Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Liberty Ellman
Last Desert
Pi Recordings PI85

Guitarist Liberty Ellman is a protean talent, widely respected for his supporting role in Henry Threadgill’s longstanding Zooid ensemble, as well as groups led by luminaries like Joe Lovano, Myra Melford, and Adam Rudolph. In addition to his sideman duties, Ellman also produces, mixes, and masters recordings, which may explain why his releases as a bandleader are so infrequent. But Ellman’s own projects – which rarely receive the attention accorded his high-profile sideman work – are no less impressive.

Last Desert is Ellman’s fifth album in over two decades, and fourth for Pi Recordings, following 2015’s Radiate. A notable step forward, the record takes its name from 4 Deserts, an annual ultramarathon through some of the harshest environments on Earth. Like the stark contrast between the beauty of these extreme landscapes and the challenging physicality of the races, Ellman’s compositions mirror his playing style, balancing the cerebral with the emotive.

All the musicians from Radiate return, including alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tuba player Jose Davila, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Damion Reid. Serving as an equal member of the ensemble, Ellman is a subtle, unifying presence; his bell-toned, single-note leads counterbalance Lehman’s acerbic tone and Finlayson’s cool lyricism, intermingle with Crump and Davila’s sub-harmonic lines, and add a syncopated pulse to Reid’s vacillating polyrhythms.

The album opens with “The Sip.” Based on an elegant melody, Ellman’s pensive guitar is matched by Finlayson and Lehman, while Davila and Crump provide lush, ambiguous harmonies, as the players drift into relaxed counterpoint. Divided in two, the album’s eponymous centerpiece is episodic; Ellman’s incisive lines cut across Reid and Crump’s lithe vamp, before Finlayson takes the lead with clearly articulated voicings. The atmospheric second half begins tentatively before a pedal-like groove inspires commanding performances from Lehman’s vociferous alto and Davila’s virtuosic tuba, culminating in a mesmerizing funk-rock vamp spearheaded by Finlayson.

The interlocking polyrhythms of “Rubber Flowers” recall Threadgill. The leader and Lehman spar with tasteful angularity, while bass and tuba converse, and Reid freely improvises. When Finlayson enters for a lyrical solo, the rhythm section locks in. Threadgill’s influence is also heard in the precise hockets and rhythmic syncopation of the kaleidoscopic march “Doppler.”

In contrast, “Portals” is a panoramic ballad that features Ellman’s longest, most developed solo of the date, before the rhythm section accelerates to a brisk swing tempo for Finlayson and Lehman to trade ideas in full flight. “Liquid” closes the album with one of Ellman’s most compelling statements, full of abstract blues phrases and intervallic arpeggios, before resolving in mellifluous pastoral harmony – a masterstroke of melodic invention.

More refined and spontaneous than Ellman’s prior efforts, Last Desert rewards careful attention; its eclectic blend of contrapuntal writing, harmonious improvisation, and off-kilter grooves confirm Ellman as one of modern jazz’s most skilled composers and six-string stylists.
–Troy Collins


Satoko Fujii + Natsuki Tamura
Pentas: Tribute to Eric and Chris Stern
Not Two MW999

Even though Pentas constitutes the seventh duo album by prolific Japanese husband and wife trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii, they still manage to draw deeply from a seeming perpetual wellspring of inspiration. Typical for such dates, both contribute four numbers apiece. Though recorded in the studio in Krakow, the set is dedicated to Eric and Chris Stern, who organized a concert in NYC in which they played the first live rendition of this material, the day that Eric died.

The bare bones instrumentation allows full appreciation of their virtues: inventive composerly craft; prodigious improvising prowess; a taut balance between melody and mayhem; and individual excursions which confirm the parameters of the charts as stimulating rather than limiting factors. Most pieces take ABA form, with themes bookending solos, but they inject a staggering variety into that format.

Furthermore, it’s almost as if they decided to use this album to examine staccato structures and space. Certainly, those descriptors could define the inaugural “Not Together.” Silence cossets each note in the striking opening unison, and pervades the rest of the track too, with first Tamura lyrical over Fujii’s jagged accompaniment, and then the pianist alone contrasting isolated keystrokes with pent up flow, juggling consonance and boisterous adventure. It’s an ear grabbing way to start the program.

Fujii often provides the substructure, whether that’s through her distinctive sound placement among the undulating waves of “Wind Chili,” the dramatic disconnect between the bass register and the spare treble refrain on “Stillness,” or the tumbling phrases juxtaposed with bottom end rumbling on the title cut. For his part, Tamura often carries the tune, though he characteristically allies the honeyed contours to tonal escapades in his unpredictable extemporizations.

They offer further hints of their expressive range on “Rising,” which works towards a rhapsodic denouement from spectral beginnings furnished by Fujii’s prepared keys and string plucks. A gamelan-evoking air vies with Tamura’s whinnying half-notes, before gradually gaining mass, momentum, and majesty. In spite of an initially wistful feel, the final “Circle” suggests hidden depths and rich possibilities, before a surging conclusion. Though it ends without resolution, leaving the listener wanting more, with this fertile team one can be safe in the knowledge that more is indeed likely.
–John Sharpe


Jason Kao Hwang
Human Rites Trio
True Sound TS03

Violinist Jason Kao Hwang, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury communicate in a musical language perfected over years of collaboration. The experience of workshopping music together, testing it in concert, and making revisions has resulted in a palpable depth of shared feeling and common understanding. Hwang’s latest endeavor with Filiano and Drury, Human Rites Trio, was completed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting our current age of anxiety. In the liner notes, Hwang dedicates the album to the heroic doctors, nurses, and frontline workers saving lives – and those we have lost to the disease.

Mirroring the onslaught of the pandemic and our attempts to adapt to a new normal, the angular fits and starts of “Words Asleep Spoken Awake, Part 1” give way to a structured groove and anthemic melody, while “Part 2” transitions from bristling frenzy to haunting elegy. The episodic suite incorporates funk, swing, and free-form sections, with seamless transitions between recurring motifs and individual solos that demonstrate the trio’s uncanny chemistry: Filiano’s sinewy arco statement in the second half, complete with double-stopped multiphonics, is echoed by Drury’s breathing tube/floor tom extrapolation; Hwang picks up where Drury leaves off, with rough-hewn lyricism.

“Conscious Concave Concrete” slows the pace, offering emotional respite. Hypnotic interplay between bass and drums underpins Hwang’s rubato solo, his Korean-influenced pizzicato adopting a bluesy swagger that unites Eastern and Western tonalities. Further rejection of conventional boundaries materializes in “2AM,” where a languid contrapuntal opening modulates into an extended foray for the rhythm section, capped by Drury’s roiling solo and tremulous strings.

The frenetic “Battle for the Indelible Truth” and discordant “Defiance” transpose the group’s name into a rallying cry. The former is volatile, progressing through a range of emotions, from raw expressionism and poignant lyricism to serene introspection. The latter emulates an epic struggle, with dynamic shifts in tone between composition and improvisation as the piece ascends from impressionistic pointillism to stately formalism, ending in near silence.

Hwang’s synergy with Filiano and Drury has grown with each successive project in the fifteen years since they first recorded together – from Hwang’s Edge quartet, and Spontaneous River string orchestra, to his Sing House quintet, and Burning Bridge octet. In Human Rites Trio, the collaborative interplay of their individual voices unites once again in common purpose. Hwang sums it up best in the liner notes, “As we hear ourselves within music we become Music, which is no longer a performance but an affirmation of justice and celebration of life.”
–Troy Collins


Keys & Screws
Some More Jazz
NoBusiness NBLP 133

From the prosaic title on, a casual vibe pervades Some More Jazz which belies the depth of artistry involved in its execution. On each of the three cuts on this 47-minute LP, the seemingly random start progressively comes into focus. Notice of the naturally evolving unfolding arrive thick and fast. On “The Other Morning In The Park” the pulse gradually coalesces from drummer Willi Kellers’ clanking steel pans, bassist Jan Roder’s discursive pizzicato and saxophonist Thomas Borgmann’s sweet soprano musings. And then Roder drops out, leaving Kellers and Borgmann in tandem, so that when they pause he can return to initiate a new direction. Such shifts occur with so little fanfare they can be barely discernible.

Kellers and Borgmann go back a long way, already in partnership back in 1995 under the continuing moniker Ruf Der Heimat, and subsequently further documented on Boom Box (Jazzwerkstatt, 2011) and One For Cisco (NoBusiness, 2016), on each occasion with a new bassist completing the trio. The addition of Roder heralds a new brand: Keys & Screws. And so palpable is the group feel, with Roder such an integral part in the proceedings, through his melding of rhythmic impulse with melody in an assertive counterpoint, that differentiating the threesome with a distinct name seems entirely appropriate.

Kellers similarly plays a key role. Like Louis Moholo-Moholo, he prompts, cajoles and almost sneaks in the beat, all the while without imposing himself, the architect of a transparent sound in which everyone can be clearly heard at all times. He supplements that dexterity with another talent: the easy way in which he moves between haphazard clatter and relaxed propulsion.

On “Broadway Birdy” (split across the two sides), Kellers’ thumb piano, Roder’s strum and Borgmann’s toy melodica create a bucolic scene, briefly alluding to the hymn “Abide With Me,” before the reedman wields his tenor saxophone, outlining a wavering dirge which at times combines echoes of Trane’s “Alabama” and the free flow of legendary Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson. But even at his most hectic, Borgmann never loses control, building coherently and soulfully, sounding both familiar yet newly minted.

As with those previous albums, although each of the three tracks is credited to a different band member, the uncomplicated melodies could as well be extemporized. But the apparent simplicity is no obstacle to fulfilling and expressive invention. At the outset of “Chatham Bellbird” Borgmann uses tonal distortion to vary an incantatory tenor phrase, ultimately peaking in falsetto cries and hoarse shrieks, before later winding down on soprano with a slightly melancholy poppy lyricism. Certainly the spontaneity with which each piece develops suggests three finely attuned sensibilities at work, or perhaps that should be at play. But work or play, it’s an outstanding release.
–John Sharpe


King Übü Örchestrü
Concert at Town Hall / Binaurality - Live 1989
Destination Out DL

Named after the title character of French Surrealist writer Alfred Jarry’s play, reed player Wolfgang Fuchs formed King Übü Örchestrü in the early ‘80s. Along with members of the group X Pact (drummer Paul Lytton, bassist Hans Schneider, and guitarist Erhard Hirt) the goal was to explore large group collective improvisation, avoiding set membership, eschewing any use of scores or pre-determined structures, bereft of polyphony, and where, as recounted by original member Norbert Möslang, “one was meant to play very little, and that very quietly.” The group released a meager four recordings, debuting with Music Is Music Is... recorded in 1984 and ending with Live at Total Music Meeting 2003. So, this live recording comprised of two longer improvisations and a shorter postlude captured at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Town Hall in October 1989 by Jost Gebers is particularly welcome.

This time out, the group is a nonet, with Wolfgang Fuchs, Luc Houtkamp, and Peter van Bergen on reeds, Günter Christmann and Radu Malfatti on trombones, Melvyn Poore on tuba, Phil Wachsmann on violin and electronics, Torsten Müller on double bass, and Paul Lytton on percussion. The fluid ensemble was working together in various incarnations at the time, with cross membership in London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Malfatti’s Ohrkiste, and Christmann’s Vario. But there’s a different dynamic at play here. Listening to this thirty years later, the silence and sparseness alluded to by Möslang seems somewhat brash compared to the reductionist aesthetics that would follow. There is a relatively high level of activity throughout, though there is an elasticity of groupings that allows for segments of quieter interplay. These are certainly strategies that had been in play for over a decade at this point, particularly in European free improvisation. But Fuchs and crew were focused on extending it to a larger ensemble format without using the structures of groups like London Jazz Composers Orchestra or Globe Unity.

The 45 minute “Binaurality – Part 1” begins with open group improvisation as voices bubble in and out of the mix. While the general strategies have some commonality with the shorter improvisations on their 1992 recording Binaurality, the densities and simultaneity of playing is far more pronounced on this earlier session. One can hear the ensemble working their way through ways of keeping the various threads of the instruments transparent; not crowding in to ensemble sections. The mix of brass, reeds, strings, and Lytton’s richly timbral percussion is in constant flux. The improvisation builds momentum, but then a collective awareness snaps in to open things up. Instruments start to pair together and lines cross back and forth, but then back away from conversational interaction. In the quieter sections, like a third of the way in, they lock in, and the details and timbral variety of the instrumentation come to the fore. The way that Wachsmann’s violin and electronics mix with the pinched microtones of the reed players is a particular standout. The piece has its share of dead ends, particularly where the entire ensemble wells up, leading to some muddy areas, but it is intriguing to listening to how they navigate their way through these sections.

The 38-minute “Binaurality – Part 2” starts out with subdued interactions but quickly mounts to far more active areas. While these tend to lead toward loquacious slabs of group exchange, there is an attentiveness to reigning things in, particularly in the middle section which ebbs and flows between massed intensity and pared-back ricochet of textures and micro-detail. The final third settles into some insistent give-and-take and some sonorous group coloring, shot through with garrulous reed interjections. The trombone lines are strikingly animated and one wonders in particular, about Malfatti’s contributions given the direction his playing would go toward super-spare strategies within five years of this session. The final 8 and a half minute “Binaurality – Part 3” is shot through with freely hocketed flurries driven with brisk vitality, hardly the quiet interplay that would inform their FMP release recorded three years later. While not quite standing up to Binaurality or Trigger Zone where the strategies of playing very little and very quietly would fully emerge, this archival discovery fills a vital gap in the discography of the group and is well worth searching out.
–Michael Rosenstein


ICP + Nieuw Amsterdams Peil
de hondemepper
ICP 062

This collaboration between ICP Orchestra and Nieuw Amsterdams Peil – another pool, oriented towards composed works – is about as close to an Amacord Misha Mengelberg as is likely to be heard. The album is a full body of work scan of a composer who irascibly resisted definition. de hondemepper traces Mengelberg’s roots (Karel, his composer father, and the jazz trinity of Ellington, Monk, and Nichols), retrieves seldom-heard pieces from the Orchestra’s book, and recasts pieces he penned in the 1970s and ‘80s for, respectively, Okest de Volharding and Hoketus, both led by Louis Andriessen. Although the album vaults from one aspect of Mengelberg’s sensibility to another track by track, it is a remarkably cohesive program, one of the more persuasive cases for Mengelberg as a composer on disc.

NAP comes to this recording with relevant history – co-leader Gerard Bouwhuis was Hoketus’ pianist when they premiered “Een Hutje van Gras” in 1985. They also bring other assets to the table: NAP co-leader and violinist Heleen Hulst and cellist Mick Stirling buttress ICP’s strings section, bassoonist Dorian Cooke and Patricio Wang, who plays mandolin and chromatic panflute, expand the color palette, and Bart de Vrees thickens the percussion textures. Most importantly, they contribute to the cracking, close-order ensembles that permeate the program, essential to multi-sectioned works like “Dressoir,” in which quirky, vernacular-driven punchlines require straight-faced delivery.

The polishing of Mengelberg’s compositions by no means diminishes their subversions. Instead of blossoming into a full-bodied exposition, the lovely triple canon that opens “Een Hutje van Gras” peters out, leaving only a Minimalist pulse flecked with exotic accents that lingers almost too long before the closing reiteration of the canon. The reading of “A La Russe” by Cooke, Stirling, and Mary Oliver (heard on viola) plays upon classical conventions with the sardonic piquancy often associated with Prokofiev. The title piece vaults over follies-worthy romps, dour melodies, and texture-driven intrusions, the ensemble’s every landing nailed.

The NAPsters are also impactful on the repertory pieces. Cooke and the strings add to the frenzied energy of Guus Janssen’s clarinet-rich arrangement of Nichols’ “Cro-Magnon Nights,” which is very much in line with the deceptive looseness ICP has honed over decades, where swerves, jolts, and lurches are smartly placed. The same holds true in the passages of Ab Baars episodic “Pools and Pals” that draw on the hard-swinging “Depk” from Ellington’s Far East Suite. While Wang’s pan flute effectively punctuates the improvised sections of Baars’ piece, and adds jaunty color elsewhere, it is not well suited as a lead voice in Michael Moore’s otherwise sumptuous expansion of Mengelberg’s chart for Monk’s “Reflections.”

Ultimately, despite its many pleasures, de hondemepper begs an important question: Having made this impressive homage, can ICP now foreground the works of its deep bench of composers? Making such a transition is complicated by the one-two punch of the pandemic (Tristan Honsinger and Thomas Heberer are currently on the wrong side of the Atlantic) and the loss of long-term support from the Fonds Podiumkunsten (the Dutch Foundation for the Performing Arts). How the next chapter unfolds in a new normal will be keenly watched.
–Bill Shoemaker


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