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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Alexander von Schlippenbach
Slow Pieces for Aki
Intakt CD 346

When thinking of pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, the first things that may come to mind are fiery sessions like The Living Music, the all-in blast of Globe Unity, or the buffeting three-way intensity of the Schlippenbach Trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens. But that overlooks the pianist’s solo catalog (albeit scant), particularly the recordings he’s made for Intakt Records. The two volumes of Twelve Tone Tales, from 2005 or Plays Monk from 2011 reveals Schlippenbach as a consummate, musing pianist with a penchant for distilling harmonic investigations with compositional focus while retaining an innate sense of spontaneous freedom. The impetus of Slow pieces for Aki was a series of conversations the pianist had with his partner Aki Takase about why free improvisation so often gravitates toward loud and fast interactions. Schlippenbach used that as a jumping-off point, spending a year working on this series of eleven compositions and ten related improvisations which explore slower, harmonically open strategies.

With pieces that range from just over a minute to just under five minutes long, there is an overarching concision to this session. But rather than simply spinning off a catalog of sketches, Schlippenbach maintains a flow between the pieces which carries across the recording. The obvious framing convention here is one of pace, thoughtfully voicing themes and variations with a measured sense of timing. What comes out is his ability to embrace this tactic, leveraging it to provide a lose but focused alignment between the pieces. While there is nothing overt, one can hear his fascination with Monk’s structural angularities come through. Kernels of ideas are stated with abstracted deliberation, teased apart, and then tied back together.

Starting out with the quiet, free lyricism of “Haru No Yuki,” the pianist contemplatively wends his way through the program. The compositions display a bit more harmonic formalism than the interlaced improvisations, though even here that serves more as a framework than as a strict strategy. Instead, they provide touchpoints through the program which are then refracted in the improvisations that follow. Each builds off of threadlike motifs that are played out with patience, letting notes sound and hang with a considered ear toward attack and decay which the intimate studio recording captures with warm clarity. The ruminative explosion of blues voicings on “A-Blues” and “Blues B” are good examples of that attentiveness. While a piece like “I Told You” maximizes the deep resonance of the instrument, unfolding with poignant, ethereal melodicism.

The improvisations are a bit more fluid, drawing on jazz phrasings which Schlippenbach deploys with relaxed freedom. Listen to the abstracted stride of “Improvisation No. 5” or the percussive clusters of “Improvisation No. 7” for two examples. But sitting down without charting the titles, the flow back and forth between composition and improvisation is subtle and unassuming, never calling specific notice to the underlying approach. It is amazing to realize that this is only Schlippenbach’s sixth solo release in his five-decade career. Like each of the others that preceded, this one is not to be missed.
–Michael Rosenstein


Sun Ra and his Solar-Myth Arkestra
The Solar Myth Approach Vols. 1 and 2
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD071

By the mid-1960s, Sun Ra had fully entered into perhaps the most avant-garde phase of his career, first in New York – where he’d participated in the Jazz Composer’s Guild, the October Revolution in Jazz, and the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School – then in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and on tours through Europe and Egypt. A significant influence on the developing strains of Black Arts poetics exemplified by the likes of Baraka, the Umbra Poets, and, most closely, Henry Dumas (whose distinctive Afro-Surreal voice was cut short when he was murdered by a New York City cop) Ra was also – to an extent – embraced by countercultural and hippie movements, playing gigs at the Filmore and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Certainly, he was firmly a part of the new currents in jazz by the time of the BYG releases, and thus a natural person for the label to approach.

The result, credited to the “Solar Myth Arkestra” and released in 1971 in two volumes as The Solar-Myth Approach, has always been a strange release. Somewhat lost in the flurry of other BYG albums, these recordings were not made in the Parisian studios that, in the summer of 1969, had buzzed with established and ad-hoc ensembles that yielded works by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jacques Coursil, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, and the like. Rather, they are selections from Ra’s own vast archive of studio and live performances, the results of a sustained practice of self-recording which helped not only provide documentation but a means of making cash at gigs as self-produced albums on El Saturn Records: lo-fi, with hand-drawn cover art, and minimal recording information. The scattershot nature of The Solar Myth-Approach is, then, likely a combination of Ra’s own prolific, but somewhat erratic process of self-documentation, and BYG’s notoriously cavalier approach to recording and – in particular – to musicians’ contracts. (John Corbett speculates that, on European tours, Ra would sell tapes to European labels in order to provide funds for return airfares and travel expenses for the group.)

This new reissue on Corbett vs. Dempsey is probably the most painstakingly thorough attempt to give shape, sonic and discographic clarity to such confusion, in equal parts glorious and confusing. Irwin Chasud’s usefully thorough liner notes lay out the available evidence for recording dates and personnel, suggesting moreover that “misdirection” and “non-sequitur” in terms of recording information and stylistically inconsistent shifts from track to track were a part of Ra’s “mythic” conception (“Sun Ra’s not for real – he’s for myth!”) Potential recording locations are suggested as the Sun Studios in New York, at various dates between 1965 and 1969; the Choreographer’s Workshop in New York, between 1962 and 1965; the Gershon Kingsley Studio, New York, 1969, and a live performance at the Foundation Maeght in 1970. “They’ll Come Back” and “Ancient Ethiopia” suggest the tighter arrangements of the earlier part of the decade – the latter piece appears in different versions on Jazz in Silhouette and The Nubians of Plutonia – but it seems that the majority of the recordings came from the late 1960s, characterized as they are by free improvisation, multi-instrumentalism, and the use of electronics – from the reverbed flute and percussion of “Adventures of ‘Bugs’ Hunter,” to some of Ra’s earliest recordings on Moog synthesizer on “Seen III, Took 4” and “Scene 1, Take 1” (the latter included both in the original album version, apparently mixed at double speed, and a remastered true speed version). Stylistically, the closest comparable recordings are perhaps those released on ESP Disk – the live Nothing Is and the two volume Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra – as individual voices surge into and out of a truly collective music. If The Solar-Myth Approach is at once more sprawling and more fragmented than those releases, it remains fascinating, ferocious and mesmerising material, and the remastering and discographical detective work make it an essential release for Ra fans from the casual admirer to the most avid completist.
–David Grundy


Tani Tabbal Trio
Now Then
Tao Forms TAO03

Born in Chicago, Tani Tabbal came of age in Detroit’s fertile late ‘70s jazz scene, making a name for himself drumming with musical explorers like Faruq Z. Bey, Sun Ra, and Roscoe Mitchell. Always searching for adventurous colleagues, Tabbal recently found a pair in veteran bassist Michael Bisio, with whom he first played on Joe Giardullo’s Shadow and Light (Drimala, 2001), and the impressive young alto saxophonist Adam Siegel, who he met six years ago.

Now Then is Tabbal’s debut for Tao Forms, after issuing five self-produced recordings on his own Tabbalia imprint. Following in the footsteps of Opposite Edge (2019) and Triptych (2016), this is the third session to feature his working trio with Biso and Siegel. The album’s diverse program – six compositions by Tabbal and four by Bisio – demonstrates stylistic approaches ranging from muted pointillism (“Midway Open”) to vivacious post-bop (“Inky Bud”) that explore specific forms and moods using a subtle variety of textures and dynamics.

Tabbal’s “Just Woke Up” navigates the liminal state between dream and consciousness. Opening with a two-note octave refrain from Siegel’s breathy alto, Bisio’s pliant bass roams freely and Tabbal’s brushes skitter in response, as the collective improvisation gradually grows more animated. “Khusenaton,” named after an obscure saxophonist (and magician) Tabbal worked with in Sun Ra’s band, has a lilting vamp that swings unconventionally, yielding some of the date’s most ebullient performances. Of Bisio’s compositions, two pay homage to free jazz legends – the atmospheric meditation “Sun History Ra Mystery” name checks Sun Ra and the bouncy free-bop of “Oh See OC Revisited” bears the stamp of Ornette Coleman’s unfettered lyricism.

The players listen carefully, crafting spontaneous lines that are both independent of and complementary to one another. The abstract tone poem “Scrunch” bears this out, a focused exploration of piercing tonalities consisting of arco bass harmonics, altissimo alto cries, and scintillating percussion. The bristling title track finds Tabbal’s unit at its most fervent, offering a poignant metaphor for how conditions in the past and present are sometimes different and sometimes the same. “We approach the pieces like that,” Tabbal said. “Sometimes we think about a feeling from the past. Sometimes we think about the present. Sometimes we put them both together.” Transcending time and trends, Now Then is an exceptional document of interactive free improvisation by three musicians working together as one.
–Troy Collins


Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra
Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions, 1976
Dark Tree DT(RS)13

When someone called it an ARKestra, he’d correct them: it’s ArKEStra. As Horace Tapscott (1934–1999) says in his autobiography Songs of the Unsung (written with Stephen Isoardi), he’d borrowed the term from other-pronunciation Sun Ra, along with the connotation of an ark as protector/conservator ship encompassing diverse organic activity. But for Tapscott the name also suggested an ark of a covenant: a repository for The Word. Communal, nurturing, ennobling: that was Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, a product of 1960s idealism the bandleader/composer kept going for decades. Free gigs all over black Los Angeles, at fairgrounds, parks, and prisons, made them familiar community fixtures. But until Tom Albach’s Nimbus label began recording them in 1978, they were unheard on record (and not so widely heard even after). Tapscott, who did not suffer racist slights quietly, had gotten a reputation as difficult on the LA music scene; labels were not lining up to wax the band. The Arkestra organized a record session of its own in 1972. The studio burned down the next day, with the tapes inside.

Ancestral Echoes is, so far, the earliest Ark recording available; by 1976 early comers like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Wilber and Butch Morris, and Will Connell had already moved on, succeeded by a brace of younger players. Like Sun Ra, Horace Tapscott believed in communal living (for the youngsters at least), to facilitate marathon rehearsals and skills-building. They memorized the music. (Saxophonist Jesse Sharps: “You have to really, really know it in your heart so that you can make some force with it.”) The band was a broad mix of ages, abilities, and professional experience, and included a couple of women: Adele Sebastian on flute, PAPA co-founder/motivator/composer Linda Hill sliding in on piano Strayhorn-style when Horace conducted. As with Amsterdam’s political Orkest de Volharding, members might debate whether to accept certain gigs, depending on who was asking. Still, the Ark was so closely associated with its founder it went by the metonym PAPA, which was also what the newbies called the leader.

The kickoff “Ancestral Echoes” begins with The Word, a recitation from poet Kamau Daáood serving as general introduction (we are the seeds rooted in the cosmos of african clay/we are the spears thrown into the future...). From there Tapscott’s 1968 suite begins in earnest, his solo piano briskly moving through a few themes and moods – pastorale, kid’s song, dreamy arpeggios, a two-handed chase – as if playing a theatrical overture. But the main theme arrives only when the pianist hits a syncopated groove five minutes along, and the conga-fortified two-basses/two-drums rhythm section joins in. The triplety 18-beat cycle that stumbles at the end is the sort of tricky pattern you stop counting once you learn it: when you know it by heart and can make it forceful. (The rhythm section sticks to it one way or another from then on, the staccato tattoo ever-present, a Hollywood jungle telegraph.) One by one, Tapscott piles on the orchestral layers, entering a minute apart: lava-flow melody for brass and soprano sax; backgrounded countertheme led by flute, doubled by low brass; bari sax and bass clarinet in step with the stomping rhythm. It’s a dense soup, constantly stirred, as sections enter and exit, and with room for individual swerves. (The full band, about 20 strong, was heavy on saxophones.) The synco-pounding continues through the solos: Steven Smith with his strikingly dark trumpet tone, and sleek and antic style not beholden to obvious models, wings precariously across the horn’s range; Jesse Sharps evokes Coltrane’s soprano timbre and velocity more than his lines. He articulates every note, no wiggle-fingered bluffer.

Layers of horns over looping grooves suggest maverick Angeleno Charles Mingus. The parts Tapscott writes aren’t difficult, but they pile up neatly. The moanin’ Mingus echoes are plainer on Horace standard “Sketches of Drunken Mary,” written for a homeless woman back home in Houston, whom neighborhood folks would look out for in a friendly way, though she might show up drunk at church. The central motif is a slightly tipsy chromatic descent over a dignified triple meter, motif that spreads from the rhythm section to the horns, embossed by Wendell C. Williams’s French horn and Lester Robertson’s high trombone. Solos are from Michael Sessions, on raggedy alto draped over the slow changes, and Aubrey Hart on nimble leafy flute.

“Jo Annette” dating from the 1960s is by Ark charter and sometime member Guido Sinclair. With its catchy repeated melody, buoyant rhythm and streamlined harmony, and tuba bass (Red Callender, ever-ready for a quixotic project), this version suggests the Ark’s heavy influence on Arthur Blythe’s mature music. Flute effectively colors the caravan-by-camel horns. Turbulent tenor Charles Chandler brings the Coltrane velocity and feints toward “My Favorite Things” more than once. Fair enough. “Jo Annette” shows how well splashy modal harmony serves such big-gesture music; you can hear a clear link to McCoy Tyner’s churning 1970s bands. (In the book, Horace says McCoy once told him, I keep hiring guys and then finding out you had them first.)

The biggest of these epics is saxophonist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq’s “Eternal Egypt Suite.” Adele Sebastian’s flute solo over droning arco basses is a hieroglyph for a float down the Nile. Her tone is sweet, and she darts around at length, till the horns jump in with a bashing fanfare and swelling long tones, a backbeaty curtain-raiser for Tapscott’s pedal-down piano maunder. Finally PAPA unveils the high-stepping 11/8 figure that will propel the suite for the next 16 minutes. (The “Mission Impossible” staccato episode suggests a Tapscott guilty pleasure: not Lalo Schifrin but Desi Arnaz’s Afro-Cuban showband.) The Ark could sail long; on this suite especially, the trancing aspects of repetitive music are a factor.

Tapscott wouldn’t ask a musician to solo who wasn’t ready, but throughout Ancestral Echoes, he lets them go a long while instead of leaving you wanting more: Wendell Williams’s heroic, hooting French horn solo on “Jo Annette,” say. “Eternal Egypt” accommodates only four soloists in 27 minutes; at 14 “Jo Annette” has more than enough time to explore the possibilities. (“Drunken Mary”’s the shorty, barely 10.) Rich as the program is, one might fairly argue it crams 40 minutes worth of material into 70. But then expansiveness came with the territory – all-day rehearsals rarely breed concision. Horace Tapscott took a long view. He had his own conception of time.
–Kevin Whitehead


Dan Weiss Starebaby
Natural Selection
Pi Recordings P186

When Dan Weiss’ Starebaby (Matt Mitchell, Craig Taborn, Ben Monder, Trevor Dunn) released their debut album I was thrilled by the ways it seamlessly infused doom metal into the various jazz worlds each band member works in. While there is no shortage of jazz/rock hybrids, their debut immediately jolted its listeners with the shock of the new. Natural Selection can obviously no longer capitalize on the element of surprise. Starebaby makes up for this by further developing its identity and vocabulary over the course of eight intricate compositions whose complexity is masked by how seemingly easy the band pulls them off.

As in their debut, the compositions are episodic and move back and forth through numerous scenes. The opening track, “Episode 18” charges right out of the gate with a driving guitar – or possibly bass – riff over heavy metal drums. It picks up right where the previous album’s closer, “Episode 8,” left off (in the liner notes Weiss confirms that both albums are joined with connective threads), shepherding listeners through multiple environments, from lumbering sludge to more expansive ambient synth soundscapes which give the piece room to breathe. “The Long Diagonal’s” shuffle – which is at one point interrupted by a snaky piano ostinato and occasionally gets the hiccups – propels Monder’s rock solo which is then followed by a crunchy and swinging piano solo.

Throughout, Natural Selection thrives off the myriad juxtapositions that it employs. One of its most notable is its juxtaposition of electric and acoustic instruments. The calm and pastoral piano opening of “Dawn,” (played by either Mitchell or Taborn) acts as a palate cleanser, breaking through the electric haze left over from “Episode 18.” Monder’s acoustic guitar, which occasionally doubles with the bass, adds an unexpected color. Weiss’s use of tablas on “Today is Wednesday Tomorrow?” along with Monder’s acoustic guitar gives the tune a brief and subtle ECM tinge. On “Accina,” the piano is joined at times by guitar and bass, giving a sense of tension. Midway through, the piano wins out and becomes the solo voice as it travels over a constantly changing background of synths, guitars, and drum patterns. The aptly titled “Head Wreck” is shot through with fuzz, grimy synths, dissonance, shredding, and bashed cymbals. Yet, it remains measured and mature; it’s not an adolescent freak out. It encapsulates the band’s unique and compelling approach to musical amalgamation heard throughout Natural Selection, which delivers on the first album’s promise, and then some.
–Chris Robinson


Matt Wilson Quartet
Palmetto PM 2196

If one seeks solace in music, drummer Matt Wilson is a sure bet. A creative force since the 1980s, Wilson’s commitment to swing is playfully adventurous, even when delving into canonical jazz traditions. Wilson has led various configurations of his piano-less quartet since the ‘90s; on Hug!, he reconvenes the same long-running group that supported guest pianist John Medeski on 2014’s Gathering Call (Palmetto), including multi-reedist Jeff Lederer, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and bassist Chris Lightcap. Documenting one of today’s most expressive working bands, this typically eclectic program evokes the mercurial efforts of iconoclasts like Sun Ra, Lester Bowie, and Ornette Coleman.

Hug! reveals some of Wilson’s deepest musical roots. Known for his versatility, Wilson’s work encompasses everything from Dixieland to the avant-garde. Consisting of originals and covers alike, Hug! is no exception. The date’s variety is united by consummate improvisers who complement and contrast one another – Lederer tends to unleash full-throated intervallic leaps, while Knuffke maintains a bracing post-bop flair.

The program opens with “The One Before This,” Gene Ammons’ bluesy showcase for tenor battles with Sonny Stitt. The quartet’s take is more teamwork than sparring; the jagged phrases and off-kilter harmonies of this rough-and-tumble affair exemplify the quartet’s inside/outside approach. Equally engaging, Abdullah Ibrahim’s cavorting “Jabulani” is an ideal vehicle for the group, with Wilson’s unaccompanied coda evincing the tune’s joyous spirit.

And so it goes; Charlie Haden is an underrated composer, but Wilson’s arrangement of the bassist’s “In the Moment” emphasizes its irresistible momentum, with Knuffke’s agitated salvos leading into Lederer’s torrid tenor testimonial. Wilson offers a similar reappraisal of Dewey Redman’s “Joie De Vivre,” which is converted from mellow ballad to buoyant swinger, with Lederer channeling Redman in appropriately gruff fashion.

“Everyday With You,” a Wilson original, interrupts the breakneck pace with a romantic ballad featuring Knuffke and Lederer harmonizing in spare, dusky tones – a master class in the power of simplicity. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Wilson crafted “Space Force March/Interplanetary Music,” a satiric collage in which Wilson sets President Donald Trump’s bombastic speech announcing the creation of a U.S. Space Force to a zany march before launching into a cheeky rendition of Sun Ra’s “Interplanetary Music.”

The album’s biggest surprise is a straightforward cover of Roger Miller’s 1965 chart-topping country hit “King of the Road” that recalls a time before Top 40 homogenization. Wilson also draws upon his childhood love of ‘60s pop on “Sunny & Share,” channeling Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On” through the fractal lens of Ornette. Wilson even arranged the catchy title track with strings, further recalling the orchestral pop songcraft of the ‘60s.

Enjoyably capricious, Hug! is chock full of good humor. The bandmembers channel Wilson’s gleeful enthusiasm, conveying the palpable joy these four musicians express playing together. Music is a balm, and Wilson has always demonstrated through example that “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.”
–Troy Collins


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