Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Geof Bradfield
Yes, and ... Music for Nine Improvisers
Delmark DE 5027

Saxophonist and composer Geof Bradfield, an Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, has been part of the fertile Chicago jazz scene since the early 2000s. Bridging the divide between the traditional and the avant-garde, his prior releases for Origin Records have explored a range of styles and themes: African Flowers (2010) traced the intersections between African folk forms and American jazz; as did Melba! (2013), a tribute to trombonist/arranger Melba Liston; while Our Roots (2015) was a rousing reinterpretation of Leadbelly’s music. His current offering, Yes and ... Music for Nine Improvisers, an album-length suite for large ensemble, is Bradfield’s most ambitious recording to date.

On his Delmark debut, and seventh album as a leader, Bradfield employs a nonet to present an eight-part suite inspired by the legendary Compass Players. Founded in 1955 in Chicago, The Compass Players (and its successor Second City), shaped the comedic landscape in the States more than any other comedy troupe. In Compass productions, long, complex set-ups alternated with short unwritten bits. This effort comprises several movements for the nonet with interstitial trios that precede them; longer, more structured pieces demonstrate Bradfield’s skills as an arranger with an ear for color and melody, while shorter pieces have less prewritten material, emulating the spontaneity of ad-libbed skits.

“Prelude” opens with a strong rhythmic focus by the trio Bradfield co-leads with longtime musical partners Clark Sommers and Dana Hall. Bradfield’s athletic tenor, Hall’s crackling drums and Sommers’ pulsating bass swing fervently, unveiling the leader’s musicality in a series of muscular post-bop variations. That energy is refracted on “In Flux”, a shape-shifting number for the nonet whose pedal-like groove alternates improvisations with lush chamber-like passages, featuring guitarist Scott Hesse’s cascading runs, Greg Ward’s ardent alto, and trumpeter Russ Johnson’s brassy lyricism. The somber “Chorale” follows, a short polyphonic horn trio with Johnson, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and trombonist Joel Adams that establishes the suite’s trajectory: long, heavily arranged compositions that utilize the entire band, offset by brief, less-structured interludes featuring assorted trios.

One of the virtues of Bradfield’s writing and arranging is his ability to work across stylistic boundaries, collaborating with figures usually associated with the avant-garde, like Johnson, Ward, and Anna Webber. The exotic “Anamneses” allows ample room for Webber’s diaphanous bass flute to converse with Adams and Hesse before Johnson joins, tracing an arc from probing to scorching. The group can also swing, as on “Impossible Charms,” where Bradfield, Adams, and Hill showcase their bop bona fides with in-the-pocket solos. The ebullient closer, “Forro Hermeto,” a tribute to Hermeto Pascoal, is a breezy Brazilian-flavored number with a danceable groove and sparkling statements by all the improvisers – a cohesive testament to the collective spirit Bradfield fosters among these distinctive personalities.

A keen balance between written material and improvisation distinguishes the rich tone colors and orchestral textures of Yes and ... Music for Nine Improvisers, revealing Bradfield’s estimable talents as a composer and arranger. With charts this detailed, each player’s contributions are essential to the whole, and by availing himself of his ensemble’s ability to transpose another art form’s methodology, Bradfield kills.
–Troy Collins


Don Byron + Aruán Ortiz
Random Dances and (A)tonalities
Intakt Records Intakt CD 309

Let’s get right to it: Random Dances and (A)tonalities by Cuban-born pianist Aruán Ortiz and clarinet and saxophone polymath Don Byron is a flawless and evocative album that delivers on the promise of the musicians’ talent and the material. It’s an intimate recording with the aura, focus, and seriousness of a classical chamber recital, due in no small part to: Byron and Ortiz’s classical training; the fact that much of the album sounds as it could be through-composed; and Martin Pearson’s and Michael Brändli’s meticulous recording, mixing, and mastering work. This album is a far cry from the now all-too-common, and quite often unsatisfying, one-off pickup sessions between two sympathetic musicians who haven’t developed an identity as a duo yet book studio time in spite of it.

In addition to several originals, Byron and Ortiz take up Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” There’s none of the snarl, wail, and bite of original’s jungle style. Here the pair give it a more solemn and reverent treatment, with Ortiz’s steady, slow repeating quarter note chords suggesting a funeral procession.

Throughout the album Byron and Ortiz often convey a careful stillness and austere beauty, as on Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s “Musica Callada Book 1, V.” and Ortiz’s “Numbers.” Other tunes, like Byron’s “Joe Btfsplk” and Geri Allen’s “Dolphy’s Dance” find the pair in a more conversational and contrapuntal mode. On the former, Ortiz briefly punctuates Byron’s tenor lines, gradually increasing his chordal commas and semicolons. After the head the roles reverse before the two engage in spirited debate. On the latter, the soloist/accompanist roles that had been more prevalent over the first several cuts break down, which each player on more equal footing.

Byron’s brief solo clarinet arrangement and reading of Bach’s Violin Partita No 1 in B minor has more rubato phrasing than classical performance practice would normally allow for, but he’s not “making” Bach jazz; rather, Byron takes Bach’s timeless music and filters it through his experience and aesthetic to create a singular performance of a work that’s been performed for centuries.

In fact, Byron’s performance of Bach represents the effect of the album as a whole. With the duo absorbing and reformulating so many musical and cultural traditions – 20th century Spanish, German baroque, Cotton Club-era Duke, contemporary jazz – it’s difficult to find an answer to the ever-unresolvable question of how to conceptualize the music. Simply labeling it “jazz” flattens it, and coming up with some kind of hybrid genre descriptor is just as problematic. Would the presence of European composers bar the album from fitting into the more capacious category of black music (or #BAM if you are Nicholas Payton)? Perhaps Byron and Ortiz’s musical approach is more akin to what musicologist Olly Wilson calls black music’s “heterogeneous sound ideal” – an aesthetic that privileges a number of styles, timbres, textures, and sounds. Or perhaps more accurately: their music reflects what poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey calls “discrepant engagement” – an acceptance and embrace of disparate practices in ways that resist and elude concrete definitions. That Byron and Ortiz’s music prompts these considerations is proof of their work as intellectuals and theorists in their own right.

Or maybe this is mostly just all academic, and the only important thing at hand is that Random Dances and (A)tonalities is a really nice record.
—Chris Robinson


Scott DuBois
Autumn Wind
ACT 9856-2

There is a whole lot going on under the hood of Scott DuBois’ latest album Autumn Wind, and it’s not just the twelve-tone rows, minimalism, aleatorics, and serialized rhythms, pitches, and dynamics he mentions in the liner notes. It’s also a programmatic meditation on autumn that takes listeners on a journey from the start of longer days in September to the aurora borealis of December. And more: after writing and recording twelve pieces for his quartet (Gebhard Ullmann, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Thomas Morgan, bass; Kresten Osgood, drums), DuBois wrote parts for a string quartet and a reed quartet of flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and then overdubbed them onto his group’s recording. In addition, each track has different personnel: after DuBois opens with the atmospheric solo guitar piece “Mid-September Changing Light,” a single additional member joins him on each successive track so that it isn’t until the twelfth track before all twelve musicians play together. With its varied compositional techniques, additive structure, and thematic ambitions, Autumn Wind could very well have turned into an overwrought mess that sacrificed musicality in favor of concept and technique. Instead, it’s one of the prettiest and most affecting albums I’ve heard in the last several years.

Even when writing for a trio, DuBois’ textures are often thick: counter melody against counter melody: arco cello against bass clarinet in “Late October Changing Leaves”; delayed and reverbed guitar against dry bass pizz; strings bowing just out of time with each other in ways that suggest a flock of geese stretching out their wings in preparation for a long flight (the title “Early November Bird Formations” certainly helps steer such an interpretation). Different voices come in and out at surprising and unpredictable times – soft points hung in the air by the high reeds, a bass clarinet squawk, an ominous guitar chord. Listening to the album provides an experience akin to coming across all the myriad sights, sounds, and smells of the woods during a long solo hike. Many of DuBois’s timbres and textures are reminiscent of those of John Luther Adams, whose work demonstrates the apotheosis of capturing the outdoors through music. But it’s not just pretty pastoral textures. There’s some serious left-of-center jazz playing too, with Ullmann’s bass clarinet ballad feature on “Late November Farm Fields” being one of the standout moments.

While Autumn Wind shares its inspiration in and depiction of the seasons with DuBois’s last album, 2015’s Winter Light, what sets it apart is the addition of the two quartets. The strings and reeds bring an immense amount of depth, dynamism, and vitality to the music that isn’t quite there on Winter Light. Whether the string players are playing double stops, long held notes, arpeggios, or tapping the wood part of their bows on their strings, they, along with their reed counterparts, never feel like an add-on, decoration, or afterthought. The music sounds as if it was always meant for a large group to play it and record it together in the same room. It’s joyful and celebratory, heartfelt and honest, and a pleasure to listen to. I hope DuBois plans to record spring and summer albums. I can’t wait to hear them.
—Chris Robinson


Paul Dunmall Sun Ship Quartet + Alan Skidmore + Julie Kjær + Ståle Liavik Solberg + Mark Wastell
John Coltrane 50th Memorial Concert at Café Oto
Confront Core Series core 07

2017 marked the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death and memorial concerts of all types were held to commemorate the milestone. Coltrane’s voluminous catalog was mined and reinterpretations of his classic pieces were explored. But finding a personal take on Coltrane’s canon is a challenging task. This document of a performance held at London’s Café Oto on July 17, 2017, the exact date of Coltrane’s death grapples with just that. The night was built around a quartet convened by Paul Dunmall with the addition of Alan Skidmore for two pieces along with a trio of flautist Julie Kjær along with percussionists Mark Wastell and Ståle Liavik Solberg. The groups centered in on some unusual choices from later in Coltrane’s career rather than going for landmark albums. The trio hit on the Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders flute duo “To Be” from Expression, one of Coltrane’s final studio dates while Dunmall zeroed in on Sun Ship, an oft-overlooked album that caught Coltrane’s group with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones in their final stages, grappling with the leader’s increasingly relentless flights into jubilant freedom.

The inclusion of, “May There Be Peace And Love And Perfection Throughout All Creation O God,” a piece for flute and two percussionists, is certainly not an obvious choice for a Coltrane memorial. Coltrane only picked up flute toward the end of his life and “To Be” appears to be the only piece where he played flute for an entire piece. On that take, Coltrane and Sanders wove an extended reverent improvisation, sinuously intertwining their flutes over a stately simmer laid down by Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali. Kjær, Wastell, and Liavik Solberg’s 21 minute-long improvisation is an open abstraction, with breathy flute wending melodic kernels over the textural ground of cymbal shimmers, resonant rumbles, and fractured percussive patter. For most of the piece, the three eschew any vestige of pulse or melodic line, wending along with measured interplay. While displaying a keen ear for collective detail, the improvisation tends to meander.

The dynamic shifts dramatically in the second set by Paul Dunmall’s Sun Ship Quartet with the leader and Howard Cottle on tenors, Olie Brice on bass, and Anthony Bianco on drums. Dunmall has long professed both a musical and spiritual debt to Coltrane. He has explored that legacy in a duo with Bianco since 2011 and formed this quartet in 2014 to dig in to the pieces that comprised Sun Ship as launching pads for group improvisation. With a two-horn line-up sans piano, the music has a strapping force and the four caterwaul their way through an extended set that moves from “Amen,” to “Dearly Beloved,” to “Sun Ship.” Brice and Bianco dig in out of the gate, piloting the music with a roiling energy as the twin tenors launch off of the anthem-like themes. Dunmall and Cottle are similar in style and attack, tending to flag each other along rather than countering each other the way that Coltrane and Sanders worked. Dunmall, in particular, rips along with euphoric dynamism. Without a piano to anchor the harmonic foundation, Brice steps up, bounding along with propulsive, darting intensity. Bianco’s slashing and splashing polyrhythms, chatter and explode while never playing over his partners. The four capture the raw emotion of Coltrane’s versions of the tunes without being beholden to them. With all the layered potency of the group, they let the music breath, opening up for extended solo sections and then circling back in with vehement fervor. Featuring a strong solo by Bianco, their version of “Sun Ship” that closes the set is a particular standout.

For the third set, Dunmall’s Sun Ship Quartet is joined by British tenor titan Alan Skidmore. Like Dunmall, Skidmore is a self-professed Coltrane acolyte and has delved deeply into Coltrane’s playing and compositions through his career. Skidmore and Dunmall played together in the group Tenor Tonic in the mid-80s but collaborated only rarely since then so this meet-up is particularly intriguing. With three reed players, things could easily become an impenetrable mess, but the group manages to avoid that. The five launch off on “Attaining,” with one horn intoning the plaintive theme over Bianco and Brice’s slow, loose simmer. The music wells as the full ensemble comes in to restate the theme, then opens up into extended solos for each of the horn players. Each attacks their explication with lithe, freely-melodic vitality, with Dunmall’s insistent stabbing take particularly arresting. The final Sun Ship tune, “Ascent,” is one of the strongest of the recording, starting with a pliantly probing bass solo which segues into a series of particularly searing solos by the reed players. Skidmore kicks things off with molten torrents that spill across the framework of the theme with thoughtful intensity. Dunmall switches to soprano and weaves a deconstruction of “My Favorite Things” into his labyrinthine take. Cottle wraps things up with incendiary passion, digging in to the tune with overblown multiphonics and cascading flurries. The three come together for a brief, three-way joust at the end that closes things with ardent abandon.

The evening closed out with a compact run-through of “Ascension” with the initial trio joining in. While the massed ensemble that Coltrane brought together for his epic recording has left an indelible mark, few have found inroads into personal readings. Dunmall and Bianco shrewdly stripped things back for their duo recording of the piece on Homage to Coltrane, and groups like Rova have mined their own approach. Here, the energy and passion are fully apparent and some strong, short statements come through. While it undoubtedly provided a celebratory close to the evening, it doesn’t hold up quite as well as the quartet and quintet sets. That said, this is a welcome document of a great evening and well worth checking out.
–Michael Rosenstein


Jonathan Finlayson
3 Times Round
Pi Recordings 177

If you only know the righteous trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson from his work with Steve Coleman or Henry Threadgill, you’re missing out on an increasingly distinctive and important body of work under his own name. His composing and arranging, not to mention his seriously good improvising, are at their best on his third record for Pi.

He’s joined here by several longtime associates: Steve Lehman on alto, Brian Settles on tenor, Matt Mitchell on piano, John Hebert on bass, and drummer Craig Weinrib. The bustle and flow in Finlayson’s rhythmic language is evident from the start of the appropriately titled “Feints.” There’s a real sense of organicism to the changing tempos, and nothing here is stiff or formulaic. There are fanfares, tight grooves, sudden stutters, and quick changes. Finlayson favors such contrasting ideas throughout, but he also uses them as settings for contrasting instruments, too (the interplay between Lehman and Settles, for example, is a consistent delight).

The gnarled, winding head of “Grass” keeps the energy high. There are great, multi-directional solos from Finlayson and Mitchell here. But what really compels are the little vortices emerging from Hebert and Weinrib, who continually throw out changeups. If “A Stone, a Pond, a Thought” isn’t actually a Thoreau reference, it might as well be. It moves from the pastoral (a lovely pedal drone from Mitchell, and reflective trumpet lines) to the darkly urgent, pushed by Settles and Weinrib into open space. “The Moon is New” is similar in its reinvention from within. It opens with circular patterns that sound indebted to John Adams; but then, after a hush, it moves into explosive rhythm and rapid chord changes. Settles especially stands out here, laying into some fierce overtones in a darkly swirling late section.

Some pieces, like “Refined Strut,” are slightly less expansive. This one coils outward via a snaky piano ostinato with some hiccups in the rhythm. Finlayson’s clarion trumpet lines here make for his most lyrical playing of the date. The brief “Rope from the Sky” is almost like a slice of new music, reminding of what an ambitious composer Finlayson is. And the brisk, propulsive “Tap-Tap” closes things out, with Weinrib working multiple tonalities on his kit amid crazed saxophone double-timing. It all makes for Finlayson’s best record yet, and a sweet promise of what lies ahead.
Jason Bivins

New World Records

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