Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Alex Harding + Lucian Ban
Dark Blue
Sunnyside SSC 1544

When we think of virtuosity a pretty standard set of qualities come to mind: playing a lot of notes over a blistering tempo, testing the limits of an instrument’s upper range, fluently navigating advanced harmonic language, expertly executing extended techniques, and so on. But there’s a whole other kind of virtuosity that is less talked about: an affective virtuosity – the ability to create a sonic atmosphere and ambience that has nothing to do with instrumental technique.

Over the course of Dark Blue’s eleven tracks, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding and pianist Lucian Ban deploy this more elusive form of virtuosity. Evocative and intimate, Dark Blue showcases the full possibilities of the horn/piano duo format. The album is clearly not a one-off; they’ve obviously spent time developing a shared vocabulary and point of view for this format that takes advantage of their different voices in ways that allow them to shine as a duo and individuals. Compare Harding’s solo feature “H.B.” (for Hamiet Bluiett) with Ban’s solo “Low Country Blues”: free jazz inflected bari against a piano approach that’s only a couple steps removed from the concert hall. They come from different sonic worlds, yet as a pair they sound natural.

There are a lot of people who play the baritone sax but who are not baritone players. Harding is a baritone player. From hushed subtone to full-voiced woof, he takes advantage of the bari’s vast expressive capabilities and tone color in ways that most of those who pick up the big horn don’t or can’t. He even uses his keywork to add a percussive element. Ban’s refined touch, tone, and articulation is the perfect counterpoint to Harding’s burly presence. Neither player shows off their chops and the closest thing the duo gets to a full boil is on Ban’s “Not that Kind of Blues,” on which Ban’s forward charging interlocking accompaniment stokes Harding, who opens up and unfurls bluesy phrase after bluesy phrase. Other cuts are more ruminative and wistful, as on the brief “Esto” – which is one of the three tunes Harding plays bass clarinet – and the title track, which opens the album.

Much of Dark Blue’s success has to do with its sound. The piano is recorded impeccably. One hears every detail, every overtone, and on occasion the percussive action of the hammers hitting the strings. The keywork on Harding’s baritone is just audible, as is his inhalation. One might find that distracting, but to my ears it brings the recording to life, confirming that yes, I am hearing the full sound of artists creating in real time.

The album ends with Ban’s “Hymn.” As Harding plays the somewhat basic descending melodic line on his lush bari – which on this cut gets as close as anyone ever has to conjuring Harry Carney – I feel at peace, as if wrapped in a warm blanket. As the track fades out the last thing we are left to hear is the slight crackle of spit on Harding’s reed. Other sessions might have had Harding suck his reed clean and do another take. Not here. It’s the acceptance and embrace that the beautiful can exist and thrive alongside the flawed and imperfect that reminds us what it is to be human. Which is a virtuosity I’ll take over fast tempos and high notes any time.
–Chris Robinson


Franz Koglmann Septet
Fruits of Solitude
ezz-thetics 1005

When Lee Konitz performed with Franz Koglmann’s Pipe Trio at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in the mid-‘90s, they opened the concert with Koglmann’s subdued, deeply shaded arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Ko-Ko.” When the applause ended, the saxophonist quipped: “That’s a flag waver for this group.” True: Koglmann is not renowned for his pyrotechnics, but rather a singular brand of cool. Still, Koglmann’s take on Ellington on We Thought About Duke (hat ART) was engaging because he triangulated Ellington’s sensuality, Konitz’s patented sound, and his own long-honed emphasis on “precision in melancholy.”

Koglmann revisits the Ellington well on Fruits of Solitude, an exquisitely crafted septet program, but from a greater distance than before. In the three variants of the title piece, Ellington’s supremely melancholic “Solitude” receives barely a nod; instead, Koglmann’s pieces are thoroughly distilled. He is far more literal in his use of Jimmy Giuffre’s “Finger Snapper” and Dick Twardzik’s “Yellow Tango.” For all of their merits, Giuffre and Twardzik are two-dimensional figures compared to Ellington; the folksy Giuffre being something of the Will Rogers of jazz, while Twardzik a prodigy snuffed by smack. Ellington’s complexities and enigmas are well represented by “Solitude;” to his credit, Koglmann does not try to unravel them, but refract them.

To achieve this, Koglmann assembled a boldly configured ensemble of long-time associates and newcomers to his work. Each section of the septet has off-center instrumentation. The leader’s trumpet and flugelhorn is paired with John Clark’s French horn, yielding a more pungent blend than a trombone affords. Two of the three woodwind players play double reed instruments. When Daniele D’Agaro plays tenor saxophone, the timbral contrast created by oboe player Mario Arcari and bassoonist Milan Turkovic is striking and invigorating; when D’Agaro plays clarinet and bass clarinet, the three present even color. At times, cellist Attila Pasztor and bassist Peter Herbert provide loft; at others, Earth-binding gravity.

Koglmann’s charts are packed with moments where he and his band mates throw sparks or toss bon mots. Gambits like having Arcari scamper around an ensemble passage, or Clark drop an iridescent flourish with pinpoint precision, have been honed over decades. Not having Tony Coe on board would ordinarily leave a gap in Koglmann’s intricate weaves, but D’Agaro has a similar mainstream-steeped sensibility to contribute eras-straddling solos and fills. Throughout the album, it is often difficult to ascertain where Koglmann’s writing stops and where his colleagues’ latitudes begin.

Billy Strayhorn asserted that it was the orchestra, not the piano, that was Ellington’s instrument; that he associated distinct tone colors and personal characteristics to each musician; that the process produced what Strayhorn called “a third thing,” dubbed the Ellington Effect. Something of the same is at work in Koglmann’s music, the main differences from Ellington’s being the foundational role of Viennese modernism and a historical critique that traces back to late ‘80s albums like About Yesterday’s Ezzthetics (hat ART).

In addition to the title pieces, two compositions stand out among Koglmann’s many toasts to discourse-prodding artists and ideas. Annotator Art Lange is on to something when he suggests that “Salut Solal!,” laden with pithy disruptive phrases, goes beyond honoring Martial Solal, extending to the pianist’s long relationship with the provocative composer/critic André Hodeir. Koglmann also subversively inserts a Viennese waltz in the Shorty Rogers-referencing “Martians don’t go home anymore.” There may be no flag wavers on Fruits of Solitude, but there’s a good amount of very literate humor.

And swing, both in the charts and the solos. It is difficult to single out one or two players, as everyone hands in at least one strong solo. But, Koglmann, Clark and Herbert again prove themselves to be among the more criminally undervalued improvisers on the scene. It makes more sense in Koglmann’s case, because his writing tends to take up far more ink; and it is certainly the case that these charts brilliantly set up the solos. Yet, without the solos, Koglmann’s Fruits of Solitude would have been less delectable.
–Bill Shoemaker


James Brandon Lewis
An UnRuly Manifesto
Relative Pitch RPR1078

A rising presence, James Brandon Lewis is a powerful, protean tenor saxophonist and proficient composer whose budding discography shows considerable ambition. Each of Lewis’ previous releases reveals an eclectic, albeit focused approach. Lewis issued his major label debut, Divine Travels (Okeh, 2014), supported by the all-star rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake. His sophomore effort for Okeh the following year, Days of FreeMan, boasted the estimable talents of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Rudy Royston. His independent work has been no less impressive; the self-released No Filter, from 2016, featured Lewis’ working trio with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Trae Crudup III, while 2018’s critically acclaimed Radiant Imprints (Off) paired Lewis in a duo with percussionist Chad Taylor.

An UnRuly Manifesto is a thematic continuation of sorts to No Filter; once again supported by his working trio, Lewis and company are joined by guitarist Anthony Pirog (a guest on the former album) and trumpet phenomenon Jaimie Branch. The record is dedicated to “Surrealism & Ornette Coleman & Charlie Haden,” which comes as no surprise; Lewis studied with Haden at CalArts, and Coleman’s influence was felt by Prime Time bassist Tacuma’s presence on Days of FreeMan. Lewis’ probing aesthetic lends credence to his dedications on this concise set.

After a brief prelude (“Year 59: Insurgent Imagination”) the atmospheric title track materializes, its steady groove gradually gaining intensity. Branch’s tuneful intro is answered by Lewis in restrained fashion until his volatile tenor transposes ardent protest into spiritual fervor. Branch makes an apt foil; sparring with Lewis as the piece progresses, underscored by a frenetic rhythm section, the two horns finally merge as one at the outro. Another short interlude follows (“Pillar 1: A Joyful Acceptance”), introducing the taut funk of “Sir Real Denard.” Underpinned by a sophisticated post-M Base vamp, the number spotlights each member in turn: Stewart’s abstract extrapolations; Pirog’s cyber-punk skronk; Branch’s coruscating smears; Lewis’ pneumatic volleys; and Crudup’s in-the-pocket precision, which holds the whole affair together.

The slow burning opus, “The Eleventh Hour,” provides temporary respite. Buttressed by a cyclical melody, concentric bass and guitar riffs lock into a hypnotic groove, augmented by Branch’s timbral variations before Lewis stretches out with a quixotic solo worthy of Wayne Shorter in his prime. Although the ensemble certainly proves it can lock into a groove, “Escape Nostalgic Prisons” – a frenzied collective improvisation – demonstrates another facet. Concluding the date in lyrical fashion, “Haden Is Beauty” offers a gorgeous, Coleman-inspired tribute to the legendary bassist. Stewart and Crudup accelerate independent of the group, their surging energy eventually dominating, as the band soars to the finale. Rock solid from start to finish, An UnRuly Manifesto is an exceptional recording in the growing oeuvre of the talented James Brandon Lewis.
–Troy Collins


Mark Lotz Trio
The Wroclaw Sessions
AudioCave ACD-006-2019

Based in Holland since he transferred to the Hilversum Conservatory in 1986, flutist Mark Lotz – usually billed as Mark Alban Lotz – has operated at the fringes of the Dutch creative music scene, not because of any musical shortcomings, but because he’s a polyculturalist by birth and inclination. Born in Germany, the son of global musicologist Rainer Lotz, he grew up partly in Thailand and Uganda; later Mark studied North India’s transverse flute, bansuri, and his musical travels have found him recording in Havana and Istanbul as well as closer to home, and touring from Surinam to Senegal to Nepal. He also leads a long-running band with the unforgivable name Lotz of Music.

Lotz plays a range of western and non-western flutes, and is no stranger to the extended side of modern flute technique. For that hear his 2014 Solo Flutes (LopLop), where he demonstrates his command of marimba, snare drum and rainstick sonorities in the first 30 seconds. For his playfully interactive non-idiomatic side, Lotz’s duo with the equally fringey Amsterdam percussionist Alan Purves, 2018’s entertaining Food Foragers (Unit), is choice.

On The Wroclaw Sessions he’s joined by Polish bassist Grzegorz Piasecki and drummer Wojciech Bulinski, for the flutist’s most straight-ahead jazzy turn on record, roping in Charlie Parker’s “Segment” and Victor Young’s evergreen “Song of Delilah.” Listening to it, you wouldn’t guess at the chaotic circumstances under which it was made, as related in Peter Westbrook’s notes. Lotz was teaching here and there in Poland last year, including a stop in the hip and scenic (if smoggy) university town of Wroclaw. Piasecki invited him to record there, in what turned out to be a subpar studio, with too little time, after too little sleep, and with Bulinski running a fever that made him drop out in mid-session. (Three of nine pieces are duets.)

And yet it’s remarkably OK – a real old-school jazz flute record. Sneak in a piano, it could pass for a 1970s Xanadu LP. Selections also include Sam Rivers’ “Euterpe” and Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” covered by Herbie Mann, and Lotz prowls the wide territory between those two jazz flutists – adventurous but tuneful. Much as he mines the metal pipe’s extremes elsewhere, Lotz gravitates to the instrument’s full middle range, where it has real body. (He also plays fuller bodied alto and bass flutes.) His tone is slightly breathy, his attack mildly percussive; he never goes for easy shrieks or Rahsaan impressions. He’s an orderly soloist, whose improvised choruses are about something: he’ll make an opening statement and then develop it, as on the serpentine “Euterpe” (less astringent than Sam’s 1965 Contours version) or Mark’s personal standard “Little Shiva,” anchored to a bouncy bass ostinato. On either you may also hear that Indian bansuri influence peeking out, but only peeking: this music isn’t about style quotation. There’s another whiff of bansuri on the long rubato intro to Bird’s “Segment,” with droning bass and faint drum and cymbal rolls, an intro where Lotz just glances at the melody to come.

The material is well selected, and not too obvious. Lotz made a deep dive into reedist Michael Moore’s book, to come up with the trancelike “Franz” recorded by Moore’s two-guitar band The Persons for World Surf Music in 1988. Riffing on the merry South African “Pata Pata” seems almost too easy, though Lotz doesn’t phone it in, and it’s cotton candy for the rhythm section. The bassist’s time is so strong, it frees up Bulinski to embroider the kwela-like rhythm, or just keep it simple with a quiet woodblock on every beat.

Piasceki’s beat is so firm and in the pocket on “Song of Delilah,” for bass flute, you could miss the fact the ailing drummer had stepped out. To cover, the bass-drum duo treat the short improvised “Slap, Kick & Stop” as a percussion duet, Piasecki knocking on the bass’s shoulders, Lotz playing faint bass-flute plosives and (since Grzegorz is busy) a whispered bassline. Now that is turning lemons into lemonade.
–Kevin Whitehead


Nature Work
Nature Work
Sunnyside 1554

This beauty is very much a Jason Stein and Greg Ward album with accompaniment by bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jim Black. The bass clarinetist and alto saxophonist are sensitive players who contrast marvelously: low and higher horns; Stein’s full, woody sound and frequent, long double- and triple-time lines; Ward’s big, sweet, and pure sound (no strain, ever), broken phrases, and gleaming rhythmic poise.

Earlier Delmark CDs by the Jason Stein Quartet are notable for their spontaneous interplay and rhythmic freedom – imagine a Lennie Tristano group’s lyric intensity, exploded by 21st century freedoms. The main difference being that Stein promoted free interplay among all four players, unlike Tristano, who yoked bass and drums. Stein’s four songs on Nature Work are similarly arranged, incorporating a hot bass solo (“Hem the Jewels”), a drum-bass clarinet duet (“South Hempstead”), and rubato mystery (“Opter Fopter”) to add rhythmic and sonic intrigue. His bass clarinet sound is rich in the low and middle octaves, taking on an almost a tenor sax sound in higher ranges. He has a very linear intensity; at times, as in the Stein-Black feature “Zenith,” he blazes high, low, everywhere, including multiphonics.

Whereas the edgy interplay of Stein and his Quartet mate Keefe Jackson reflected the Konitz-Marsh history, Ward’s sense of contrast yields commentary more like young Lester Young’s amidst Basie’s soloists – quite a different balance. Ward’s “The Shivers” solo is stunning. Its theme derives from “Un Poco Loco,” then as he improvises lovely melodies his time floats, expands, contracts over the fast tempo. Like the more discursive Stein, Ward has stories to tell. He seems to conceive whole solos, his lines flow so inevitably, as if he must play these notes, these phrases this way, or else die. Same goes for his solos in the Ornettish “Tah Dazzle” and “Hem the Jewels.” “Cryptic Riddle” is a high point, with Ward’s bite and urgency and Stein’s power and persistence building phrase by phrase as they take turns to make a grand two-man solo.

The energetic propulsion of Revis and Black is just fine for amplifying the great give and take of the two horns. Altogether, Nature Work is very compelling.
–John Litweiler


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