Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg: Celestial Weather (2015)

Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg: Celestial Weather
Two modern avant-garde icons and long-time collaborators with an age-old link to Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra, come together for three suites that capitalize on their ability to forge a soundscape that is fuller than the duo format would logically produce. Celestial Weather is an open discourse between two musicians who have mastered their respective instruments to the point of literally giving them an emotive voice of their own.

Lindberg, in recent years, has been an integral part of Smith's Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) and Occupy the World (TUM Records, 2013) and The Great Lakes Suites (TUM Records, 2014) projects; the first two being larger-scale, powerful works of extensive depth and scope. Celestial Weather, in contrast, is a work where every response is exposed between the two players and the intricacy takes on a life of its own.

Smith's two-part composition, "Malachi Favors Maghostut," dedicated to the AACM bassist Malachi Favors features harmonic fragments rather than an established melody. Suspending preconceived notions of composition is—as frequently is the case with both Smith and Lindberg—a preferable option. The five-part "Celestial Weather Suite," is the second suite and was completely improvised in the recording studio. It is the final movement, "Tornado," where the duo comes closest to a sustained melody.

Lindberg is credited with the final suite, the two-part "Feathers and Earth." Though largely improvised, Lindberg's life experience with the full range of formations from solo to chamber ensembles all finds a home in this section of the album. It goes without saying that both Smith and Lindberg exhibit incredible virtuosity, pushing their instruments beyond the pale without demonstrating the need to impress. Celestial Weather can be a bit overwhelming in terms of what it demands from the listener, but a willingness to let the creative process wash over the need to analyze is the recommended approach to this inventive album. 

Track Listing: Malachi Favors Maghostut: Part I, Part II; Celestial Weather Suite: Cyclone, Hurricane, Icy Fog, Typhoon, Tornado; Feathers and Earth: Part I, Part II.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; John Lindberg: double bass.

Record Label: TUM Records

Monday, November 23, 2015

John Abercrombie: The First Quartet (2015)

John Abercrombie: The First Quartet
In his more than thirty year career—almost exclusively with ECM—guitarist John Abercrombie has more often than not confined his formation to smaller groups ranging from solo through quartet. He has been less restricted in the style of music he creates and that diversity is demonstrated with mixed results on The First Quartet. The albums included in the three-disc set are remastered from original ECM analog recordings of Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1979) and M (1981). All but unavailable in CD format, these three early quartet outings have been bundled as part of ECM's Old & New Masters collection and represent some early building blocks in Abercrombie's development.

Abercrombie, a New York native of Scottish parents, began his career straddling rock, blues and jazz. In the late 1960s he played with Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker before moving on to Gil Evans and then drummer Billy Cobham. If there was a dominant thread in these experiences it was a leaning toward an overall fusion style but with Abercrombie's third ECM release, Gateway (1975), a co-operative effort with Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, he progressed into a trippy, free style that opened up new and more impressionistic directions. By the late 1970's Abercrombie formed the group featured on The First Quartet with the well-established talents of pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald.

Across the three discs, Abercrombie and Beirach own most of the writing credits though Mraz contributes as well. The first disc contains the material from Arcade and it is the strongest element of The First Quartet collection. Opening up with the title track of the above-mentioned original album, we have the kind of high-energy improvisation that worked so well on Gateway. Abercrombie's lightning speed doesn't obscure his crystal-clear articulation nor Beirach's exceptional ability to build in astounding surges of theater, balanced with intelligent lyricism. "Nightlake" and "Paramour" downstream the tempo but always with a groove anchored by Mraz and guided by Donald. "Neptune" and "Alchemy" close the first disc with almost twenty minutes of ethereal bliss that feels like a cross-pollination of early Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays and Carlos Santana's Caravanserai (Columbia Records, 1972).

Disc two—from Abercrombie Quartet—opens with the precise and punchy "Blue Wolf" with blistering performances from Abercrombie and Beirach. Despite the high caliber of musicianship, the middle tracks on this disc falter a bit and seem less focused with fits and starts that can be distracting. "Riddles" re-grounds the group with its rock beat and a fine extended solo from Donald. Mraz has his moment to shine on the second disc closer, a more low key "Foolish Dog." The final disc, M, begins beautifully with "Boat Song," a slow building melodic and harmonic invention with controlled improvisation followed by the much looser, mid-tempo title track. "Veils" features a gorgeous extended intro solo from Beirach before the piece takes off and then closes quietly.

Bearing in mind that The First Quartet represents Abercrombie's initial output as a leader, the collection contains quite a few absolutely stellar numbers that would make the highlight reel in any musical career. In Abercrombie's curriculum vitae they were jumping off points in a musical resume that continues to grow and modify while the guitarist maintains the unique qualities that have long ranked him among the best modern players. Perhaps The First Quartet would have been served better as a double-disc on a purely musical basis, but for those who have an interest in the career development of one of the finest musical minds of our time, this is a collection to own.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) Arcade; Nightlake; Paramour; Neptune; Alchemy; (Disc 2) Blue Wolf; Dear Rain; Stray; Madagascar; Riddles; Foolish Dog; (Disc 3) Boat Song; M; What Are The Rules; Flashback; To Be; Pebbles.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

Record Label: ECM Records

Style: Modern Jazz

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg: Mette Henriette (2015)

Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg: Mette Henriette
In her debut recording with the large Norwegian ensemble Torg on Kost/Elak/Gnäll (Jazzland Recordings, 2015), the playing of saxophonist Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg may well have been lost in the pack. That Bugge Wesseltoft produced album was an unrestrained mashup of genres, styles and techniques in an octet that didn't easily lend itself to individual performance analysis. Not surprisingly, it was ECM's Manfred Eicher who recognized Rølvåg's extraordinary talent and paved the the way to this two-disc, self-titled leader debut.

The young composer—only in her mid-twenties—has already worked with Tim Berne, Jim Black, Michael Formanek, Tom Rainey, Sidsel Endresen and Christian Wallumrod. On Mette Henriette Rølvåg works with her trio of pianist Johan Lindvall and cellist Katrine Schiøtt on the first disc. The second disc features her thirteen member ensemble including trumpeter Eivind Lønning and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, both of whom have recorded with Wallumrød as well as members of the Cikada Quartet.

There are thirty-five mostly compact compositions between the two discs with all but three (those written by Lindvall) being credited to Rølvåg. Much of the trio disc is intricately structured and conveys a sense of vulnerability. The three opening pieces "So," ."oOo."and "The Taboo" are quite minimal and is not before Schiøtt's extended cello technique on "But Careful" that we are nudged to closer attention. Rølvåg does not push her own playing to the forefront, leaving much of that role to Lindvall. If fact, it is not until Linvall's composition "3-4-5" (nine tracks along) that Rølvåg takes center stage. When she does, it is soulful and inspiring. The trio takes on some lightly experimental soundscapes, especially on "A Void" and "In Circle" but here too, the music is appealing and accessible.

The second disc gives little impression of a larger ensemble at the outset. "Passé" again with Lindvall on piano and features he and Rølvåg in a beautiful melancholy creation. The strings almost inperceptively work their way in as the piece develops. Again, Rølvåg pulls back to give the strings "Pearl Rafter" and "Veils Ever After." Lønning's trumpet and Henrik Nørstebø's trombone shine on the regal "Unfold," albeit, for all of its forty seconds. "Wildheart"—true to the name—erupts with Rølvåg's growling sax and a brass improvisation all in contrast to the largely meditative tone of the album.

About twenty tracks in we get a sense of that Rølvåg has been working toward building from disparate themes and segments. The edginess of "Late à la carte" gives way to a classically inspired "So It Is" and that, in turn to a very experimental "?." By the time we get to the beautiful "But We Did" it becomes clear how Rølvåg is integrating her many ideas onto broader palettes. The longest track on Mette Henriette, "I," begins in tranquility, explodes in improvisation and then returns to quiet. Many of the tracks on the album are brief splashes of tonal color not to develop fully but to provide flavor. Five tracks are less than a minute in length and few go beyond five minutes. The lack of a drummer in the trio formation gives the music a quality of lightness even while the overall atmosphere skews dark.

The compositions rendered by the two formations are perfectly compatible with each other and there is a natural flow from trio to ensemble. Rølvåg's compositions are geared toward the musicianship of the overall group rather than providing a showcase for her own considerable skills as a musician and there is little to suggest that the composer is heavily influence by outside forces. Mette Henriette is original and unique and should generate much anticipation around Rølvåg's future projects.

Track Listing: Disc 1: So; .oOo.; The Taboo; All Ears; But Careful; Beneath You; Once; We Were To; 3-4-5; Hi Dive; A Void; The Lost One; In Circles; I Do; O. Disc 2: Passé; Pearl Rafter; Veils Ever After; Unfold; Wildheart; Strangers By Midday; Late à la carte; So It Is; ?; True; This Will Pass Too; But We Did; I; Breathe; Off The Beat; Wind On Rocks; Bare Blacker Rum; & The Silver Fox; Behold; Better Unheard [Yet To Be Hold].

Personnel: Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg: saxophone; Eivind Lønning: trumpet; Henrik Nørstebø: trombone; Andreas Rokseth: bandoneon; Johan Lindvall: piano; Sara Övinge: violin; Karin Hellqvist: violin; Odd Hannisdal: violin; Bendik Bjørnstad Foss: viola; Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes: violoncello; Katrine Schiøtt: violoncello; Per Zanussi: double bass; Per Oddvar Johansen: drums, saw.

Record Label: ECM Records

Sunday, November 1, 2015

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. 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.

Record Label: Self Produced

Monday, October 19, 2015

Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Cuba: The Conversation Continues (2015)

Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Cuba: The Conversation Continues
"I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba...in part owing to my country's policies..." —President John F. Kennedy, October 1963

Revolution and musical genres share the characteristic of having an embryonic state. While the United States and Russia bore witness to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the symbolic end of the Cold War, part of that war refused to end. An economically strapped Soviet Union withdrew support for the island nation of Cuba and the ideologically muddled US would not forgive the offenses of Fidel Castro despite years of supporting his ruthless predecessor. The onetime vacation paradise of Las Vegas mobsters, US politicians and corporate predators became a poor, weather-beaten relic with the exception of its art community. When Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika took hold in the Soviet Union, the halo effect—if not the economic benefit—was felt in Cuba. Cautious optimism led to a slow shift back toward the in-country evolution of Cuban music after years of talent migrating to more culturally forward thinking countries.

Like the music of the US, Cuban music has its primary origins in West Africa and the colonizing counties of Europe, chiefly Spain but also France. The creole elements were well entrenched when the country's music began to have more impact on salsa, tango and Afro beat styles. But jazz is where the Cuban sensibility has most greatly enhanced another genre through folk forms and earlier cultures and unique regional rhythms. There seems to have been an innate sense within the country that spoke to a cultural emergence that would be defined by the oppression and struggles of the past and a new order to come. Wisely, the purveyors of the movement would not shy away from the stability of nostalgia nor reject the rectitude that demanded some groping for a way forward.

Pianist and composer, Arturo O'Farrill was born in Mexico City, the son of famed Cuban composer/trumpeter Arturo Chico O'Farrill, who fled the regime of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1948. The younger O'Farrill crossed paths with the like of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, and Stan Getz as well as more modern Latin musicians of that era such as Tito Puente. When the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba was confirmed by the administration of President Barack Obama, O'Farrill and GRAMMY winning producer Kabir Sehgal were in a studio in Havana and quickly realized the enormity of the situation. O'Farrill designated a selection of composers from both the US (Dafnis Prieto, Michele Rosewoman and Zack O'Farrill) and Cuba (Alexis Bosch, Cotó Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi, and Michel Herrera) along with others, to get into the studio within forty-eight hours of President Obama's historic proclamation.

The energy and buoyancy of political events led to Cuba: The Conversation Continues; a commemorative celebration this historical transition. The two-disc set opens with Prieto's "The Triumphant Journey," a swirl of horns and percussion that wraps up with powerful brass and reeds. Commissioned by the Apollo Theater and written by O'Farrill, the twenty-one minute "The Afro Latin Jazz Suite" consists of four movements and strong performances from Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax and trumpeter Jim Seeley. As some of the movement titles imply, the suite is influenced by Islamic Northern Africa, Western Africa and the Americas and it is the expansive centerpiece of the first disc.

Guest pianist Alexis Bosch infuses his slowly building composition "Guajira Simple" with tension while Rosewoman's "Alabanza" is a highly textured amalgam of ethnic Nigerian, soul and jazz influences. Wrapping up the first disc, the vocalizations of Bobby Carcassés—including some impressive scat singing—dominate "Blues Guaguancó," a tune that wavers between mambo and bop. Interspersed are fine solos from Bosch, bassist Gregg August and trumpeter Jesusito Ricardo Anduz. The second disc opens "Vaca Frita" and it is in a very different vein given the presence of DJ Logic's turntables. The turntablist and O'Farrill had previously worked together on O'Farrill's The Offense of the Drum (Motéma Music, 2014). The piece also features third-generation O'Farrills with composer/drummer Zack and trumpeter Adam O'Farrill on hand.

Adam O'Farrill returns with a blistering solo on "Just One Moment." The Cuban alto saxophonist Michel Herrera composed the piece and is featured as a soloist as well. The relatively short song manages to tumble through myriad brass and reed passages. Two more vocal numbers follow; "El Bombón" with lyrics written and sung by Guantánamo resident "Cotó" Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi and an Earl McIntyre/ Renee Manning composition, "Second Line Soca" (Brudda Singh). Rudresh Mahanthappa returns on the concluding number "There's a Statue of José Martí in Central Park." Zach O'Farrill's celebratory composition pays tribute to the early advocate of Cuban independence, José Martí and his link to New York City. The thirteen-minute piece is part free jazz inspiration and part traditional Cuban carnival.

Even without the current US/Cuban political events Cuba: The Conversation Continues would have been an epic production. O'Farrell surrounds himself and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with performers and composers who speak to a potentially global perspective as well as new audiences for the music of the Caribbean region. The album is a sprawling, adventurous collection that crosses genres and political borders, respecting tradition while forcing boundaries. This is O'Farrill's most ambitious work and—especially for those involved in the project—a once in a lifetime experience.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) The Triumphant Journey; The Afro Latin Jazz Suite: Movement I: Mother Africa, Movement II: All of the Americas, Movement III: Adagio, Movement IV: What Now?; Guajira Simple; Alabanza; Blues Guaguancó. (Disc 2) Vaca Frita; Just One Moment; El Bombón; Second Line Soca; There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.

Personnel: The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Arturo O’Farrill: piano and musical director; Gregg August: bass; Vince Cherico: drums; Carlos Maldonado: bongos; Tony Rosa: congas; David DeJesus: alto sax; Ivan Renta: tenor sax; Seneca Black: trumpet; Jim Seeley: trumpet; John Bailey: trumpet; Jonathan Powell: trumpet; Tokunori Kajiwara: trombone; Rafi Malkiel: trombone, euphonium; Frank Cohen: trombone; Earl McIntyre: bass trombone; Peter Brainin: tenor sax; Alejandro Aviles: alto sax, clarinet, flute; Jason Marshall: baritone sax; Rey David Alejandre: trombone; Vince Cherico: drums; Adel Gonzalez Gomez: congas, percussion. Additional personnel: Jesus Ricardo Anduz: trumpet (1-8); Carlos “Hueso” Arci: guiro (1-8); Alexis Bosch: piano (1-6, 1-8); Bobby Carcasses: vocals (1-8); “Coto” Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi: tres, vocals (2-3); DJ Logic: turntables (2-1); Antonio Duverger: bongos, marimbula (2-3); Maria Gomez Matos: guiro (2-3); Michel Herrera: alto sax (2-2); Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto sax (1-2, 3, 4, 5, 2-5); Yasek Manzano: trumpet (1-7); Antonio Martinez Campos: bata (1-7); Renee Manning; vocals (2-4); Adam O’Farrill: trumpet (2-1, 2); Zach O’Farrill: drums (2-1), conductor (2-5), Roberto Quintero: maracas (1-3); Michele Rosewoman: piano (1-7).

Record Label: Motema Music

Michael Sarian & The Chabones: The Escape Suite (2015)

Michael Sarian & The Chabones: The Escape Suite
When he was all of one year of age, trumpeter Michael Sarian relocated from his birthplace in Canada to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Learning from some of that country's top musicians, Sarian began touring in Europe while still a teenager. Having worked in rock, disco and big bands, he eventually moved to New York where he studied jazz at NYU. While enrolled in that program he played and recorded with Joe Lovano and fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz among others.

Sarian's debut album Subtitles (Self-produced, 2014) was a straight-ahead acoustic effort with occasional hints of Argentina's folk style. The Escape Suite is a clear departure from its predecessor and owes more to Sarian's earlier experiences with rock and jazz fusion. The sextet (enlarged to a septet on three of the seven numbers) is populated with a mix of electric and acoustic and—on the whole—the sound doesn't so much skew in either direction but works as a synthesis.

There is a deep fraternal nature to Sarian's sextet/septet which is billed as "The Chabones," an urban Argentinian word for "dude" or "guy." All the players are alumni of the New York University Jazz program. Saxophonists Ricky Alexander and Jim Piela, trombonist David Banker, bassist Trevor Brown, drummer Josh Bailey, trombonist Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf and Michael Verselli on synthesizer and Rhodes have all benefitted from the all-star faculty at NYU and the effect is evident in their playing

With album art work that is strikingly reminiscent of Berkeley Breathed's Bill the Cat, we have a visual indication of Sarian's somewhat quirky cross-pollination of styles on this collection of original compositions. "Brett Atlas" opens the set with a soulful feeling; Banker's guest appearance on trombone and Verselli's thick monophonic minimoog adding depth to Alexander's stirring tenor solo. Sarian's trumpet literally speaks at the start of "Skirt Shock" which morphs into a Rick Wakeman/Chicago Transit Authority-like amalgam that breaks midway for another great sax solo.

A seamless segue into "North" maintains that fusing of brass and soul-rock impression until Verselli's Rhodes moves the tune into a mode that's not dissimilar to Return to Forever. Continuing unbroken, Sarian's trumpet and the reeds adopt a more flat out rock beat led by Bailey's persuasive beat on "Chain Mobile." "Bruises" is by far the most soulful piece on The Escape Suite and the tune on which Sarian's playing really shines. "Bitch Whistle" diverts with an electronics drenched experimental sound before the album wraps up with a marginally Latin tinged "Rise" featuring Misch-Bloxdorf's rich trombone lead.

The Escape Suite for all its electronic components and rock beats, can have a meditative effect at time. Sarian's compositions are complex and layered but easily accessible and the musicianship of all involved is first rate. The album should be an effective launching point for Sarian and company and for listeners, an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of some promising talent.

Track Listing: Brett Atlas; Skirt Shock; North; Chain Mobile; Bruises; Bitch Whistle; Rise.

Personnel: Michael Sarian: trumpet; Jim Piela: alto, soprano saxophone; Ricky Alexander: tenor saxophone; Michael Verselli: Rhodes, minimoog; Trevor Brown: electric bass; Josh Bailey: drums; David Banker: trombone (1); Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf: trombone (2,7).

Record Label: Self Produced

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Mauch Chunk (2015)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Mauch Chunk
If ever a jazz group defied labeling, it is Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK). With their self-titled debut (Hot Cup Records, 2004), the group had demonstrated a wildly engrossing pastiche encompassing influences as diverse as Ornette Coleman and traditional New Orleans swing. MOPDtK was founded by bassist Moppa Elliott and trumpeter Peter Evans who met in the late 90s as students of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. When the two relocated to New York, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea, an eleventh-hour replacement at their first quartet performance, joined to form the long-running quartet. Mauch Chunk represents the first recording in more than ten years, where the core group has modified their personnel.

With the recent departure of Evans, the group interplay is altered, if not the methodology; still ranging from bop to free improvisation with the occasional reference to chamber jazz, and veering from structure to free form. Pianist Ron Stabinsky, now the fourth member of the quartet, is not new to MOPDtK, having performed with the group live in 2013 and expanded the group to a quintet for the very cool Blue (Hot Cup Records, 2014). Stabinsky's fit with MOPDtK would not be obvious from the note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' ground-breaking Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) as the album is completely atypical of MOPDtK's output. Mauch Chunk, however, makes it clear that Stabinsky's contribution is not only refreshing but also an anchoring element as the band matures.

Stabinsky jumps right to the front, quickly joined by Irabagon on the Henry Threadgill dedicated "Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe" and the piano/saxophone combination imparts a far different accent compared to past dynamics of Irabagon and Evans. What has clearly not changed is the quartet's penchant for effectively mixing passages of engagement with those of cooperation and the addition of a chord instrument enhances both. "West Bolivar" is a bossa nova-themed dance on the third rail with Shea pushing Stabinsky and Irabagon in and out of harm's way. The off-kilter rhythmic structure of the Dave Holland inspired "Obelisk" features some explosive soloing from Irabagon matched by Stabinsky's inventive—if more structured—contribution. More consistently melodic is "Niagra," a subdued waltz for the late saxophonist Will Connell whose club of the same name was the first live venue for MOPDtK.

Hard bop and blues dominate "Herminie" while "Townville" utilizes three distinct melodies linked by free improvisations. The Latin R&B flavor of "Mehoopany" features classy and soulful solos from Stabinsky and Irabagon; Shea interrupts the mood with a hectic snare performance before the piece returns to its central theme. The odd title is, like almost all of Elliott's compositions, taken from the name of a Pennsylvania town. Mauch Chunk itself is the state's former name for the town that—as explained by the extended title track—is now Jim Thorpe, PA.

As the wider recognition of MOPDtK builds, it's appropriate to point out that Elliott has become a leading composer of complex scores with the kind of high-wire flexibility needed to maneuver between structure and improvisation. The new quartet, as with the Evans era group, can sound like a large ensemble or an intimate club act as they seamlessly move from lyrical expression to the sound of an exploding junkyard. After more than ten years, Mostly Other People Do the Killing sounds better than ever; reinvigorated, mischievous and perhaps more willing to take a deep breath in the midst of these multifaceted works.

Track Listing: Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe; West Bolivar; Obelisk; Niagra; Herminie; Townville; Mehoopany.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Ron Stabinsky: piano; Moppa Elliott: Bass; Kevin Shea: drums.

Record Label: Hot Cup Records

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Yago Vazquez/Scott Lee/Jeff Hirshfield: Stream (2015)

Yago Vazquez/Scott Lee/Jeff Hirshfield: Stream
These are good times for piano trios. Emerging groups like those of Pier Luigi Salami and Romain Collin, as well as the more establish work of Stefano Battaglia, have contributed to a recent spate of highly creative and renewed approaches to the format. Add to that list pianist Yago Vazquez, bassist Scott Lee, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, collectively known as Stream, with their debut release of the same name. While Vazquez is in the process of establishing his resume, the mix of veterans and a relatively new face works well here.

The well-established Lee has recorded or performed with the late Chet Baker, saxophonists Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano along with Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Werner and countless others. His versatile career has included a role with the Metropolitan Opera Guild as well. Lee wrote nine of the fourteen tracks on Stream while three are penned by Vazquez and two are group improvisations. The other veteran player, Hirshfield, has an equally diverse background including a stint with the Joffrey Ballet and later with bandleader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, Tim Berne and Paul Bley as well as many other well-known artists.

Vazquez composed the title track which opens the album and quickly establishes that both quirky and intelligent approaches are welcome on Stream. "On Your Own"—the first of Lee's compositions—begins at a leisurely pace and takes its time building. Like the subsequent "F World," these pieces are solidly structured but leave both Lee and Vazquez plenty of room to improvise while Hirshfield deftly keeps the moving targets on the same page. "Nocturno" plays out like a lullaby though it rises and falls unexpectedly and is edged with unique personality.

The disconcerting "Times Square" is the first of the two group improvisations and is sometimes dark, sometimes chaotic. In comparison, a very brief "The Cloisters" is gently led by Vazquez' luminous piano and doesn't stray far from the central theme. Vazquez, Lee and Hirshfield have been playing together for roughly the past two years and have developed an effective and empathic method that works nicely across a variety of styles. Stream is fine first outing that should be of interest to those who like the piano trio format with a more adventurous feel.

Track Listing: Stream; On Your Own; F World; Nocturne; 456; Blue Country; Same But Different; Miniatura; New Old; Times Square; Missing One; Brake Tune; NoWhere; The Cloisters.

Personnel: Yago Vazquez: piano; Scott Lee: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums.

Record Label: Fresh Sound New Talent

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Galen Weston: Plugged In (2015)

Galen Weston: Plugged In
Moving from his high school listening experiences of groups like ACDC and Kiss, guitarist Galen Weston discovered jazz through the influences of well-established guitarists such as Pat Metheny and Mike Stern. After attending the highly-regarded jazz program at Toronto's Humber College, Weston opted out of music for more than ten years while pursuing other business interests. While traveling, a chance sit-in at a bar session in a small Greek town reignited Weston's interest in music. The result of his self-imposed emersion is documented on Plugged In.

After trading in his childhood acoustic for a yellow Fender Stratocaster, Weston brought together a group of seasoned Toronto session players for his debut. Bassist David Woodhead has worked with Gil Scott-Heron and Loreena McKennitt while percussionist Rick Shadrach Lazar's credits include Canadian alternative icon Bruce Cockburn as well as McKennitt. Drummer Al Cross has worked with The Black Crows and recorded on the Windham Hill Records label. Saxophonist Richard Underhill has performed and recorded with drummer Han Bennink, Julius Hemphill and Taj Mahal. His solo on "Song for Daphne" is particularly appealing.

Weston wrote ten of the twelve songs on Plugged In with "Like Someone in Love" penned by the 50s-era pop composer Jimmy Van Huesen and "Country" written by Keith Jarrett. The Jarrett tune—from My Song (ECM, 1978)—originally featured a soulful performance from tenor sax performance by Jan Garbarek whereas Weston's interpretation is more in the style that the title would indicate. One of several styles tackled by Weston, Plugged In opens with the fusion piece "Funk Opus #2" and like "Bensonite" (for George Benson), "Galen's Vice—A Tribute to the 80s," "Tasteless," "Late and Never" and "Rock Jam," much of the album skews toward rock.

The more jazz oriented compositions, particularly "A Song for Daphne," "The Yellow Guitar (A Guitarra Amarela)" and "Austin" (with a fine solos from pianist Matt Horner and Woodhead) fit comfortably in the smooth jazz category and are in sharp contrast to the fusion pieces. Weston is a gifted technician with a fine sense of lyricism. The disparity and placement of styles can sometimes be disconcerting but, in general, Plugged In should help Weston shape a following based on his potential as both composer and performer.

Track Listing: Funk Opus #2; Song for Daphne; Bensonite; The Yellow Guitar; Rose Garden; Country; Galen's Vice - A Tribute to the 80s; Austin; Tasteless; Like Someone in Love; Late and Never; Rock Jam.

Personnel: Galen Weston: guitar; David Woodhead; bass; Al Cross: drums; Simeon Abbott: keyboards (1); Matt Horner: piano; Richard Underhill: saxophone; Rick Shadrach Lazar: percussion; Lenka Lichtenberg: vocals.

Record Label: Blujazz Productions
Style: Modern Jazz

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Romain Collin: Press Enter (2015)

Romain Collin: Press Enter
On his way to creating this extraordinary album, French pianist Romain Collin had the opportunity to chat with Wayne Shorter about those who delay and defer their aspirations. Shorter's two word strategic summation would become the title for this project, Press Enter. Now a New York City resident, Collin did not begin his musical journey through the customary club circuits of Europe or New York, instead touring India and Vietnam with players from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. His worldly touring experiences (including dates with Shorter and Herbie Hancock) and the mentoring of Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Wynton Marsalis and other top artists have been impactful but Collins style is unique and engaging without obvious influences.

The lush, propulsive opening number "99," has the best elements of progressive jazz and art rock and is the perfect hook to lead into Press Enter. The pace and atmosphere melding into "Clockwork" before a well-placed "Raw, Scorched and Untethered" provides a roller coaster of tempos and dissonance that demands closer attention. "Holocene"—one of two compositions from a source other than Collin—slows down the program as if to contemplate the backdrop Collin is working to create. The leisurely swing of "The Kids" resets the album and the forceful "Webs" returns to a more hard-driving theme.

"San Luis Obispo" is a beautiful Appalachian-tinged lullaby, sparse and haunting with the wordless vocal of Megan Rose. The powerful and poignant "Event Horizon," with contributions from cellist Laura Metcalf and Rose, chronicles the experiences of death row prisoners freed after wrongful convictions. In conjunction with the Innocence Project, we hear the overlaid voices of the convicted and the effect is memorable and disturbing. Equally moving is the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn inspired "The Line (Dividing Good and Evil Cuts Through the Heart of Every Human Being)" with its persistent urgency and drama reflecting the turmoil of the writer's Soviet era experience. Press Enter closes with Thelonious Monk's "Round About Midnight," a fitting cap given Collin's roots.

Collin's drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Luques Curtis move impeccably from the theatrical themes to the more lyrically understated interchanges working with both symmetry and independence but always focused on the pictures that Collin intends to paint. The music here is intelligent and intuitive, the improvisation in a lyrical spirit. The defining characteristic of this group is that no one is an island and collectively Collin, Scott and Curtis have astonishing capabilities filling a landscape of incredible expanse.

Track Listing: 99; Clockwork; Raw, Scorched and Untethered; Holocene; The Kids; Webs; San Luis Obispo; Event Horizon; The Line (Dividing Good and Evil Cuts Through the Heart of Every Human Being); Round About Midnight.

Personnel: Romain Collin: piano, sound design, programming; Luques Curtis: double bass; Kendrick Scott: drums; Mino Cinelu: percussion (09); Megan Rose: vocals (01, 08); Jean-Michel Pilc: whistles (05); Grey McMurray: guitar (04); Laura Metcalf: cello.

Record Label: ACT Music

Monday, September 28, 2015

The twenty year history of Leap of Faith includes an eleven year hiatus that is noteworthy more for the cooperative's ability to seamlessly pick up the pieces than for an uber-extended break. Cellist Glynis Lomon—a one-time student of Bill Dixon—was working the Boston circuit with multi-reedist Pek in the 1990s. The two honed their far reaching technical skills taking them into the Leaping Water Trio, a precursor to Leap of Faith whose 1995 debut included trombonist Mark McGrain and occasional guests.

A rotation of group visitors, with PEK and Lomon always at the center, along with multimedia performances, marked the continued artistic development of Leap of Faith until 2003. PEK left behind his day-to-day music career while Lomon remained involved with other projects, most notably Dixon's Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009) along with brass masters Stephen Haynes, Taylor Ho Bynum and Rob Mazurek and bassist Ken Filiano. In early 2015 PEK and Loman reunited to perform with the original members of Leap of Faith while lining up a new formation to include saxophonist/clarinetist Steve Norton, and drummer Yuri Zbitnov.

Sharing the billing on Solution Concepts is trumpeter Thomas Herberer who adds significant contributions on five of the six tracks. The album was recorded live at the Downtown Music Gallery in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan on August 16th, 2015. Starting out and fits and starts like an extended warm-up, "Subgame" doesn't take much of its almost forty minutes to be convincingly harrowing. With barely the trace of a melody, the marathon number nevertheless captures some satisfying but inexpressible spirit of wild abandon. In very sharp contrast, Heberer joins the group on "The Great Hill," a study in finely developed improvisation with his solo cornet soulfully expressive.

"Teodoro" takes yet another tack as the experimental piece consists of noises drawn from the musicians pushing their instruments beyond their normal range and augmenting with distorted voices. The brief "Mongezi" and "Loose Ends" again feature Heberer and are less structured than "The Great Hill." Bookending the middle four tracks—all written by Heberer—is another extended improvisation, "Information Sets," clocking in at over twenty minutes. Ranging from a whisper to near-chaos, the piece is strangely musical with Zbitnov's thundering beat supporting approximations of bagpipes and ethereal voices.

Considering the relatively brief number of years that Leap of Faith were actively recording, their output has been prolific and varied. PEK and Lomon have worked in formations from duo to large ensembles. Heberer's presence on Solution Concepts makes it quite different from earlier Leap of Faith albums but true to the experimental vision that PEK and Lomon first realized more than twenty years ago. The music on Solution Concepts is probing, intelligent and—in some instances—poignant.

Track Listing: Subgame; The Great Hill; Teodoro; Mongezi; Loose Ends; Information Sets.

Personnel: Thomas Heberer: cornet; PEK: clarinets, tenor saxophone, piccolo oboe, voice; Glynis Lomon: cello, aquasonic, voice; Steve Norton: saxophones, alto clarinet; Yuri Zbitnov -drums, metal, voice.

Record Label: Evil Clown

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sonar: Black Light (2015)

Sonar: Black Light
By virtue of its experimental and often convoluted definition, progressive jazz seems to require an increasingly larger umbrella. Under that broadly encompassing category, the Switzerland- based quartet SONAR is a noteworthy and unconventional standout. Black Light is their fourth release (but only the second to be made widely available) and for those who have followed the artistic development of the group it is all the more revelatory an experience. SONAR has nuanced the more percussive tone of Static Motion (Cuneiform Records, 2014) to further emphasize contrasting rhythms and splintered meters. Black Light is an example of risk-taking that is visceral without going straight for the jugular.

California born guitarist Stephan Thelan, the principle composer of the group, is the practitioner of a democratic process of creation and participation. A PhD in mathematics with extensive classical training, Thelan studied with guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp, one of the most influential artists in progressive music history, and a founding (and ubiquitous) member of King Crimson, had a significant impact on Thelan and the halo effect of King Crimson's shadowy intensity looms large on Black Light.

Guitarist Bernhard Wagner, a software developer as well as musician, combines those skills in evolving repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. Wagner has worked as a backup act for Nik Bärtsch's Ronin for many years. Bassist Christian Kunter has strong ties to free jazz including having played with two of John Tchicai's groups. Drummer Manuel Pasquinelli has played in numerous regional bands covering an eclectic mix of styles from punk to chamber. The unique sound of SONAR is due, in large part, to the tritone tuning (C / F# / C / F# / C / F#) of the guitars and bass adding a surprisingly pleasant dissonant quality.

As Thelan relates in John Kelman's extensive liner notes, King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Island, 1973), is a particularly key influence on the content of Black Light. That said, there are other forces at work here, even if unintended. Listen to "Enneagram" or "Orbit 5.7" and there is more than a trace element of the late, great Esbjorn Svensson Trio, circa the Leucocyte (ACT, 2008) era, arguably, that trio at their best. Both aforementioned pieces emit a unique pulsing energy and mystery balanced with equal parts modern progressive music and sophisticated jazz. Positioned between those two tracks is the title track refers to the opposing forces of darkness and light rather than the familiar long-wave bulbs. Here—as on "Angular Momentum," "String Geometry" and "Critical Mass" the King Crimson impact couldn't be clearer though SONAR does not come off as emulating the classic band but rather as taking the band's vocabulary and technique to another level.

SONAR speaks to a wide-range of listeners with intelligently constructed tunes and an appealing blend of atmosphere, melody and process. Not surprising for a group whose name is a fractured acronym for "sonic architecture" and who craft compositions of surprising complexity without technical overindulgence. The music—written by Thelan with the exception of the Pasquinelli co-authored "Angular Momentum"—is difficult to describe but thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.

Track Listing: Enneagram; Black Light; Orbit 5.7; Angular Momentum; String Geometry; Critical Mass.

Personnel: Stephan Thelan: Guitar; Bernhard Wagner: Guitar; Christian Kunter: bass; Manuel Pasquinelli: drums.

Record Label: Cuneiform Records

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Julian Julien: Terre II (2015)

Julian Julien: Terre II
French composer/saxophonist Julian Julien has a growing fan base and a rich portfolio of work within his native country, reflecting a wide interest in genres, cultures and media. With his first composition of note coming in a 1993 Sorbonne University project, Julien went on to release his first EP album Tupperware et Bibelot (Self-produced, 1999). While he later travelled throughout Central and Southeastern Asia, he absorbed ethnic influences that would eventually be incorporated into his increasingly eclectic style of writing.

Terre II is less of a sequel to Terre (Priskosnovenie, 2000) than the name would imply. While many of the same musical influences are present (Keith Jarrett, John Surman and film composer John Barry), Julien now works more with silence in the midst of the nuevo-jazz, chamber music and soundtrack dramas of his previous recording. There is also a strong element of European folk music that is becoming increasingly present in the continent's modern music. Terre II is also a concept album where Julien has worked with photographers from Europe, Asia and North America to realize a collaborative musical cinematography of ideas.

Terre II opens with "Prélude," its otherworldly flute and a pulsing bass setting the stage for the title track, a homage to the physical and esoteric territory covered in Julien's previous release. Julien focuses on slightly detached patterns over consistent melody. "Iris I"—the first of six randomly dispersed interludes—leans more toward the European chamber mindset (with some subdued electronic enhancements), as do the ..."II" through ..."VI" variations. "Ailleurs" envisions a better, if not utopian place, where the engaging dialog of the baritone sax and flute direct the narrative.

More personal contributions to the collection are seen in "Une Attente" and "Doudou" dealing with different aspects of the human dilemma. "Non Sens—Nonsence" takes on the very current geopolitical plight of emigres and those faced with the prospect of waves of refugees entering into their society. The album closes with "Mr. John Barry," a tribute to Julien's previously mentioned soundtrack composer favorite; an appropriate conclusion to a collection that in and of itself has elements of a cinematic score.

Though a saxophonist by trade, Julien is credited on Terre II with programming and percussion while Michaël Havard takes on many saxophones and Rémi Dumoulin mans the bass clarinet. Siegfried Canto's flute and cellist Adeline Lecce add much to the chamber aspects of the album. Terre II is a pleasing outing played in a refined atmosphere and with occasional dissonance. It suffers only minimally from a sense of not quite breaking out when given the opportunity. Still, it is different and that makes it worth considering.

Track Listing: Prélude; Terre II; Iris I; Ailleurs; Iris II; Iris III; Une attente; Iris IV; Doudou; Iris V; Non-Sens; Iris VI; Mr. John Barry.

Personnel: Hélène Argo: voice; Guillaume Billaux: guitar; Siegfried Canto: flute; Médéric Collignon: cornet/voice; Rémi Dumoulin: bass clarinet; Michaël Havard: soprano, tenor, baritone saxophone; Julian Julien: percussion, programming; Adeline Lecce: cello.

Record Label: Self Produced

Friday, September 11, 2015

Ochion Jewell, Amino Belyamani, Sam Minaie, Qasim Naqvi with Lionel Loueke: Volk (2015)

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Ochion Jewell, Amino Belyamani, Sam Minaie, Qasim Naqvi with Lionel Loueke: Volk
From his Appalachian roots in Kentucky, saxophonist/composer Ochion Jewell was not the most likely candidate for a livelihood in jazz. With little involvement in the genre during his early life, Jewell was nevertheless exposed to more popular music from his parents as well as the Appalachian folk music that dominated the region. With those elements engrained, his formal training in classical saxophone at the University of Louisville and later education at California Institute of the Arts helped round out a rich background that serves him well both as a composer and musician.

As on Jewell's quartet debut First Suite for Quartet (Mythology Records, 2011), he is joined on Volk by pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Qasim Naqvi. Guitarist Lionel Loueke joins the quartet on two of the ten tracks. The core quartet has been working together for some time, having first formed associations at CalArts. Belyamani, Minaie and Naqvi improvise around Jewell with the expertise and finesse of a long established group; empathic yet independent, their give and take is unpredictable while feeling seamless. But it's Jewell who is bewilderingly adept across the fields of playing, writing and arranging skills, the latter of the three being the most impactful on this recording.

From a methodology perspective, Jewell's compositional approach bears some resemblance to that heard on Steve Coleman's Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings, 2015). While their music couldn't be more different, both composers incorporate distinctly different sound worlds and invent obscure lines of symmetry between structure and free form. This movement and association of sounds is critical on Volk and it seems to impart a slightly different experience with each listening. "At the End of the World, Where Lions Weep" is the lush opener that Jewell describes as an overture to the suite that makes up Volk. It crosses into "Pathos Logos," setting the stage for the improvisational blending of global influences that populate the album.

A traditional Finnish folk song—"Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi"—moves from the root melody to a controlled improvisation and leads to an Irish jig, "Give Us a Drink of Water." The traditional Celtic aspects of the tune dissipate as influences from classical to bop replace each other in an almost undetectable propulsion of change. "Pass Fallow, Gallowglass" marks a return to a more opulent sound only to open the door to Africa. "Gnawa Blues" and "The Master" share roots in the northwestern part of the continent and both incorporate elements of the blues. The traditional "Oh Shenandoah" is a respectful but modern reading and "Black is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)" closes the album with a return to Appalachia.

The musicianship throughout Volk is superb. Jewell's solo interpretation of the closing piece is a thing of beauty. Loueke's bluesy guitar on "The Master" sings with emotion while Minaie's multi-faceted bass maneuvers the many changes within "Pass Fallow, Gallowglass." Naqvi alternately thunders and nuances and can be particularly appreciated through the shifts in "Give Us a Drink of Water." Belyamani finds a broad range of expression with the piano, taking it through classically influenced passages to heavily percussive effects. This album is broad in scope and political significance while being weighed down by neither. With Volk, we have Jewell as a master craftsman and an artist of extraordinary and intelligent vision. This is one of the best releases of the year; music to be listened to repeatedly and savored.

Track Listing: At the End of the World, Where Lions Weep; Pathos Logos; Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi; Give Us a Drink of Water; Pass Fallow, Gallowglass; Radegast; Gnawa Blues; The Master; Oh Shenandoah; Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair).

Personnel: Ochion Jewell: tenor saxophone/composer; Amino Belyamani: piano; Sam Minaie: bass; Qasim Naqvi: drums; Lionel Loueke: guitar (7, 8).

Record Label: Self Produced

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mary Halvorson: Meltframe (2015)

Mary Halvorson: Meltframe
In a quietly forceful way, guitarist Mary Halvorson has cemented her place among the company of modern-day counterparts such as Eivind Aarset , Nels Cline and Terje Rypdal. The Brooklyn based composer/musician has performed with the likes of Anthony Braxton (both sharing credentials at Wesleyan University), cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum and the avant-garde group Trevor Dunn 's Trio-Convulsant. Halvorson has recorded with trumpeter Nate Wooley, multi-reedist Jon Irabagon and Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik. The consistent factor in Halvorson's career to date, is a commitment to a progressive examination of content and approach.

In the liner notes for Halvorson's Meltframe, El Intruso's Sergio Piccirilli makes note of the guitarist's ..."vision to imagine new worlds...with the courage...to build them." It's a fine definitive statement. The album consists of covers ranging from the golden age of Duke Ellingtonton to Halvorson's current cohort of colleagues such as bassist Chris Lightcap. Solo guitar recordings, while a new setting for Halvorson, are pretty commonplace, but the manner in which Meltframe opens may seem extreme to her followers and will certainly get one's attention.

Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" explodes in a brutal aggressiveness, more aligned to heavy metal than any genre and the melody and harmonies from Nelson's original from the classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961) obscured by Halvorson's thrashing electric guitar. Abruptly switching gears, Annette Peacock's "Blood" from I'm the One (RCA Records, 1972), loses both the brash bluesy element of the original and the opposing sensitivity of Marilyn Crispell's 1997 cover from Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock (ECM). In place of those treatments, Halvorson gives us technical mastery within her fast-paced and breezy playing, assigning an original feel to the score.

Halvorson uses some unconventional tweaking as she take the customary treatments of Ellington's "Solitude" and McCoy Tyner's "Aisha" along on her explorations, her fingerstyle acoustics brilliantly lighting up the pieces. Within the structure of Ornette Coleman's "Sadness" she interjects smeared notes and dissonant phrasing but doesn't stray too far from the core concept. The folky treatment of Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" is one of the standout pieces on the album and the most straight-forward arrangement.

Halvorson manages to traverse some fairly radical style changes within the pieces on Meltframe, moving from elusive acoustic fingering to bone-rattling power chords as she does on Lightcap's "Platform." Yet, most of the pieces return to their roots intermittently and the diversions are not idle sentiment but inquisitive probes. Whether distorted or poignant, Meltframe is a uniquely complex collection from one of our finest artists.

Track Listing: Cascades; Blood; Cheshire Hotel; Sadness; Solitude; Ida Lupino; Aisha; Platform; When; Leola.

Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar.

Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor: Tales of the Unforeseen (2015)

Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor: Tales of the Unforeseen
Barry Altschul made his mark on the musical world at a time of both turmoil and guarded acceptance. Charles Lloyd's quartet, with the unknown pianist Keith Jarrett, was bridging a gap with psychedelic rock at the Fillmore West; Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) along with the work of groups like Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana were blurring the line between increasingly progressive rock and even more progressive jazz in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A pivotal element of that new jazz sound was the quartet Circle who would be—in retrospect—a super group pioneering new directions.

The short-lived but very influential Circle, assembled by Chick Corea, included bassist Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton on a number of reeds and Barry Altschul on drums/percussion. While three-quarters of the group went on to be revered as jazz legends, the self-taught Altschul worked through the 1980s and increasingly added to the lexicon of drumming with his expanding kit and musical sensibility. And then he all but disappeared until early in the new millennium.

After a twenty-five year absence as a leader, Altschul reemerged as the leader of a trio whose personnel represents some of the finest talent in music. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Mary Halvorson's Quintet and own trio with Altschul and bassist Mark Helias, has been steadily working his way up the hierarchy reed players and composers. Bassist Joe Fonda is without question in the ranks of modern counterparts such as William Parker and Mario Pavone and worked with Altschul´s in the late violinist Billy Bang's FAB trio. Altschul, Irabagon and Fonda came together as the 3dom Factor on their excellent 2013 self-titled debut on the TUM label and reunite here for Tales of the Unforeseen.

Though the track titles would indicate a defined structure, three of the album's six compositions are free group improvisations, without charts or definitive concepts to work from. Starting, logically, with "As the Tale Begins," the twenty-six minute piece projects the openness of the trio dynamics. Altschul, while forcefully driving parts of the number, often trades leads with Irabagon and the two step back to give Fonda center stage about twenty minutes in. Extending the title of Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" with the preface "A Tale of Monk..." is not the only change to the often-recorded cover. While respecting the original style of the song, the trio takes a looser, somewhat muted approach, occasionally adding a more propulsive rhythmic touch.

The first half of "The Tale Continues" is a finely detailed Fonda solo that sets the stage for Irabagon and Altschul to raise the intensity almost to the breaking point. Annette Peacock's "Miracles" (again, with a 'Tale'-related prefix) is Irabagon at his best as he rides, uninhibited, over the rhythmic driving of Altschul and Fonda. Altschul's "A Drummer's Tale" is a remarkable solo piece demonstrating the leader's musical and technical proficiency on the kit and other percussion. The masterwork of Tales of the Unforeseen is "And the Tale Ends" with its fluctuating themes, tempo shifts and multiple instruments, it feels more like a sophisticated arrangement that a free improvisation.

It's good that Altschul's 3dom Factor is not an isolated experiment, or one would hope that this second release indicates some longevity. Free improvisation is often license for an abrasiveness that can obscure the substantial intelligence and effort involved in a project but Altschul, Irabagon and Fonda shine in this environment. Their objectives on Tales of the Unforeseen are clear and carried out with considerable refinement amidst all the intricacy.

Track Listing: As the Tale Begins; A Tale of Monk: Ask Me Now; The Tale Continues; Annette´s Tale of Miracles; A Drummer´s Tale; And the Tale Ends.

Personnel: Barry Altschul drums, percussion; Jon Irabagon: tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones, flute; Joe Fonda: double bass.

Record Label: TUM Records

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jon Irabagon: Inaction is An Action (2015)

Jon Irabagon: Inaction is An Action
Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, a central figure in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, guitarist Mary Halvorson's Quintet and leader of his own trio with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias is one of the most prolific composers and performers in music. Still in his thirties, Irabagon has amassed about eighty recordings as a leader, co-leader or sideman and his portfolio covers the breadth from big band swing to free improvisation. As his career has zig-zagged its way through diverse styles and formations, Irabagon has consistently been like a counter-culture rebel, determined to change and impact the system from within.

With the release of Inaction is An Action Irabagon takes on the solo saxophone traditions of some of his personal influences such as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell. There are, however, twists in his approach. Irabagon utilizes the sopranino saxophone; the small sax—tuned to E flat and at an octave above the alto—has a rich resonance comparable to a similarly tuned clarinet. Though the sopranino has been used on occasion by Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and a few others, it is a rarity in modern music. The other notable factor here is that Irabagon's eight original composition are highly experimental, closer to investigation of sounds than to melodic compositions.

The album opens with "Revvvv," clipped patterns that seem to be partnered with wind tunnel effects, it's hard to categorize but haunting in its own way. "Acrobat" consists of plaintive wails with the sax seeming to loop around itself; traces of melody only tease and never fully develop. Irabagon coaxes a remarkable range of sounds from the sopranino and on "What Have We Here" the sax literally speaks in a demonic voice. Similarly, "Hang Out a Shingle" adds haunted creaking and percussive effects to its eerie character. "The Best Kind of Sad" and "Ambiwinxtrous" are a bit reminiscent of Sam Newsome's solo soprano work on The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation (Self-produced, 2014) and both unexpectedly devote brief passages to more prolonged melodies. The rapidly paced "Liquid Fire" is loose and uninhibited while the closer, "Alps," is a whisper of sounds until its briefly frenetic conclusion.

The Zen reference of Inaction is An Action is open to interpretation in the context of this collection, but certainly from the perspective of what constitutes music (as opposed to what some would surely classify as noise), the allusion is both valid and challenging. Repeated listening is rewarded by the uncovering of complexity and nuance that may not be obvious at first. Irabagon works at times in near silence, at others in a mechanical din of sounds all while he reaches for the highest and lowest registers imaginable for the instrument. Inaction is An Action is clearly not for the faint of heart, but for those with a more exploratory nature, it is packed with new ideas.

Track Listing: Revvvv; Acrobat; What Have We Here; The Best Kind of Sad; Hang Out a Shingle; Ambiwinxtrous; Liquid Fire; Alps.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: sopranino saxophone.

Record Label: Self Produced

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arshak Sirunyan: Serendipity (2015)

Arshak Sirunyan: Serendipity
Pianist/composer Arshak Sirunyan last offered up a startlingly good multi-media, cross-genre collection with Hoodman's Blind (Self-produced, 2014). That recording found the Armenian born musician tackling the complexities of translating a medieval contest of strategy to an engaging musical concept. The success of that album hinged—in no small part—on Sirunyan's ability to blend disparate elements of chamber, folk, rock and jazz into a consistent hybrid style of his own. More aspiring, and completely different, is Serendipity, a stunning work of modern avant-garde music.

A resident of the Washington DC area, Sirunyan, is a past winner of an Armenian Bach Concerto Competition and the long-time senior accompanist at Maryland Youth Ballet. In that capacity, he set out to score music for the accompaniment of ballet classes but with intent of deviating from the tradition of piano-only complement. Sirunyan's modernized approach, while capitalizing of his considerable skill as a pianist, also incorporates cello and orchestral strings. His strong classical background and more than a dozen years working with dancers provided him with the deep understanding and stimulus to take on this ambitious project.

Serendipity consists of twenty-seven compositions with Sirunyan's piano most often at the forefront and occasionally soloing. While Sirunyan touches on leaner, more experimental aspects of the music, he chooses to open the CD with the rich romanticism and haunting melody of "Plié (Epoch)." His piano, augmented by the string orchestra is a perfectly balanced stage-setter for the pensive drama of "Tendu (Crying Tree)," a piano/cello duet. The same formation plays through the "Tendu" series of 'Phantasm,' 'Unfinished Seduction' and 'Laughing Nightmare' with each piece further building in pace and tension.

What he had established on his previous recording, Sirunyan confirms without doubt on Serendipity: he is an exceptional storyteller. "Tango (6th Floor)" imagines an institutionalized and isolated mute who finds her eventual release in a table-top tango, filled with craving and fire. On a broader scale, Sirunyan raises the topic of the one-hundred year old (and still under-recognized) atrocity of the Armenian genocide; the lack of closure is palpable in the sadly beautiful composition.

Elsewhere, Sirunyan draws inspiration from more immediately personal sources such as his family on "Center Tendu (Tiny Heartbeats)" and "Reverence (Anna)." In one case he reinvents a previously recorded composition "Stretch (To My Beloved Stranger)," from his trio album Journal (Self-produced, 2010); the original version with its pronounced percussive treatment, here is refreshed as a warmly lyrical orchestrated piece.

The technical aspects of Serendipity are an achievement in and of themselves. While it will not be obvious on listening, the cello and the string orchestra are actually a result of a painstaking process of sampling, mixing and engineering as performed by Sirunyan working in tandem with a programmer. Countless hours were invested in refining every detail and nuance to successfully achieve the realistic net result.

In 2014, Sirunyan was nominated for a number of independent music awards and captured first place in two categories of the 2014 International Songwriting Competition. Musical categories—being narrow as they are—will firmly place Serendipity in the classical grouping and while that is the dominant genre here, there is much more to these compositions. Sirunyan's pieces have as much in common with the Gil Evans/Miles Davis classic Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) as they do with Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is modern musical theater, avant-garde conception, meditations on the dance and life events; all capitalizing on Sirunyan's unique talent for building, narrating and influencing musical relationships. In every aspect of music, Sirunyan is increasingly a force to be reckoned with and Serendipity is a magnificent success.

Track Listing: Plié (Epoch); Tendu "Crying Tree"; Tendu "Phantasm"; Tendu/Degagé "Unfinished Seduction"; Tendu/Degagé "Laughing Nightmare; Degagé "Bobblehead"; Rond De Jambe "Dance of Nature"; Frappé "Chasing Shadows"; Fondu "Delicate Whisper"; Rond De Jambe en L'air "Jealous Repetition"; Tango "6th Floor"; Barre Adagio "Iridescent Sky"; Grand Battement "Forgotten Strength"; Stretch "To My Beloved Stranger"; Center Tendu "Tiny Heartbeats"; Center Adagio "1915"; Pirouette "Red Velvet Waltz"; Pirouette "Polonaise"; Pirouette "Midnight Mazurka"; Petit Allegro "62 Needles"; Petit Allegro "Arrogant Jumps"; Petit Allegro "Strange Weakness"; Men's Jumps "March of the Sinners"; Grand Allegro "Velour Forest"; Piqué Turns (Crosswind); Fouettés (Abandoned Turned); Reverence (Anna).

Personnel: Arshak Sirunyan: composer, piano; Garritan Gofriller: cello; Vienna Symphonic Library: strings.

Record Label: Self Produced

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Percival Roman: Spiritual Frequencies (2015)

Percival Roman: Spiritual Frequencies
The Raleigh, North Carolina based drummer Percival Roman has a proclivity for his free jazz counterparts, some of whom occupy the front cover design of Romans's album Spiritual Frequencies. Roman, who also records under his given name, T.J. Goode, took his inspiration from disparate sources. Influenced by the hip hop album Midnight Marauders from A Tribe Called Quest (Jive Records, 1993) and a 2013 British science fiction film called Frequencies, Roman has produced a freewheeling translation of mystical events to music.

Roman began drumming as a youngster but largely gave up music for fifteen years before reconnecting with a local group—Black Fusion—in 2009. He later played in other area groups such as Daughter Element and The Empty Sound. Roman is joined on Spiritual Frequencies by bassist Matthew Golombisky on one of the seven tracks and another bassist, Christopher Thurston, on two tracks. Guitarists Brian Sulzipio and Kahlil Goode and French vocalist Clotilde Rullad appear on individual pieces while Roman contributes two solo efforts.

Spiritual Frequencies opens with "You May Begin" where Golombisky's rapidly strums the double bass and Roman skitters away on the drum kit, both players rising and falling in intensity until the piece turns almost minimal. The appropriately named "It's Just an Experiment" features Roman with a toy bell on the snare and mallets that invoke the deep rumbling of a calm before the storm. "Nicala Tesla Hernds" is altogether different with Rullad's vocals—including some that are wordless, some spoken—complexly layered in and Thurston now on bass. While Roman improvises, the many moving parts seem to organically come together.

In another digression, "Albert Einstein Cold," Roman does double-duty on sampling while Sulzipio's guitar adds a bluesy feel on a track that is more structured but not without dissonance. "Words Constantly Change" reunites Roman and former band mate Thurston whose bottomless but uplifting bass dominates the piece. "Kuri Forti," another drums/samples composition leads to "Lilhak" which features Roman's nephew, guitarist Kahlil Goode on a spacey and slightly bluesy improvisation that closes the album.

Spiritual Frequencies is packed with spontaneous creativity that manifests itself all manner of invention. Roman's background encompasses multiple genres and he uses that experience in the refined treatment of time and space, configuration and deconstruction. For the most part, this is good, honest, point of inception music and well worth a listen.

Track Listing: You May Begin; It's Just an Experiment; Nicala Tesla Hernds; Albert Einstein Cold; Words Constantly Change; Kuri Forti; Lilhak.

Personnel: Percival Roman: drums, samples; Matthew Golombisky: double bass (1); Christopher Thurston: bass (3, 5); Kahlil Goode: guitar (7); Clotilde Rullad: vocals (3); Brian Sulzipio: guitar (4).

Record Label: Self Produced

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance: Synovial Joints (2015)

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Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance: Synovial Joints
Composer and saxophonist Steve Coleman grew up Chicago's AACM neighborhood before moving on to New York's big band scene in the 1970s. Diverse influences combined with his assorted academic interests in philosophy, world religion and nature, have made him a source for some of the most unique music of the past twenty years. While not immune from critical misunderstanding, the recent winner of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award has proven himself an enduring creative force. Coleman has remained true to his musical objectives and his unique—and always evolving—approaches continue to be relevant. His perseverance has paid off with Synovial Joints, a significant achievement in his long career.

Coleman applies a two-fold approach to the creative process. One part incorporates the natural world, in the sense of how things move and flow, and he joins this with his concept called "camouflage orchestration" which his more difficult to articulate but comes alive upon hearing the music. The compositions and arrangements find an elusive equilibrium between philosophy and free forms. A number of colleagues from Coleman's Five Elements group join a very large collective that includes strings and multiple percussionists with influences that range from classical to Latin.

The opening track, "Acupuncture Openings," is a good place to begin talking about Coleman's concept. Instrumental groupings and themes move in and out of focus; more an illusionist's performance than changing the structure of the piece or the formation behind it. Just when an awareness of the setting becomes clear it evaporates to be replaced by a different realty; not abruptly and in many cases, not even immediately apparent as the natural movement coexists with the theoretical concept.

"Celtic Calls" opens with Jen Shyu's ethereal vocal that comingles with the instrumentation and then drifts toward symphonic characteristics laced with operatic qualities. The title suite focuses its four parts on the correlation of various human movements and if that sounds a bit sterile, it is not in execution. Though it may not always be clear which joints are being addressed, a sensation of liquidity is expertly conveyed, especially in Coleman's arrangements and fluid playing. "Harmattan" has more of a defined swing element but remains in keeping with the unexpected directions that the music takes throughout the collection.

There is a feeling that all of Coleman's compositional components are fully integrated and mutually exclusive at the same time, defying logic. There is little sense that Coleman is employing a twenty-one piece ensemble as their purpose in Coleman's vision is segmented and specifically defined to deliver alternating phases that rarely bring subgroups together in traditionally synchronous manner. Synovial Joints is full of brilliantly conceived pieces, performed by musicians who shine in their virtuosity. It is the finest and most ambitious work of his career.

Track Listing: Acupuncture Openings; Celtic Cells; Synovial Joints I - Hand and Wrist; Synovial Joints II - Hip and Shoulder; Synovial Joints III – Torso; Synovial Joints IV - Head and Neck; Tempest; Harmattan; Nomadic; Eye of Heru.

Personnel: Steve Coleman: saxophone, composer; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Anthony Tidd: electric bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Jen Shyu: vocals; David Bryant: piano; Tim Albright: trombone; Maria Grand: tenor saxophone; Barry Crawford: piccolo, flute; Rane Moore: clarinets; Jeff Missal: trumpet; David Nelson: bass trombone; Kristin Lee: violin; Chris Otto: viola; Jay Campbell: cello; Greg Chudzik: contrabass; Alex Lipowski: percussion; Ned Sacramento: percussion; Ramon Garcia Perez: percussion; Mauricio Hererra: percussion.

Record Label: Pi Recordings

Deep Tone Project: Flow (2014)

Deep Tone Project: Flow
Beyond the recent headlines there is a cultural history in Ukraine that has influenced much of Europe and Western Asia since the middle ages. Under the Soviet regime, much of the country's classical and religious music was banned while the region's folkloric music not only thrived but, after Ukrainian independence, remained a defensive mechanism to counter the unwelcome influence of Western music. Jazz in particular was suspect, having once been labeled by Pravda as "The Music of the Gross." Though change came late—especially in comparison to Poland—Ukraine is now home to a number of regularly held jazz festivals and some very unique voices are emerging from the land.

Turning the once shunned form into refined and world-class music is bassist and composer Konstantin Ionenko, whose previous quintet release Deep Immersion (Fancy Music, 2013) is a study in the influence of discreet power. Ionenko's second release on the Moscow-based label features his Deep Tone Project quartet where he restructures most of the group bringing in guitarist Alexandr Pavlov, drummer Pavel Galitski and retaining Viktor Pavelko on tenor saxophone. Ionenko has worked with fusion guitarists Al Di Meola and Alex Hutchings and UK singer Zoe Gilby while the remainder of the quartet has been primarily working in their native region.

With composing credits evenly divided between Palov and Ionenko, the eight pieces on Deep Tone Project seem designed to nurture the individual skills of the group. "Landscape" gently modulates between Ionenko's driving—but understated bass line—and Pavlov's fluid and intricate playing. Pavelko uses the tenor as a conduit, taking the tempo and liquidly bringing it down before breaking into a forceful improvisation of his own. The lyrical "Odd Fellow" follows similar trade-offs between guitar and sax before "Blue" imparts a noir quality that eventually builds in energy and features fine solos skillfully entwined by Galitski. The ruminative title track features Pavlov and Pavelko trading leads, knit together by Ionenko's direction and Galitski's subdued but colorful pacing.

The compositions and musicianship on Deep Tone Project are a distinctly modern and deftly textured crafting of classical elements and European chamber jazz. The themes are constructed as pleasant explorations, occasionally taking more adventurous turns but always grounded in melody. Ionenko has wisely opted for an all-inclusive format and it is a very rewarding one that should lead to broader exposure for all involved.

Track Listing: Landscape; Odd Fellow; Blue; Recent Sense; Fragments; Untitled; Air Shortage; Flow.

Personnel: Viktor Pavelko: tenor sax; Alexandr Pavlov: guitar; Konstantin Ionenko: bass; Pavel Galitski: drums.

Record Label: Fancy Music