Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Blood Drum Spirit
Time Changes

There’s a couple different ways one can approach and understand Time Changes, by Blood Drum Spirit (royal hartigan, drums; David Bindman, tenor and soprano; Art Hirahara, piano; Wes Brown, bass). One can go straight to the music, or take it in alongside its context. If the listener came to the album as a Spotify playlist or a digital download without the booklet, she’d find 150+ minutes of music that is heavily indebted to Coltrane’s classic quartet, Max Roach, and Rollins’s Freedom Now Suite. In the process of digesting this almost overwhelming collection of music, she would come across a mix of originals, free improvisations, drum solos, and arrangements of classic repertoire. On the whole, there’s too much music and it’s somewhat inconsistent. There are times when the group absolutely cooks and plays some exciting material, but these are countered by performances that are either just ok or somewhat problematic. The arrangement of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” doesn’t feel like an essential contribution, as the 13 beat meter does not sit naturally; it has the hiccups. Likewise, the placement of the accents and melodies in “St. Louis Blues,” which shifts between 21/8, 7/8, and 7/4, sometimes feels like a mistake rather than a hip recontextualization.

The perception and judgment of the album changes drastically when reading hartigan’s extensive liner notes. While “Freedom Jazz Dance” seems to stumble, it was arranged to “voice the outrage against the insanity consuming plantation Earth.” Even though “St. Louis Blues” sometimes doesn’t work, the arrangement is meant to “express the horror of torture and murder of African Americans, especially black men, by military, police, and vigilantes.” These aren’t the only pieces on the album which have a deeper significance and purpose, and one’s thoughts about the performances may change upon learning their inspiration. But regardless of the bigger meaning, Time Changes would suffer no ill effects by losing half of its material, and on a purely musical basis, nothing less would be said, as the messages behind some of the pieces aren’t readily apparent or immediately communicated without the help of the liner notes, e.g., the vibe on “St. Louis Blues” almost conveys the opposite of the horror of torture and murder.

What Time Changes comes down to is editing, editing, editing. There’s a darn good – and possibly really important – album of roughly 60 minutes lurking in these two discs that consists of those pieces in which the quartet incorporates specific West African musical practices. (There’s also a pretty solid EP/short LP’s worth of compelling free improvisation and drum solos here as well, but like the album’s other strong performances, it’s scattered among less choice cuts.) Several cuts involve rhythmic structures from the Asante, Ga, Dagara, and Ewe peoples of Ghana. In these performances one hears textures, grooves, and polyrhythms that are right at home in jazz, and without hartigan’s description of the sources, one may not make such a direct connection to Africa. In this way, one of the strongest contributions Time Changes makes is to explicitly point out jazz’s African roots. In the liner notes hartigan suggests that foregrounding these links and honoring the music’s African heritage is the recording’s main goal, which makes me question why the album contains an arrangement of Debussy’s “Syrinx” and a piece dedicated to hartigan’s parents. But it’s not just the linking of jazz with its foundational African elements that is of value: the quartet’s performances on each of those tracks goes up another level, as there’s a greater sense of commitment and drive, regardless if it’s one of hartigan’s compositions or the arrangement of Randy Weston’s “High Fly.”

I don’t want to be overly harsh, as I respect this group’s dedication to and passion for the music. I also agree with every word and opinion that hartigan expresses in the liner notes about the power of music and I share his concern and outrage at the precarious situation that so much of the world lives in. That being said, generosity, reverence, good intentions, compassion, artistry, and a dedication to social justice do not an excellent album make.
–Chris Robinson


Cyril Bondi + Pierre-Yves Martel + Christoph Schiller + Angharad Davies
Another Timbre at140

The trio tse consisting of Cyril Bondi, shruti box, pitch pipes, harmonica; Pierre-Yves Martel, viola da gamba, pitch pipes, harmonica; and Christoph Schiller, harpsichord and preparations, formed in 2017 for a studio recording session (released on Another Timbre) and did a short European tour. The three share a passion for the intersections of free improvisation and composition, particularly the use of parameterized frameworks to guide collective playing. As part of their tour, the trio performed at Café OTO in London along with violinist Angharad Davies, performing a trio set, a solo by Davies, and as a quartet which is captured on this disc.

For the quartet performance, they utilized a strategy often deployed by Schiller. A number of small pieces of paper with between one and four musical notes on them are placed in a box. The pieces of paper are then pulled out and arranged with each piece representing the pitch or group of pitches that can be applied during a set period of time. The four also agreed to include two blank pieces of paper where a section would be freely improvised. Martel sums the approach up nicely, stating that “The goal is to feel totally free within a strict, imposed framework ... Speaking personally, I find that music requires a kind of implicit order, though this implicit order can consist of the barest rules imaginable.”

The four assimilate the resulting form with a unified poise and sense of measured purpose. While the 31-minute piece is bounded by the foundational distilled, spare kernels of pitch sets, the instrumentation the four employ is replete with rich timbral variation. The warm sonorities of bowed violin and viola da gamba, percussive attack of spinet, and the reedy resonance of shruti box, pitch pipes, and harmonica are blended, shaded, and scumbled in gradually shifting layers. Quiet, abraded textures are woven into the mix, providing additional layers of sonic depth. Long notes are countered by staccato attacks and all make ardent use of space and silence. There are moments when the playing pools into rich layers and others where notes prick through like stars in an inky, moonless sky. Throughout, each of the players use supple phrasing, creating subtle cross streams of mercurial undercurrents which deftly balance stasis and flow. This was the first, and so far, the only meeting of the quartet. One hopes for more to follow.
–Michael Rosenstein


Bertrand Denzler + CoÔ
Potlatch P119

Saxophonist and composer Bertrand Denzler manages to balance a dizzying number of projects, from free jazz-based groups to improvisational settings melding acoustic instruments and electronics to solo work to fully composed pieces. This year alone, he’s released trio recordings with himself on tenor along with bassist Joel Grip and drummer Sven-Åke Johansson; another with tenor and Ilia Belorukov on alto saxophone and electronics and Miguel A. Garcia on electronics; a duo with bassist Dominic Lash; a solo tenor recording; and this recording of a piece composed for the string ensemble CoÔ. Take a look at the Recent Collaborations page on Denzler’s web site and that list extends even further. But across all of these disparate projects, Denzler’s singular focus is the nuanced detail of sound and the elemental timbres of the instruments he works with.

The group CoÔ is a subset of Onceim (Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales) a large ensemble dedicated to collective improvisation as well as music compositions written for the group. Denzler worked previously with the full ensemble for a performance of his composition Morph (reviewed by Stuart Broomer in PoD 51) and Arc follows the general strategies mined in that piece. While Morph utilized a 24-piece ensemble with strings, reeds, percussion, organ, and electronics, the instrumentation for Arc features a septet of violin, two violas, cello, and three double basses. Like on Morph, the two-part composition Arc retains the utilization of tonal striations as its underlying structural underpinning, but the focus on the interaction of harmonics and overtones of strings and the compositional strategies make for some engaging differences.

The recording begins with “Arc 1.1,” an 18-minute exploration of dark, resonant arco sonorities. The piece is structured around eighteen segments of sound, each ranging from just under 30 seconds to just over 60 seconds, separated by short sections of silence. One can hear the ensemble navigating the structure with careful collective listening and an organic sense of time. Some segments are imbued with the low-end rumble of the three basses while, on others, just the thinnest whisper of rasped overtones comes through. While the full aural span of the ensemble is utilized in the opening and closing segments, there is no readily discernable progression of balance, pitch, or dynamic. Instead, the ensemble fully absorbs the form of the piece, voicing each segment with clear starts and stops, letting them sit within the unfolding passage of time.

“Arc 2.1” has a more straight-through structure, the 23-minute piece bisected into two sections roughly equal in length broken by a 15-second pause. Here, the ensemble moves its way through the gradated layering of the piece with a resolute attention to the mutable interactions of slowly modulated pitch and dynamics. Listening, one hears textures and registers hover against the rich field of the full string section, yet there is never a time where any specific voice or instrument dominates. Again, each member of the ensemble fully assimilates the overall collective advance across the duration of the piece, with each tuning, adjusting, and tempering their playing in relation to the supple overlapping cooperative layers. It is easy to lose oneself in the evolving richness of the piece, which patiently winds its way to the lush resonance of the final closing minutes. While all of Denzler’s work is worth searching out, these recordings of his compositions are always welcome.
–Michael Rosenstein


Day Two
NoBusiness NBCD 114

Detail is a free jazz super-group that somehow never quite gets its due. The group formed in 1982 when drummer John Stevens and bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani visited Norway to tour and record in a quartet with keyboard player Eivin One Pedersen and reed player Frode Gjerstad. Pedersen ducked out as they were getting ready to go into the studio and the group settled in as a trio. The group lasted a bit over a decade (with Kent Carter stepping into the bass spot with Dyani’s death in 1986) and released a scant 10 recordings, most now out of print. The Lithuanian label NoBusiness has stepped in to help with that, reissuing one of the trio sessions from that initial meeting, originally issued as Okhela <<To Make a Fire>> on the Affinity label.

While various musicians, including Bobby Bradford, Billy Bang, and Paul Rutherford guested with the group, the core trio and particularly the early trio with Dyani was a noteworthy setting for each of the members. Here, Stevens draws on his jazz roots, opening up pulse and swing and driving the music with a lithe sense of momentum. From his central role in the formulation of South African free jazz to his participation in and leadership of various groups in Europe, Dyani was a singular voice on bass. His stalwart tone and loping melodicism was integral to the partnerships he forged. Gjerstad was the youngster of these sessions, still formulating his fiery attack and darting, energized lyricism. This set captures the trio after several weeks of touring and a previous day of studio recording and, over the course of two extended improvisations, they dive in with a honed, collective passion.

The recording quality and remastering are stellar, with every detail of each of the players captured with remarkable clarity. This is particularly true of Dyani, with a full, resounding bass sound that sits perfectly in the mix. Stevens is credited with balancing the recording in the studio and his efforts pay off. Gjerstad sounds a bit raw at times, but holds his own, knowing when to dive in and when to sit back and let his partners stretch out. And Stevens is in his element, slashing and splashing his full kit, goading the music along without ever playing over his partners. What is striking about this is how egalitarian the interactions are within the context of a reeds/bass/drums trio, a free jazz setting that was well established at this point. The musicians know how to incite the energy of the set without ever overpowering each other. The packaging and remastering is fantastic here and Gjerstad’s reminiscences in the liner notes add valuable context to the set. While not the definitive recording of the group, it’s great to have this one back in print.
–Michael Rosenstein


Whit Dickey
The Tao Quartets
AUM Fidelity AUM108/109

Drummer Whit Dickey is one of the better kept secrets of the Downtown jazz scene. Since the late ‘80s Dickey’s contributions to the music of David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, and Ivo Perelman have left an indelible impression on their recorded legacies. The projects Dickey has led in the ensuing years have been equally inspired. Dickey’s latest effort as a bandleader comprises a pair of new studio albums featuring two all-star quartets: Peace Planet features Rob Brown on alto saxophone, Shipp on piano, and William Parker on bass, while Box of Light features Brown, Steve Swell on trombone, and Michael Bisio on bass. All involved have been on the vanguard of free improvisation for years; their time spent collaborating in numerous configurations spans decades.

Dickey named this set of interrelated records The Tao Quartets, as the Tao incorporates the concept of Yin Yang and these two represent the Yin and the Yang, respectively. As Dickey states in the liner notes, “these albums together are two parts of a whole; it depends on which part of the total vibration the listener wants to tune into. One features a slightly behind-the-beat yin thing, and the other a bit ahead-of-the-beat yang approach. It’s really a question of trying to find the center. My playing doesn’t represent the center in either one; rather, the slight differences between the two in approaching it.”

Peace Planet represents the Yin, with passionate lyricism and rhythmic acuity. Having appeared together in various combinations over the last quarter century, the collective’s sound is refined, even when venturing outward bound. The interplay between Brown and Shipp is impressive; they’ve been working together for over thirty years, here with stalwart support from a familiar rhythm section that moves effortlessly between conventional time and a rubato pulse. Brown’s spiraling cadences and Shipp’s cascading filigrees on the title cut are complementary expressions, underpinned by Dickey’s colorful accents and Parker’s roving bass. The energy level modulates slightly on such swinging fare as “Seventh Sun” or the introspective “Ancient Monument,” although sparks fly on “Suite for DSW” (David S. Ware). Brown and Dickey spar fervently at the outset, before the episodic tune vacillates between wildly divergent moods, and the leader demonstrates nuanced restraint with an understated solo at the outro.

Box of Light represents the Yang, with blistering energy and crackling interplay. Like the first set, careful listening is at the fore; the rapport between Brown and Swell evolves and intensifies as they volley bristling lines back and forth, their camaraderie immediately apparent on the aptly titled introduction “Eye Opener.” The rhythm team of Bisio and Dickey is dynamic and constantly in flux, a surging torrent of rhythmic potential. Bisio, a masterful free improviser, transcends the role of mere timekeeper, as on “Ethereality,” where his strident arco sets an expressive tone, and “Box of Light,” in which his thrumming pizzicato inspires equally fervent call-and-response from the horns. The roiling pulse that drives the closer, “Jungle Suite,” exemplifies the chemistry Bisio and Dickey fostered working together in Shipp’s trio, as they drive the rambunctious number forward without an obvious time signature. A contemplative coda provides brief respite before the four take the tune (and session) out with soulful equanimity.

Throughout their runtime Peace Planet and Box of Light each exude a singularly focused and cohesive feel; careful listening reveals numerous conversational subtleties in each set. After a brief recording hiatus, AUM Fidelity presented the re-emergence of Dickey as a bandleader in 2017 with Vessel in Orbit, a trio featuring Shipp and violist Mat Maneri – Dickey’s symbolic re-entry to the scene. Demonstrating his work with two different groups, The Tao Quartets is his best, most creative, and comprehensive offering to date.
–Troy Collins


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