Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Ingrid Laubrock + Tom Rainey
Relative Pitch RPR1076

Joris Roelofs + Han Bennink
ICP 059

Late in 1967, drummer Han Bennink and Willem Breuker on saxes and clarinets recorded ICP 001. New Acoustic Swing Duo, the original Dutch wildman record, was sometimes inspired, but maybe not always: a couple of cavemen dragging the vibrations around. Willem was already parodying lesser free-jazz saxophonists who exhausted their resources in minutes but kept plowing on – a shtick he would never tire of. Han was reactive, coming back at him with his carload of noisemakers and a low, loose, trashy, one might even say theatrical drum set sound. (They couldn’t know, because it wouldn’t be released for years, that Coltrane and Rashied Ali had recorded Interstellar Space earlier in 1967.) As Evan Parker would later recall the early phase of European improvising, we were still debating whether to wear suits on the gig, and here came Han and Willem in lumberjack shirts.

A half century and a few months after recording New Acoustic Swing Duo, Bennink and Amsterdam bass clarinetist Joris Roelofs made Icarus, where Bennink sounds strikingly different. To be sure the drummer still plays with loud authority, loves dramatic effects and provocative unpredictability. But he’d long since decided less is more, and cleaned up his act, literally. Fast as he is, quickly decaying percussive timbres (like, say, the click of sticks on a hardwood floor) suit his precise timing far better than NASD’s low-tuned tubs and smeary snare. Of course Han played crisp clean and quick in the 1960s too, in straighter jazz context – with Wes Montgomery, say. But on ICP 001, his reaction time was as laggard as a drunk on quaaludes, compared to the Han of ICP 059. Context is crucial of course. In Dutch terms, Roelofs is closer in spirit to classical/new music virtuoso Harry Sparnaay than lumberjack Breuker – Sparnaay with his own admiration for Eric Dolphy who made everybody hear the possibilities in the tenor saxophone’s skinny wooden cousin. (Roelofs plays regular clarinet too, notably on “Icarus,” with a long whinnying descending gliss like Gershwin played backwards). He can play a sweet ballad or high wire split-tone stuff; hear the brief title track to Aliens Deliberating, one of a pair of perky Roelofs trio albums on Pirouet with Matt Penman and Ted Poor.

Han loves a good duo – look at all the piano players he makes sound good. Some leaders would complain he was unrehearsable, but really, how much prep does he need? His ears are quicker than his hands: he instantly hears where things are headed and how to chime in most effectively – or, when necessary, to deflect a trajectory or pull it up short. A few Dutch musicians prize making a clear statement (especially one that contains a lingering ambiguity – where you can’t quite tell if they’re joking or not). Roelofs’ whistle-clean technique suggests he approaches music-making from a more clinical direction – the depth of his chops and mahogany tone tell their own story of hard work rewarded – but he’s game for the game. On Dolphy’s “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” Han moaning on rubbed drumheads shadows bass clarinet; the melody’s abrupt rises and falls suggest not art song but Groucho’s eyebrows. In Bennink’s reactive sporting there’s a little of a show drummer punctuating a comedian – helping and subverting at once. “Icarus” lays it all out there: Han’s broken-time swing and forceful nuanced brushwork, the temperamental silences, dry palette, artful transitions, his sheer sonic presence. He rarely keeps the beat in the same place for long; after all he can always come back to it. And he can still make a snare drum do things you’re not quite sure you’ve heard before (the wolf-woof askance-sticking at the top of “Broad Stripes and Bright Stars,” with Roelof’s again on straight clarinet).

Joris Roelofs has his own range of clear attacks, tones thick and thin, wet and dry. He knows all the corners of the big horn, skyrocket to submarine hum to barking dog. The chops give him the confidence to trust the clarinets’ tendency to have their own way: it takes a certain kind of confidence to let the sound break the way the instrument wants to go – to go with the grain. A little roughness keeps things from sounding too clinical. And Han keeps him on his toes; when Joris goes into bumblebee mode at the end of a barbarically yawping “Rondo 2” Bennink snaps him out of it with a military call to arms. No episode runs too long on his watch. Less than two weeks later Han Bennink turned 76. He is still perfecting his art.

For a 2016 tour, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey decided to shore up their improvised dialogues with a little preconceived material: appointed topics they could address. They co-wrote, and then memorized, a half-dozen tunes they could weave into or out of extemporized sets as desired, cueing them in wherever, playing them however the mood struck them. After that the duo knew those tunes backwards and forwards; revisiting them one at a time in the studio in 2018 gave them a fresh perspective on handy material. So Utter sounds both informal and organized.

The pieces they wrote are functional, designed for reworking, like the scaffolding of ascending and descending phrases on “Flutter”: shapes easy to manipulate in time, and tonal and timbral space. Scripted barking or pulsing repeated notes may function as easy-to-spot instant cues. And a single composition may have a couple of contrasting sections, just to put a few more balls in the air. Often there’s a line, quiet or yelping, that leaps all over the tenor saxophone’s range, recalling early David Murray and Bennie Wallace. If you sound strong in every register like Laubrock, why not show it off? She likes to make the air column vibrate: Ben Webster is part of her heritage, too. She is an admirably lucid improviser. Generating spontaneous variations sounds like second nature, as natural as thinking. The way she advances a line in phrases and clauses fosters the conversational nature of the whole. And she knows where the weird sounds hide: gargled low notes, brushes-on-snare mouthpiece-whispering; breath-enhanced keypad percussion. That’s meeting a drummer halfway.

As rich a career as Tom Rainey has had – recordings he made with Fred Hersch’s trio 20 years ago are still coming out – he’s really come into his own in recent years, not least as ringleader of the ethereal standards band Obbligato. He can sound so relaxed behind the kit his sound suggests he’s barely holding his sticks. But all four limbs are all in; he doesn’t neglect the bass boom for long. “Dusk” shows how effectively he can split the difference between coloration and pulsation; he always knows just how much/little pressure to apply at a given moment. (Bennink too of course, if at a higher base volume. Both drummers mind dynamics, here in particular. Rainey also likes a dry palette; there is a notable lack of focus on the ride cymbal in these duos.) Knotty saxophone figures give him the option of joining in, playing counterpoint, or standing clear. He can whisper, snowshoeing with brushes, but seconds later may use those same brushes to swat flies all over the kit in impeccable time. He’s less about prodding than giving a partner room. Rainey can play at a very low volume without fading away. Paul Motian showed us the power of a barely discernible rustle. That sort of vanishing act is part of Tom Rainey’s arsenal too – one corner of his conceptual kit, in this particular acoustic swing duo.
–Kevin Whitehead


Nicole Mitchell
Maroon Cloud
FPE 020

Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell has been widely acclaimed as one of the foremost visionaries in creative music. A longtime Chicagoan, first woman to chair the AACM, and currently professor of music at the University of California at Irvine, her interdisciplinary Afrofuturist work is socially relevant and covers a broad aesthetic range. In recent years, Mitchell has produced a series of conceptual suites, celebrating the science fiction of African American author Octavia Butler on Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), and imagining an egalitarian society on Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2017). Maroon Cloud is the latest effort in this series, recorded live in March 2017 at New York’s National Sawdust as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series.

Maroon Cloud is an ode to the gift of imagination and its ability to foster resistance in uncertain times. Mitchell writes, “Imagination, especially Black imagination, is a really vital and undervalued resource ... if we don’t have another vision then we can’t implement it, and we can’t make a different future.” This recording can be considered Afrofuturist – a mode of thinking that encourages the envisioning of Black life beyond our current reality – its themes implied by the album’s title: “cloud” can refer to a space reserved for imagination and creativity; while “maroon” implies both Africans who escaped slavery in the Caribbean and “people being abandoned to their fate.”

Although Mitchell continues to explore Afrofuturism through the lens of the avant-garde, she also embraces tradition; roots of the blues can be heard throughout the date. For this endeavor, she employs a limited instrumental palette, tackling the eight-movement work with a drum-less quartet featuring vocalist Fay Victor, Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, and cellist Tomeka Reid, one of the flutist’s steadfast collaborators. The absence of drums enables “other ways of coming together,” as Mitchell puts it. Yet this quartet maintains ample forward momentum, producing a sound far greater than its individual parts.

Mitchell centers the music; her protean flute underscores the lyrical content sung by Victor, while extemporizing on themes with an expressive timbre and singular phrasing. She bends multiphonic tones on the Asiatic opening of “Hidden Choice,” moving gracefully between notes. Her virtuosic solos on “No One Can Stop Us” and “A Sound” demonstrate why she is considered the foremost flutist of her generation. Reid’s cello work is similarly elegant. A master of extended techniques, she articulates with a rich, classical legato, but also provides a resonant bass-like fullness to the group; she improvises melodically on “Otherness,” keeping time on “Vodou Spacetime Kettle.” Reid and Mitchell’s respective intonations and timbres merge when they play in unison. Ortiz’s pianistic technique is lush, lending dramatic harmonies and textures to intersecting melodic voices with a sparkling tone and touch. A superlative accompanist, he rarely “solos” in a traditional sense; he even serves as a drummer on “No One Can Stop Us,” providing ragged counter-rhythms to flute and cello.

Inevitably, Victor takes center stage. Her multifaceted approach encompasses abstraction, spoken-word, and more traditional aspects; she embodies the virtues of classic blues and jazz singers with a soulful swagger, spontaneously interpreting phrases as improvisational gestures. Victor channels the spirit of Bessie Smith in “Vodou Spacetime Kettle,” with a spoken word introduction that expresses Mitchell’s Afrofuturist vision, interpolating lyrics from “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” as a soulful chant. At the outset of “No One Can Stop Us,” Reid and Mitchell vamp on a bluesy motif before bringing the funk, introducing Ortiz and Victor, who wails the title phrase like a mantra. “A Sound” channels soul jazz, blues, and modalism, while Victor cries and shouts, “Sometimes a sound represents a whole era! Sometimes a sound represents a whole people!” Other times Victor blends into the ensemble; on “Endurance” she sings precise wordless harmonies with Reid and Mitchell, using extended vocal techniques to chatter, flutter, and growl.

The album embodies a graceful blend of orchestration and spontaneity, density and space, but its greatest strength is its collective spirit. It manages to “sonically explore the space within our minds where all ideas come from” and encourage the listener’s envisioning of possible Black futures. Mitchell visualizes new horizons for Afrofuturism on Maroon Cloud, illustrating the limitless potential for the heart and mind to re-imagine the world.
–Troy Collins


Bobby Naughton + Leo Smith + Perry Robinson
The Haunt
NoBusiness Records NBCD 105

Lithuania-based NoBusiness Records has done it again, rescuing an obscure free jazz gem from the vaults. This time out, they’ve unearthed The Haunt, a 1976 trio recording led by vibraphone player Bobby Naughton with Leo Smith (before the trumpet player appended Wadada to his name) and clarinetist Perry Robinson. Naughton honed his music skills as a rock keyboard player in the ‘60s, eventually settling in Connecticut. It was there that he began listening to free jazz courtesy of his band manager’s record collection. By the late ‘60s, Naughton had sold his keyboard, bought a vibraphone, and dove deep in to George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which proved an indelible influence on his playing and writing for improvisers. Coming to vibes from playing keyboard, rather than percussion, additionally influenced his chromatic approach to the mallet instrument.

Trips down to New York around that time united him with like-minded players including Perry Robinson, Mark Whitecage, Mario Pavone, and Randy Kaye, musicians he would go on to play with in to the 1980’s. In the early ‘70s, Naughton connected with Smith, who had relocated to New Haven and the two became close friends, linking him in to the then-burgeoning improvisation scene in Connecticut including musicians like Gerry Hemmingway, Dwight Andrews, and others. This led to the formation of The Creative Music Improviser’s Forum (CMIF), an important musician-led collective that hosted concerts of creative music throughout the state. It was these working relationships that inspired Naughton to form his OTIC label, which produced six recordings between 1969 and 1983, documenting ensembles, his vibes/bass/drums trio, a solo, and The Haunt. Unfortunately, by the mid-‘80s, Naughton was worn out from the hustle of eking out a living from his music and moved to Providence, RI, earning his living as a locksmith.

This reissue shows just how much of a shame that was. In 1976, Naughton received a grant to compose music for two different trios. One was a trio with drums and bass where he concentrated on the subdivisions and contrasts of time. The other was built specifically around Robinson and Smith, with a focus on harmonic interaction. Robinson’s distinctive clarinet playing suffused with an abstract, structuralist sense of melody and swooping lissome phrasing has never quite gotten the attention it deserves. Smith, at this point, was honing and documenting his thoughts about “new world music” in writings and recordings on his Kabell label and this highly personal refinement toward the placement of sound in silence provided the perfect balance to Naughton and Robinson.

The recording kicks off with the title tune with each of the musicians placing motivic, freely melodic kernels with congruent, countervailing trajectories. The balance of the timbres of clarinet, trumpet, and vibes proves particularly effective in Naughton’s open sound-forms. Each of the members imparts complementary shadings to the overarching ensemble sound while standing out within the collective. While it is great to hear Robinson and Smith in this context, Naughton’s harmonic sensibility and deft attack are a particular standout. The leader’s four other originals (along with an alternate take of one) provide provocative structures for interaction, from spirited, darting angularities to spare, resonant abstract lyricism. In each, all three seize on the core materials, digging in while keeping an astute ear to the fundamental group balance of the pieces. Particular standouts are the spiky “Slant,” which gets two readings, as well as the free sonorities of “Ordette” which flows organically from group statements to solo sections with ruminative poise.

It’s great to have this one back in circulation again. Naughton, now based in Vermont, is playing with Smith again so maybe another chapter is in the making.
–Michael Rosenstein


Barre Phillips
End to End
ECM 2575

End to End is the declared last chapter of the journey Barre Phillips began a half-century ago. Unlike many such narratives, Phillips’ began unintentionally. Originally, the bassist recorded solo improvisations under the assumption that composer Max Schubel would electronically process them for his own composition; instead, Schubel decided to release the improvisations on his own label as the groundbreaking Journal Violone. In the ensuing decades, not only did Phillips record several more acclaimed solo recordings, but duo outings with David Holland and Joëlle Léandre, and even a quartet homage to Peter Kowald with Léandre, William Parker and Tetsu Saitoh. Along the way, Phillips’ melodic sensibility deepened, and his use of extended techniques grew ever subtler; consequently, his ability to say more with less increasingly took on an unassuming, off-handed elegance.

All of this is in play on End to End. The album has three pieces – “Quest,” “Inner Door,” and “Outer Window;” the first comprised of five parts, the other four. Each of them has their own arc of materials that are as seamlessly joined as they are artfully contoured to arrive at satisfying endpoints, albeit with understated plot twists. Throughout the album, Phillips’ plucked notes and arco textures envelope and decay with sagacity; but, he has also retained a youthful playfulness, one best heard in passages built on the rhythmic bouncing of his bow on the strings. What is most striking about Phillips’ performances, however, are their utter lack of either sentimentality or angst. He is neither flipping through a scrapbook nor staring into the abyss. The album’s photo of Phillips included in the CD booklet, the setting sun on his back as he holds his bass and looks across a verdant valley towards distant mountains, says it all.

A great novel concludes with most of its elements coming full circle, while one or two dangle enticingly to suggest more is to come. That’s the takeaway from hearing End to End. Though it is unlikely that an addendum or sequel will appear, waiting it out will be a pleasure in itself.
–Bill Shoemaker

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