Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Chicago Underground Quartet
Good Days
Astral Spirits AS125

The Chicago Underground was conceived in 1997 by a collective of forward-thinking musicians from the Windy City’s experimental music scene. Although none of the original members currently live in the city for which the cooperative is named, co-founders Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have continued to work together as the Chicago Underground Duo, augmented on occasion by such peers as Noel Kupersmith, Jeff Parker, and Sarah Smith. The quartet version of the Chicago Underground previously released one self-titled album on Thrill Jockey in 2001. Almost two decades later the Quartet returns with its sophomore effort, Good Days. The date’s producer, Chris Schlarb, wanted to record Taylor as part of his Psychic Temple project, but couldn’t afford to pay him; in exchange, he offered to produce a new session by the Chicago Underground Quartet, who recorded the concise set in one day. The lineup features original members Mazurek (piccolo trumpet, electronics, and bells), Parker (electric guitar), and Taylor (drums and percussion); former bassist Kupersmith is replaced by multi-instrumentalist Josh Johnson (a Chicago native based in Los Angeles and member of Parker’s New Breed) on piano, organ, and assorted keyboards. Despite the passage of time and the musicians’ geographic displacement, Good Days embodies the same accessible, genre-defying aesthetic as the group’s debut.

Only Taylor’s funky “Batida” was written for the date, yet older tunes that Parker and Mazurek contributed were originally composed for each other. The guitarist wrote the lyrical title track for Mazurek, who wasn’t available for Parker’s 2012 trio album Bright Light in Winter (Delmark); beautiful in its original form, Mazurek’s trumpet adds an ethereal element that complements Parker’s tone perfectly. Comparably, Mazurek always envisioned a role for Parker on “Strange Wing,” whose reverb-laden fretwork imbues the cinematic number with a noir-ish vibe, underscored by Johnson’s hypnotic synth bass. The record also features a few atmospheric solo pieces, including Mazurek’s haunting invocation, “All the Bells,” where brassy smears drift over shimmering percussion, while Taylor’s solo log drum piece, “Lomé,” recalls the African roots he explored on his 2018 solo album Myths and Morals (Ears&Eyes). There’s more than just evocative moods at play, however: a protean cover of Alan Shorter’s “Orgasm” trades stately passion for freewheeling cacophony; and Mazurek’s “Unique Spiral” is more aggressive than the acoustic version featured on Desert Encrypts Vol. 1 (Astral Spirits, 2019), where it was titled “Encrypts 37.” Even at his most assertive, there’s something disarming about Mazurek’s piccolo trumpet, as he leads the group through a mesmerizing excursion. On the rousing “Westview,” the four musicians become a singular force, more than just the sum of their parts.

As the album progresses, it becomes clear how much the original members have grown over the past two decades. Mazurek, Taylor, and Parker have honed their rapport working on dozens of projects together in the interim, and Johnson is an excellent addition, who adds a different tonality to the group. Good Days is a stellar example of artistic maturity, and while it sounds new, it’s also a natural continuation of the band’s formative work. “We were influenced by everything going on around us [in Chicago], and we drew off that,” Mazurek explains. Taylor adds, “Bands like Tortoise, Isotope 217, Chicago Underground – it really was this family ... And when the three of us got together, it felt like we were picking up right where we left it 20 years ago.”
–Troy Collins


Decoy + Joe McPhee
Otoroku Roku023CD

Alexander Hawkins + Tomeka Reid
Shards and Constelations
Intakt CD 344

Even before pianist Alexander Hawkins opened ears during his tenure with Anthony Braxton’s Standards Quartet in January 2020, he had become established as one of the most riveting talents to emerge from the British jazz scene in years. Not only is he a fearsome free improviser, as well as a composer who seeks to stretch boundaries, but a knowledge of the tradition both deep and wide equips him for almost any eventuality. Beyond his regular stints with the likes of Evan Parker, Louis Moholo-Moholo and Mulatu Astatke, his list of collaborators reads like a Who’s Who of adventurous music-making.

Hawkins first played with American cellist Tomeka Reid as part of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s Quintet at a festival in the Portuguese town of Guimarães in 2015. Their paths crossed again when the Artifacts Trio appeared in London in September 2016 and the pianist subbed for flautist Nicole Mitchell, who was unwell. The makeup of that set, which combined the AACM repertory of the trio with some on-the-fly inventions also provides the template for Shards And Constellations, a studio encounter between the pair recorded during a short tour (with Mitchell too) in April 2019. The result constitutes one of the most successful outings for both performers.

By placing two works from the AACM canon amidst eight spontaneous creations, Hawkins and Reid fashion a near perfect balance between form and abstraction. Their outstanding version of Muhal Richard Abrams “Peace On You” furnishes the longest track on the disc. Between repeated passes at the gorgeously questioning refrain, singing cello and rhapsodic piano swell in a warm embrace, the bursts of drama darkening as the piece progresses towards a soaring conclusion. It’s Reid’s cello that carries the aching elegiac line of Leroy Jenkins’ “Albert Ayler (His Life Was Too Short)” (a piece that Hawkins has covered previously with the Convergence Quartet). Her enraptured variations and snaking plunges into the bass register crown a lyrical and heartfelt reading.

Having explored romanticism, the rest of the program gives more emphasis to the spikier side of the duet, although it’s not just that due as Hawkins’ two-handed counterpoint allows him to insert melodic ideas into the fragmented rhythmic discourse. The chamber setting means that the program plays out like an ongoing dialogue between the two principals, starting delicately, almost tentative on “If Becomes Is” before unfurling into a colloquy of piano droplets and pizzicato twang which becomes more dense and cohesive, giving way to a thrilling dash as they open the throttle.

Such excitement recurs in the tumbling momentum of “Danced Together” and supplies the payoff in “Sung Together” after an initial eddy of dampened notes, scrapes and rasps. Both show a penchant for interpolating reiterated motifs into their extemporizations, overlapping pleasingly at the end of the rippling conversational stream of “Strange Familiar”, and lending a unifying lucidity to the textural exchanges of gamelan sonorities and fingerboard thwack from prepared instruments on the final “Is Becomes If”.

Hawkins also makes up one third of the incendiary free jazz collective Decoy. Like its predecessors Oto (Bo’Weavil, 2010) and Spontaneous Combustion (Otoroku, 2012), AC DC, the third release from the threesome in consort Joe McPhee was recorded live at London’s Cafe Oto. The single CD presents both sets from the last night of McPhee’s four-day residency at the venue in May 2019. And like its predecessors it possesses the same virtues: raw expression and unrestrained chops, preternatural communication, and the ability to ride the alternating current between ferocious abandon and easy-on-the-ear reflection.

But this time out there’s an added ingredient in that the band also references a funky soul jazz vibe. That’s made most obvious in erstwhile pianist Hawkins’ channeling of Lifetime-era Larry Young as well as Sun Ra from behind the Hammond B3 organ, drummer Steve Noble’s affinity for a foot-tapping pulse, and McPhee’s insistent riffing.

Now 80, McPhee shares the heavy lifting with his younger colleagues. And having worked on an occasional basis with the multi-instrumentalist since their first meeting in 2009, the band is well up to the task, capably following McPhee’s dives from spiritual-inflected musing to bracing skronk. Hawkins redefines the Hammond as an improvising instrument, moving easily between broad impasto smears, transparent washes and splashy daubs. Like McPhee, he proves adept at conjuring memorable countervailing lines and vamps.

But Hawkins is just one part of a superb unit. Bassist John Edwards has few equals when it comes to patrolling this sort of jazz/ improv border. He performs with a remarkable energy and physicality, reveling in the percussive dimension of the bass, especially when wielding his bow. And like Noble, he can draw upon sojourns on the rockier side of the street for when he needs to get down and dirty.

The spirit was certainly in the house on this occasion. After some bristling exhortation, it is 14-minutes in to the “DC” when McPhee first introduces the celebratory 7-note riff which defines the remainder of the number. Edwards picks it up and the whole band takes flight, with the saxophonist hollering encouragement. Thereafter the piece ebbs and flows in unpredictable style, but though he breaks it up with post-Ayler pyrotechnics, McPhee still keeps artfully returning to the figure, lacing the visceral kick with a playful good humor, which sums up the mood of the entire disc.
–John Sharpe


Dave Douglas
Dizzy Atmosphere: Dizzy Gillespie at Zero Gravity
Greenleaf GRE-CD-1076

Musicians honor their heroes in myriad ways. Dave Douglas’ tribute albums – from his Booker Little-themed In Our Lifetime (New World, 1995) and Wayne Shorter-inspired Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997) to the Mary Lou Williams-based Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000) – largely eschew reinterpreting famous tunes in favor of originals that examine the visionary ideas behind those artist’s innovative recordings. Douglas’ latest paean, Dizzy Atmosphere: Dizzy Gillespie at Zero Gravity, offers an expansive perspective on the bebop legend. But it wasn’t easy for Douglas. “I sort of avoided dealing with Dizzy for a lot of years, because I felt like the topic is so huge, I almost didn’t know where to start,” he says. It began as a concert program presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2018. For that, he assembled a sextet that included Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and Joey Baron on drums.

Although there were no plans to document the project initially, Douglas eventually conceived of a recorded version with a different, more readily available cast (only Baron returns). Douglas wanted another young voice on trumpet: “That was something that Dizzy always did ... promoting a generation of players coming up after him,” which included Miles Davis and Lee Morgan. Douglas first heard Dave Adewumi in a composition workshop at Julliard’s Jazz Masters program; his warm tone and melodic voicings make a perfect counterpart for the leader, who claims “There’s not a moment on this record where I feel like we’re in competition.” Douglas also brought in Matthew Stevens, best known for his work with Esperanza Spalding, in place of Frisell, for similarly transparent accompaniment: shimmering chords; ghostly lines; and floating octaves.

Douglas’ modern revue begins with “Mondrian,” which pays equal respect to Gillespie’s iconic “Bebop” and Broadway Boogie Woogie, the famous painting by Dutch artist and jazz fan, Piet Mondrian. A visual representation of syncopation, the 1942 work parallels the way bebop propelled jazz from linear, single-note lines to chromatic harmony. Introduced by the frontline’s anthemic fanfare, pianist Fabian Almazan’s dazzling cadences and the leader’s soaring refrains set the stage for Carmen Rothwell’s contrastingly meditative bass solo. Among the Gillespie-influenced tunes, “Con Almazon” invokes “Con Alma,” and spotlights the descending, chromatic harmonies Almazan plays behind the trumpets’ spirited interplay and Stevens’ glassy fretwork when the tune shifts time signatures, connecting past and present. “Cadillac” echoes the structure of “Sing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” bookended by an ostinato that quotes the famous spiritual, with soulful call-and-response from Douglas and Adewumi’s trumpets that recalls Dizzy and James Moody’s famous vocal interplay.

In addition to inspired originals, the album also includes a pair of notable Gillespie tunes. Douglas’ lyrical interpretation of Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban classic, “Manteca,” highlights the vivacious teamwork of veteran drummer Baron and young bassist Rothwell, but it’s the trumpet players’ stratospheric exchanges that steal the show – here and throughout the set. “Pickin’ the Cabbage,” which Dizzy wrote while playing with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, even acknowledges Gillespie’s rarely covered big band canon, complete with rollicking plunger-muted shout choruses. Equally exciting is Douglas’ own “Subterfuge,” whose bright harmonies recall Gillespie’s brassy big-band arrangements. The set closes on an unexpectedly introspective note, with “We Pray,” which is similar in tone to some of the program’s other Douglas-penned originals, like “Pacific.” As much homage as exploration, Dizzy Atmosphere: Dizzy Gillespie at Zero Gravity addresses and expands upon Gillespie’s pioneering efforts with an enthusiasm that never resorts to mere imitation.
–Troy Collins


New World Records

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