and media.

The album’s patchy history has led to the periodic reawakening to its importance, which may stick with a wider, younger listenership with this release. A quarter-century separates the Evidence and Cosmic Myth issues, during which John F. Szwed’s definitive critical biography precipitated a thorough reassessment of Sun Ra’s music. Despite evidence that it was edited, the title piece exemplifies Szwed’s frequently made point that extensive rehearsals – Sun Ra’s askesis – underpinned even its most feral passages. “The Magic City” is like a series of controlled explosions; but, instead of pointedly tearing down existing structures and methods, it opened up new vistas, albeit strange, foreboding and, given a running time of more than 26 minutes, initially indigestible.

A product-oriented producer like Bob Thiele would have undoubtedly reversed sides, leading the A side with “The Shadow World,” a strong example of the intersecting orbits of Sun Ra and space age jazz composers like George Russell. Employing sprinting 7/4 lines, knotted with quirky stops and starts, the performance includes a classic solo by John Gilmore, whose unique gravity in sound production and material development also benefits from the remastering. Granted: such a producer would have been at least tangentially aware of Gilmore’s stint with Art Blakey, if only through ‘S Make It, released on Limelight in ‘65.A synthesis of Gilmore’s hard-driving solos on the Blakey album – his vitality in such a setting is supported by his performance with the Messengers on BBC TV’s Jazz 625 – and his searing statement on “The Shadow World” may have complemented the terrain then being explored by Sam Rivers. And, such a producer may have gone to lengths to lure Gilmore away from Sun Ra on a more regular basis, if not permanently. Historically, coming soon after Gilmore’s return to the Arkestra, his solo on “The Shadow World” restates his commitment to Sun Ra’s music and regimen.

Beginning with the alto saxophone trio on “The Magic City,” the tympani solo on “The Shadow World,” and the bass marimba embellishments on “Abstract Eye” and “Abstract ‘I’,” there is a lengthy list of boldly original palettes and materials that placed light years between Sun Ra and advanced jazz, the latter two performances prompting comparisons to Alban Berg by Szwed. Although witheringly fiery at times, The Magic City places Sun Ra’s mythos closer to those of Harry Partch and Moondog than the spiritually striving Coltrane and Ayler. Along with the contemporaneous two-volume The Helocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, The Magic City establishes a cosmic modality, a post-theistic domain, an integral sound world. For Sun Ra, there is nothing to attain; it’s already there.
–Bill Shoemaker


Alex Ward
Weekertoft CD 6

A check on reveals the definition of the word proprioception as: “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. In humans, these stimuli are detected by nerves within the body itself, as well as by the semicircular canals of the inner ear.” That may be an odd choice for a solo clarinet recording. But Alex Ward’s new solo, his first since a recording from almost a decade ago, is all about movement and trajectory; how a listener perceives the development of ideas over extended improvisations.

Going back to Cremated Thoughts, his solo from 2008 on the Treader label, one hears the gestation of a solo voice. Melodic kernels, teased and tumbled phrases, flurries, overtones, pinched and squeezed notes, and silences are fit together, building a kind of modular logic. But as Ward readily admits, that release “was recorded at a time when I really only played solo when someone asked me to do so, it wasn't something I particularly worked on or pursued myself ... As a result, my approach to solo playing back then developed quite organically – I worked with the vocabulary that I'd developed for group playing ... an approach which highlighted the contrasts between different areas of my vocabulary by putting blocks of them in opposition to each other.”

Proprioception is altogether different in both intent and results. He spent the intervening time reflecting on a vocabulary for clarinet improvisation while synthesizing the broad range of music he has been involved in. He explains it this way. “I've been concerned in trying to integrate various aspects of what I do that previously I might have tended to keep separate – e.g. clarinet vs. guitar, electric vs. acoustic, composition vs. improvisation ... My natural tendency was to use the contrasts between them as a formal resource, but I wanted to move away from that potentially over-simplistic way of treating materials ... With that came an idea of a different way of dealing with the solo situation – one concerned much more with momentum and maintaining a certain type of energy at a high level over fairly lengthy periods of time.”

The first two pieces provide resourceful, resolute approaches to solo clarinet. Simple phrases are used to build an internal logic as they are repeated, inverted, twisted, burred, and plaited. Ward effectively eschews the trajectory of peaks of energy, instead letting a measured structure evolve. The 20-minute “Vestibular” is a particular standout, as he explores ebbs and flows of velocity while sustaining a central structural vigor throughout. “Tiptoes,” at around half that length, is more compact and evenly paced, while still maintaining the same vitality as the opener. Even when the density breaks with chafed and scrubbed breathy textures, around 9 minutes in, Ward doesn’t let the current of the piece flag.

The final piece, “Chasm,” introduces the use of amplification, distortion, reverb, and feedback. Ward explains that “it's an electric rather than an electronic setup, with the transformation of the sound mostly coming from the deliberate crudity of the amplification rather than actual treatments.” He is able to integrate the setup in a remarkably organic way to extend the timbres, moving seamlessly back and forth between purely acoustic playing, extended overtones, harmonics, and electric colorings. Circular breathing, skirling reeds, and harshly scumbled amplification sidle up against each other with attentive invention. Here, the structure of the piece is more granular, building gritty intensity and then opening things with pools of silence. Let’s hope it doesn’t go another decade before Ward decides to dive in to another solo endeavor.
–Michael Rosenstein


David S. Ware Trio
Live in New York, 2010
AUM Fidelity AUM 102/103 (DSW-ARC03)

Despite his long and storied career, it may be surprising to hear, especially given the importance of his quartet, that David S. Ware rarely performed in any of New York City’s institutional jazz clubs. That trend broke in October, 2010, when he played two sets at the Blue Note. Aside from documenting one of these rare NYC club dates in full, this two-disc set – the third installment of AUM Fidelity’s Ware archival series – is notable for two other reasons: it is one of the three times his Onecept trio (William Parker, Warren Smith) came together and the bulk of each set features Ware on straight alto, which, like Roland Kirk, he called a stritch.

The difference between Ware’s stritch and tenor are striking. While he and the trio’s musical language is consistent across both horns, the sonic and timbral characteristics make listening to each a somewhat distinct experience. At times, his stritch is almost barely recognizable as an alto – it could easily be mistaken for a tárogató – and the tone is occasionally a bit spread and uneven, as if he was putting tenor air through it. The fluency and fluidity with which he rapidly unspools ideas is startling, even for Ware devotees such as myself. One gets the feeling he is exploring what the smaller horn can do and what it allows him to say that the tenor may not. Whether alone or joined by Parker and Smith, Ware unfurls long expository statements with virtuosity and a mastery over phrasing, rhythm, and accent in ways that are exemplified by literary giants such as Thomas Pynchon. “4C” – a five-minute solo exhibition – is especially breathtaking. In these instances, Ware transcends the limitations that bar lines and time can impose; here it’s about shape, contour, line, exploration. Perhaps the evening’s most scintillating performance came in the last half of the second set. “5” opens with a lengthy call and response between Ware and Parker, in which they trade complimentary ideas. Smith enters, adding garnish to the friendly competition, and as the piece evolves the calling and responding shifts around the group, overlaps, and becomes blurry. Exhibiting a mix of both freedom and narrative structure, it’s the trio at its finest.

As good as Ware’s stritch playing is, it’s when he switches to tenor for the final third of each set that his performance really hits home. That big, enveloping, rich tone, and the way his sound somehow merges with and becomes one with his line; that’s what first drew me to Ware, and it’s what continues to captivate me. Those qualities are here in abundance. There’s a moment near the end of the night when Ware (on tenor) quotes a lullaby (“hush little baby, don’t say a word, papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird ...”). It’s a surprising and charming sequence. Just as that quote was an unexpected exclamation mark on the evening, so too is this recording within the context of Ware’s discography. For those who enjoyed Onecept, and are eager to check out Live in New York, there’s more to look forward to, as AUM Fidelity will release the trio’s 2010 performance at Vision Festival XV. More please.
—Chris Robinson

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