Sunday, April 1, 2018

Aruán Ortiz Trio with Brad Jones and Chad Taylor: Live in Zürich

Live in Zürich is the twelfth album from Cuban avant-garde composer and pianist Aruán Ortiz. Of those recordings widely available in the US, Ortiz has worked with a variety of group formats. His quartet released Orbiting (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2013), was followed by a trio outing on Hidden Voices (Intakt Records, 2016) and two successive solo recordings, Cub(an)ism (Intakt Records, 2017) and the vinyl-only Cuban Nocturne (Newvelle Records, 2017).

Ortiz continues to grow a global fan base after two decades as a leader or collaborator, initially in his native country. With early comparisons to Chick Corea and Ornette Coleman (as a composer), one could comfortably add Matthew Shipp to the list of creative forces that may be heard in Ortiz' composing and playing. Bassist Brad Jones has worked with Marc Ribot, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, Misha Mengelberg, and Han Bennink. In the 1990s he worked with Muhal Richard Abrams to whom Ortiz dedicates this album. Jones led his own group—AKA Alias—which included guitarist David Gilmore who was part of Ortiz' Orbiting quartet. Chad Taylor is best known as one-half of the Chicago Underground Duo with Rob Mazurek. Along with a number of Mazurek led groups, the composer and percussionist has worked with Fred Anderson, Derek Bailey, Cooper-Moore, Pharoah Sanders, Marc Ribot, Peter Brötzmann, Malachi Favors and many others. His own group, Circle Down, released a highly regarded, self-titled album in 2009 on the 482 Music label.

Live in Zürich was recorded at Zürich's Unerhört!-Festival in late 2016, and the album consists of two extended tracks and a closing piece. "Part 1: Analytical Symmetry/Fractal Sketches" reimagines two Ortiz tracks from Hidden Voices. That trio featured Eric Revis on bass and drummer Gerald Cleaver and the new lineup has a fresh perspective on this one-half hour amalgam. Chad Taylor's mbira adds an intriguing African flavor to the opening; the notes manifest in distinctive tones that maintain a purity, then fade almost immediately after each is plucked. Jones bowed bass and Ortiz' percussive low end make for an eerily exotic brew that transitions multiple times from lyrical to thundering.

No stranger to the classics, Ortiz takes on Chopin following a three-minute, deeply involved bass solo. "Part 2: Bass Improvisation/Etude #6 Op 10/Open Or Close & The Sphinx" treats its classical components with energized enthusiasm before moving into a free arrangement of the Ornette Coleman closing portion of the piece. "Alone Together" is a song composed by Arthur Schwartz in 1932 and for the first half of its eight and one-half minutes, bears little resemblance to the standard. The intentionally slurred, yet comfortable open gives way to loping piano, truer to the original but with a distinct edge. The song closes with Ortiz dropping singular notes that seem to imitate the mbira of the opening.

Live in Zürich captures Ortiz in a way that studio recordings find difficult to mimic. Ortiz previous live recording was Banned in London with the Michael Janisch Quintet (Whirlwind, 2012) was more of a jam, and included a dominating Greg Osby saxophone rendering Ortiz' energy obscured in the mix at times. In these smaller formations, the pianist and his well-chosen bandmates shine. Here, the rhythm section is much more functional and entertaining than that, and their skillful balance between melody, tautness, and exploration is as good as it gets. Muhal Richard Abrams would be proud.

Track Listing: Part 1: Analytical Symmetry/Fractal Sketches; Part 2: Bass Improvisation/Etude #6 Op 10/Open Or Close & The Sphinx; Alone Together.
Personnel: Aruán Ortiz: piano; Brad Jones: bass; Chad Taylor: drums, mbira
Title: Live in Zürich | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Intakt Records

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sputnik3: Orbits

Yet another outstanding piano trio makes its debut with Orbits. The Netherlands based group Sputnik3 owes its name to a philosophy of musical exploration inspired by that famous Russian satellite. The classically trained pianist Loran Witteveen, bassist Stefan Lievestro and Belgian native Raf Vertessen on drums, deftly work their way through Vertessen's complex compositions, each layering on their individual ideas to create a program that is very fresh and different.

At the outset, "What About You" draws comparison to the more acoustic side of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, with their percussive, rock-fueled treatment. "Array" is a fine example of Vertessen's through-composed writing as it moves from a slow, pensive opening to a pop melody and on to a more rock-influenced conclusion. "MRI" combines melody and abstraction as Witteveen's notes rapidly cascading around the lyrical anchor of Lievestro's deep, propulsive bass.

In "Brains," "Andromeda" and "Towell of Powell" we have compositions that employ odd meters and changing tempos that seem to effortlessly find their way back to common ground. Sputnik3—and Witteveen, in particular—convey their classical affinity on "Skizz" as the piece maneuvers through traditional and avant-garde passages. By comparison, "Spleen" is a bop romp, and the closest Sputnik3 comes to a fully structured composition. More typical of Orbits is the very loosely arranged "Hit & Run" and the darkly lyrical "Farewell of Siam" which closes the album.

Witteveen and Lievestro have plenty of solo opportunities while Vertessen is more focused on knitting together and balancing the many layers in each composition. The individual contributions of the trio resonate with hollow tones and gently lurching momentum. The music is challenging but accessible and the rhythmic elucidations and idiosyncratic phrasing make the transformation between a simply enjoyable set to a truly unique collection.

Track Listing: What About You; Array; Brains; MRI; Skizz; Spleen; Andromeda; Towel of Powell; Hit & Run; Farewell of Siam.

Personnel: Raf Vertessen: drums, compositions; Loran Witteveen: piano; Stefan Lievestro: acoustic bass.

Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Mainland Records

Monday, August 15, 2016

Raya Brass Band: Raya

Raya Brass Band: Raya The Balkans. Centuries of unrest, revolution and occupation have left much of the region without a clear identity to the point where historians are inconsistent on which countries accurately form its constituency. Culturally, an organically developed assimilation took precedence over national boundaries and a type of regional folk music called sevdalinka, along with strong elements of Gypsy music, became most prominent. If one were inclined toward this dark, somber style, its integration with other genres was a long time in the offing.

Jazz groups like pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda's led Eastern Boundary Quartet have infused elements of Balkan folk music into their compositions as has guitarist Brad Shepik and a handful of others. Those examples are a far cry from the traditional (and regionally more popular) Balkan brass band format that dates back to the early 1800s and—for the most part—whose instrumentation has changed little. The accordion, a traditional instrument front-line instrument in sevdalinka, was a natural cross-over to the brass bands.

Over the past seven years, the Raya Brass Band has been winning hearts, minds and ears playing everywhere from NYC Subway stations to Lincoln Center to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge; the latter location being the approximate home-base of the group. This wildly eclectic band's previous album Dancing On Roses, Dancing On Cinders established their personal twist on the genre with contagious grooves. With their new CD, Raya, the group moves to another level.

Percussionist Nezih Antakli replaces EJ Fry; Rich Stein—on snare drum and percussion—has been added to a lineup that includes the two main composers Greg Squared on saxophone and trumpeter Ben Syversen. The sextet is completed by the excellent accordionist Matthew Fass and Don Godwin on tuba. Godwin also penned "Dren Gajda" and "Club Mono." The influences are many and far reaching with the opening "Unify" boasting of a strong salsa flavor while "Sugar and Salt" clearly owes some of its tone to the Celtic style. The highlight of Raya is "Sunken Angels," a cinematic and sweeping piece with great leads from Syversen and Fass.

The compositions throughout are high energy with only "With Every Drop That Falls" slowing the tempo a bit at an appropriate mid-point of the album. Despite the multicultural inputs on of Raya the music rarely moves to obviously defined styles but opts for a more understated blend. The musicianship and writing here are brilliant and Raya has clout and is full of revelations.

Track Listing: Unify; Dren Gajda; Sugar and Salt; Sunken Angels; With Every Drop That Falls; Ivan's Tune; Bag Of Nails; Mirage; Club Mono.

Personnel: Greg Squared: saxophone/composer; Ben Syversen: trumpet/composer; Matthew Fass: accordion; Don Godwin: tuba; Nezih Antakli: percussion; Rich Stein: snare drum, percussion.

Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Self Produced | Style: Modern Jazz

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Ches Smith with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri: The Bell

Ches Smith with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri: The Bell Despite appearing on at least fifty recordings since 2001, Ches Smith remains the more under-recognized, yet highly in-demand, member of this newly formed trio. The drummer/percussionist and vibraphonist for Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Smith has played with John Zorn on Voices in the Wilderness (Tzadik, 2003), as well as Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarists Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. The Bell is his fifth outing as a leader, three being solo efforts and one with his recent group, These Arches, which included Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby and accordionist/organist Andrea Parkins. Here, Smith teams with pianist Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri on viola. Taborn and Maneri had previously worked together more than ten years ago on Taborn's Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear, 2004).

The title track is a meditative piece for eight of its nine and one-half minutes. At that point Smith introduces some tension as the drums begin to thunder against Maneri's haunting drone and repetitive phrasing from Taborn. "Barely Intervallic" and "Isn't It Over?" are more avant-garde and experimental in nature giving improvisational masters like Taborn and Maneri plenty of freedom to create innovations that sound both spare and lavish within Smith's minimal structures. It isn't until the second half of "I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth" that Smith injects more heated intensity with a rock beat over a discordant swirl of sounds from Taborn and Maneri.

The second half of the program remains in the chamber music approach with Maneri adding flashes of his uniquely exotic playing especially evident on "I Think." Taborn's playing ranges from snippets of melodicism to rapid-fire cascades of notes and Smith's drumming sounds impressively musical. The leader uses the vibraphone sparingly but its presence—especially in the midst of freer group improvisations—adds a delicate balance to the sometimes more hectic proceedings.

For Smith, The Bell was not meant to be the stepping off point for a new group but rather a one-time impromptu session. However, after he, Maneri and Taborn played live in New York, Smith realized he an opportunity to create something more lasting with this exceptional group. His written compositions are intentionally kept minimal so as to let the improvisations take center stage. The trio responds to this approach with an appealingly patient mix of empty spaces, complex phrasing and textures that play in the moment and with an organic feeling. Smith/Taborn/Maneri will perform on the opening night of the New York City ECM Jazzfest on January 15, 2016.

Track Listing: The Bell; Barely Intervallic; Isn't It Over?; I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth; I Think; Wacken; Open Air; It's Always Winter Somewhere; For Days.

Personnel: Ches Smith: drums, vibraphone, timpani; Craig Taborn: piano; Mat Maneri: viola.
Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Alessandro Fongaro: Neither More Nor Less

Alessandro Fongaro: Neither More Nor Less
The Amsterdam-based Keep an Eye Foundation, is a Dutch government sponsored program for developing artists across many creative disciplines. Their jazz program culminates in an annual award competition for new talent and in 2014, bassist Alessandro Fongaro was awarded sponsorship that has now resulted in the quintet release of Neither More Nor Less.

A native of Valdagno, Italy, now living in the Netherlands (following a student exchange program in which he participated), Fongaro has been pursuing jazz since the age of sixteen. With a strong business sense to go with his musical aptitude, Fongaro attended the Rotterdam-based international university, Codarts, an institution that stresses a more rounded business management approach for musicians and other artists. Fongaro, though an expatriate at the moment, has not turned his back on Italy and hopes to return and work with that country's own fine jazz musicians.

It was at Codarts that Fongaro assembled an international band of very talented musicians that allowed him to share the musical decision making process, often in the old-world setting of the dinner table. It adds a kind of charm to music that is often progressive but with mainstream grounding and a strong sense of melodicism. Joining him are Dutch saxophonist Donald Simoen, Italian guitarist Federico Castelli, Belgium native Thomas Maasz on piano and Hungarian drummer Attila Gyarfas. All in their twenties, the group benefits from Fongaro's original compositions which play to the strengths of the individuals while observing the best practices in group dynamics.

"Five Months" takes its time building, eventually providing a high-energy improvisational setting for Maasz before returning to the main theme. Castelli's fluid guitar takes center stage on the title track and "KG" is a charismatic ballad that showcases Simoen and Maasz at their most lyrical. It's not until "The Traveller"—which may well be a Fongaro autobiographical composition—that we hear an extended demonstration of the leader's own superb skills on the double base followed by another exhilarating solo from Maasz. Gyarfas' subltle—and not so subtle—manipulations keeps these pieces coherent while constantly in motion. The outlier on Neither More Nor Less is the closing piece, a harder edged "Blues Not," that gives all the players a chance to cut loose.

Neither More Nor Less is a fine debut from some very talented artists that are just barely out of the gate in their musical careers. There are no wasted spaces on this album and it engages from the outset, wisely taking time to breath when the pace requires a bit of a sensory cool-down. While Fongaro is a talent to watch, all the players here deserve equal attention.

Track Listing: Five Months; Neither More Nor Less; KG; The Traveller; Prelude to a Loss; Waterfall; Home; Blues Not.

Personnel: Donald Simoen: alto saxophone; Federico Castelli: Guitar; Thomas Maasz: piano; Alessandro Fongaro: double bass; Attila Gyarfas: drums.

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Mainland Records | Style: Modern Jazz

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fabrice MOURLON Quartet: Facing the Lough

Fabrice MOURLON Quartet: Facing the Lough
Trained early in his career as a pianist, the French artist Fabrice Mourlon later joined a vocal jazz class at the Paris suburb Pantin School of Music. In 1994 he trained as a vocalist with Italian singer Valentina Casula and was a member of her workshop for the next half-decade. He met pianist Richard Razafindrakoto, bassist Emmanuel Brunet and drummer Thierry Tardieu in 2001 and the four would eventually solidify as a quartet playing various jazz clubs in Paris and now on Facing the Lough.

Razafindrakoto—who studied at the Conservatoire National de Region—has been the beneficiary of training from France's prolific world-class saxophonist and conductor François Jeanneau. Tardieu trained in the workshop of Enrico Rava and worked with Paolo Fresu among other international artists from Europe and Asia. Brunet has played many of the western European jazz clubs and worked with one of the better known French trombonists, Sébastien Llado, in his quartet.

Facing the Lough takes its name from the view at a home in Belfast, Ireland where Mourlon had visited; lough being the Anglo-Irish interpretation of a loch, a type of bay or inlet. More to the point, it seems to represent a far reaching view of the modern, traditional and folkloric tunes that Mourlan reads in French, English and Swedish on the CD. The album—quite brief, at under thirty minutes—consists on seven Mourlon originals and one traditional piece, "Mannelig," based on a medieval Swedish ballad.

Mourlon's take on his own compositions covers a wide range from traditional balladry, to swing, to more improvisational treatments. Razafindrakoto, Tardieu and Brunet make for an excellent and substantial trio, their playing seemingly unprompted and in the moment, full of energy yet yielding to the vocalist's needs when that is the applicable approach. Facing the Lough is a versatile collection made gratifying by musicians whose proficient skills allow easy passage from straight-ahead jazz to more modern approaches. For those who like vocal jazz, this is an album to check out.

Track Listing: Brooklyn Bridge; Mannelig; Nonna Ines; Pat's In Paris Take 1; Blissful Time; Wish You Were Here; Back From Belfast; Pat's In Paris Take 2.
Personnel: Fabrice Mourlon: vocals. Compositions; Richard Razafindrakoto: piano; Emmanuel Brunet: bass; Thierry Tardieu: drums.
Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Self Produced | Style: Vocal

Monday, February 22, 2016

Will Mason Ensemble: Beams of the Huge Night

Will Mason Ensemble: Beams of the Huge Night
New York City resident Will Mason, while pursuing a Ph.D. in music at Columbia University, took the time to submerge himself in the most Spartan and remote conditions of his native Maine for the inspirations of nature that become manifest in Beams of the Huge Night. The drummer and composer assembled an unusually populated septet to give life to a generous sixty-six minutes of sound and music, capturing the volatility and tranquility of true seclusion.

Mason, who also fronts a noise-metal band, has an acute talent for composing very complex, extended pieces, creating an absorbing synthesis of jazz, technology, classicalism and an organic construction that includes any or all of those components. The ensemble includes oboist Stuart Breczinski who fits in well with the idiosyncratic program despite playing an instrument that rarely appears in jazz. Nina Moffitt supplies mostly wordless vocals that often simulate the effect of an additional woodwind instrument. Moffitt has recorded with her own quintet lending her unique vocalizations to a diverse range of compositions from Ravi Coltrane to Billy Strayhorn.

The other reed instrument on hand is Danny Fisher-Lochhead's alto saxophone. A multi-instrumentalist having also recorded a solo Wurlitzer album Piano Songs (Fishkill Records, 2015), Lochhead is particularly at home with the type of material on Beams of the Huge Night. His own namesake large ensemble outing, the engrossing Tools Of The Abstract (Fishkill Records, 2015), while more directly jazz oriented, features similar components of complex multi-layered improvisation in the extended format.

The string contingent consist of two guitarists, Travis Reuter and Andrew Smiley, and bassist Dan Stein. Reuter leads his own quintet and has a long-term performance commitment with Arturo O'Farrill's sextet. Smiley has recorded two albums as part of the eclectic quartet Little Women, a group that includes alto saxophonist Darius Jones. Stein (another multi-instrumentalist) has played in trumpeter Kenny Rampton's ensemble along with saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Stein has also performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center and as part of the Juilliard Jazz Ensembles tour.

Beams of the Huge Night opens with the sixteen-plus minute "Finn" and the composition serves as the showpiece of the album, bringing together Mason's ideas on the conflicting characteristics of untainted nature. Slowly washing in and patiently building on drums, reeds and voice, the full ensemble soon becomes apparent as the tone shifts to a frenetic pace. Mason, Reuter and Smiley imperceptibly move to a rock rhythm that the reeds seem to resist before falling into lockstep, then breaking out in free style. By the half-way point, another shift has taken place; one that conveys the dark trepidation of being lost deep in the night wood. Passages vanish without a trace as "Finn" goes through more stylistic fluctuations as it progresses.

"Door 6" has a rock drive to it but with Moffitt's ethereal prescience floating above the surface, it's never predictable as to where the piece will settle. In contrast, "Door 7" has a decidedly more delicate quality before the pace ratchets up near the conclusion. "Dixfield, ME.," another extended piece at almost sixteen minutes, opens in a lyrical, almost fragile manner then shatters in a high-energy improvisation dominated by Fisher-Lochhead, Reuter and Smiley. It is again Moffitt's voice that seems to bring free-for-all back to a centered place only to lose it to a tense, spikey configuration of guitars and saxophone. Named for a small town in northern Maine "Strong, ME." is a dream-like melody where the contrasting guitar harmonies add a disconcerting instability to the atmosphere.

Another long composition, "Brille," concludes Beams of the Huge Night. Mason's booming drums and Stein's deep bass belie the coming free improvisation that overtakes the piece. But like all the compositions on the album, everything changes and we find ourselves in a tranquil, pastoral setting at about six minutes in. The piece closes with mix of regality and rebellion, all somehow staying on point.

Beams of the Huge Night is a sprawling, ambitious project and Mason has a unique musical vision in the midst of a highly intricate creative process. He successfully seizes on the ambiances of positive and negative natural environments and conveys them with help of this empathetic and very talented group of musicians. This is an unusual album; one where it would be as easy to become as lost as it would be in the woods of northern Maine were it not for an expert guide like Mason.

Track Listing: Finn; Door 6; Door 7; Dixfield, ME.; Strong, ME.; Brille.

Personnel: Stuart Breczinski: oboe; Daniel Fisher-Lochhead: alto saxophone; Nina Moffitt: voice; Travis Reuter: guitar; Andrew Smiley: guitar; Dan Stein: bass; Will Mason: drums.

Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: New Amsterdam Records | Style: Beyond Jazz