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

Henry Threadgill Zooid: In For A Penny, In For A Pound (2015)

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Henry Threadgill Zooid: In For A Penny, In For A Pound
Fresh off his significant contribution to Jack DeJohnette's Made In Chicago (ECM, 2015), composer/saxophonist/flautist Henry Threadgill and his most long-established group, Zooid, return for the ensemble's most creative and ambitious collection. Almost thirty years ago, Threadgill told Chicago's Pulitzer winning writer, Studs Terkel, of the influence of marching bands that he saw in that city's frequent street parades. That influence—along with that of his founding status in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—are apparent in the adventurous collection In For a Penny, In For a Pound.

Joining Threadgill are original group members, guitarist Liberty Ellman, trombonist/tubaist Jose Davila and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee along with violincellist Christopher Hoffman who came on board with Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp (Pi Recordings, 2012). Bassist Stomu Takeishi, a long time Threadgill colleague and part of Zooid since 2009, does not appear on In For a Penny, In for a Pound, resetting the ensemble to its quintet formation.

Only two of the six compositions on this double-disc set clock in at under fifteen minutes. One of those—the opening title track—sets the stage for Threadgill's uniquely abstract approach to composition. Here, he and Ellman weave through harmonic textures with a nimbleness that floats above the surface. Within "Ceroepic (for drums and percussion)," the earlier reference to parading marching bands takes on life. Threadgill has developed an approach of composing individual pieces in phases and if one were to imagine the passing of parade musicians, those here-and-gone themes and formats, it becomes palpable imagery on In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Each of the three remaining long-form pieces is designated as a feature for a particular instrument or combination of instruments. The ubiquitous nature of changing patterns and textures makes the relatively brief featured contributions all the more engaging. The dynamic is especially notable in "Tresepic (for trombone and tuba)" where Davila bottoms-out the pitch for a time in contrast to the more pervasive lightness of the piece. While each piece includes elements of harmony and conflict, the compositions are devoid of jarring disruptions and are atmospherically ethereal.

Threadgill uses "epic" in these naming conventions not in a self-aggrandizing manner but to define the far-reaching scope of the compositions. He continues to be a composer of great complexity and feeling, creating alternating atmosphere and mood within each of his compositions, tying them together in unexpected ways. In a career that spans four decades, Threadgill is as relevant as ever and In For a Penny, In for a Pound is unique and memorable.

Track Listing: In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Opening); Ceroepic (For Drums And Percussion); Dosepic (For Cello); Off The Prompt Box (Exordium); Tresepic (For Trombone And Tuba); Unoepic (For Guitar).

Personnel: Henry Threadgill: alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; Jose Davila: trombone, tuba; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Christopher Hoffman: violoncello; Elliot Humberto Kavee: drums, percussion.

Record Label: Pi Recordings

Keith Jarrett: Keith Jarrett: Creation (2015)

Keith Jarrett: Keith Jarrett: Creation
With the simultaneous release of his latest classical album Barber/ Bartók /Jarrett, the forty-plus year ECM mainstay, Keith Jarrett issues an unusually conceived solo piano compilation, Creation. During his first twenty years of solo releases on Manfred Eicher's iconic label—beginning with Facing You (1971)—Jarrett's solo output had been prodigious and has secured his place as the best and most creative pianist/composer of the age. While the releases kept coming, health problems in the 90s curtailed his output of live solo albums, arguably the setting in which to best appreciate Jarrett's talents.

Jarrett served as Producer (with Eicher in the Executive Producer role) and sequenced the program drawing on a non-sequential series of performances from Tokyo, Toronto, Paris and Rome, all from recent concerts. The "virtual" concert—sans applause— that he has created is steeped in lyricism by virtue of the pieces he has selected. The two things that make this paradigm distinctive are the almost seamless flow that imparts organic movement and the absence of pointed punctuation that infuses much of Jarrett's improvised solo work. As a result, Creation is closer to his G.I. Gurdjieff: Sacred Hymns (1980) than it is to The Köln Concert (1975).

The improvised compositions, sequentially numbered Parts I through IX are, to a large extent, reflective and ruminating. It is not until "Part V" that Jarrett hints at a spiritual if not his full-blown rollicking gospel style. There are plenty of classical influence sprinkled throughout and particularly on "Part VII" but quiet lyricism is the pervading approach. Though Creation is meditative there is real power in Jarrett's characteristic and consummate capacity to spontaneously compose improvised music and then move it to a new space.

It's fair to say that Creation is an outlier in Jarrett's musical life, or—just as appropriate—a divergent passage in a long, rich autobiography. It brings to mind the recent procedural manipulations of label-mate Eberhard Weber but the bassist was exploring new streams of creativity out of a specific and personal necessity while Jarrett has discovered a platform to view disparate pieces of work as a new whole. His purpose is to reinvent his own already unique invention and that is not something you hear every day.

Track Listing: Part I (Toronto, Roy Thomson Hall, June 25, 2014); Part II (Tokyo, Kioi Hall, May 9, 2014); Part III (Paris, Salle Pleyei, July 4, 2014); Part IV (Rome, Auditorium Parco della Musica, July 11, 2014); Part V (Tokyo, Kioi Hall, May 9, 2014); Part VI (Tokyo, Orchard Hall, May 6, 2014); Part VII (Rome, Auditorium Parco della Musica, July 11, 2014); Part VIII (Rome, Auditorium Parco della Musica, July 11, 2014); Part IX (Tokyo, Orchard Hall, April 30, 2014).

Personnel: Keith Jarrett: piano.

Record Label: ECM Records

Mathias Eick: Midwest (2015)

Mathias Eick: Midwest
The northern tier of mid-western America had been a strong draw for Norwegians from the late 1800s into the twentieth-century. Trumpeter and composer, Mathias Eick, in making his own recent journey from Norway to the heartland, discovered a cultural heritage and a familiarity that moved him to set the experience to music. Like Norsemen since the time of Leif Ericson, the impressions of the land and the people provided the catalyst for a unique and holistic representation of this environment through art. The young but prolific Eick renders a lushly satisfying pastoral narrative on Midwest.

The excellent pianist Jon Balke, best known as leader of the Magnetic North Orchestra, is much the common denominator among the players here, having worked with percussionist Helge Norbakken and with Eick on his ECM leader debut The Door (2008). Violinist Gjermund Larsen was the first collaborator recruited by Eick based on Larsen's complimentary roots in Norwegian folk music. Larsen's portfolio of jazz, classical and regional folk is filled with stunning performances and inventive compositions and Eick's choice is a critical component in establishing the ethnic feel of Midwest. Bassist Mats Eilertsen has worked with the Tord Gustavsen Quartet while the leader himself has made significant contributions to the works of guitarist Jacob Young, pianist/harpist Iro Haarla, and drummer Manu Katche.

Eick's compositions are ancestral, personal, and deeply felt at that level. He has convincingly channeled the challenges and triumphs of his country's immigrants to America, without sentimentality yet with considerable empathy. The title track paints a picture of the rolling landscape by way of Balke's impressionistic playing with Larsen's folkloric interpretations putting a human face on the settlers themselves. The beautiful and melancholy "Hem" suggests a solidary search for roots in a new land as does "March" but here with an element of celebration at reaching the destination. Likewise, celebratory "Dakota" and "Fargo"—with a reference to the Coen Brothers film—are further tributes to the endurance of the northern plains settlers. They paint both the harshness and unwavering determination of the quest in a beautiful and compelling melodies.

Eick and Balke are the primary soloists on Midwest but the more subtle contributions of Norbakken, Larsen and Eilertsen are critical to the texture and traditional presence of the music; the players are empathetic yet distinguished in their contributions. Eick favors minimalist constructs and otherworldly atmospherics, qualities that are well suited in imagining the theme and mood he has intended for Midwest, a warm album as natural and comforting as going home.

Track Listing: Midwest; Hem; March; At Sea; Dakota; Lost; Fargo; November.

Personnel: Mathias Eick: tromba; Gjermund Larsen: violino; Jon Balke: pianoforte; Mats Eilertsen: contrabbasso; Helge Norbakken: percussioni.

Record Label: ECM Records

Gary Peacock Trio: Now This (2015)

Gary Peacock Trio: Now This
Some of bassist Gary Peacock's earliest musical associations speak to a career that has been nurtured by unusually well-rounded experiences. Subbing for Ron Carter in gigs with Miles Davis, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and pianist Paul Bley and a stay with saxophonist Albert Ayler provided Peacock with foundations that ran the gamut from main-stream balladry, to conceptually modern jazz to the most unrestricted free jazz. All of which led up to the three-decades long relationship with Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette for which he is best known and where his finely developed skills lend themselves to that highly innovative group.

With a very different trio, Now This is often darkly lyrical with a quiet dignity. Drummer Joey Baron—who often draws comparisons to Paul Motian—has never sounded more like the late drummer with a masterfully subtle touch. Pianist Marc Copland has worked with Peacock in various settings for three decades and is a master of harmonics. His work with guitarist John Abercrombie, saxophonist Greg Osby and bassist Drew Gress have earned high praise while Copland has remained puzzlingly under-recognized as one of the finest pianists and composers on the scene.

"Gaia" and "Shadows" the first to pieces on Now This are brooding and unhurried but are followed by "This" where a bit more dissonance is propelled by Baron's refined but forceful playing. Copland pushes that avant-garde essence as he guides the trio through "And Now," "Esprit de muse" and "Moor" the latter two being faster-paced and more complex numbers. Copland's fascinating composition, "Noh Blues," only hints at blues while providing a perfect backdrop for solos and interesting group interchanges. Throughout the pieces Peacock explores the full range of the bass pushing and pulling the music with him through unexpected turns.

There is not a wasted note to be found on Now This where the compositions—some re-worked, others, new—strongly suggest a portentous air. Peacock, Copland and Baron expertly develop the pieces in that light so that, despite the overriding thoughtfulness, it is never certain in which direction the journey is moving. Now This is an thought-provoking collection rendered by brilliant performers.

Track Listing: Gaia; Shadows; This; And Now; Esprit de muse; Moor; Noh Blues; Christa; ;Vignette; Gloria's Step; Requiem.

Personnel: Marc Copland: piano; Gary Peacock: double bass; Joey Baron: drums.

Record Label: ECM Records

Bruno Råberg Quartet with Phil Grenadier, Allan Chase and Austin McMahon: Hot Box (2015)

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Bruno RÃ¥berg Quartet with Phil Grenadier, Allan Chase and Austin McMahon: Hot Box
Bassist Bruno Råberg and trumpeter Phil Grenadier had previously offered a brilliant duo collection with the 2012 Plunge (Orbis Music) and here—under Råberg's leadership—expand to a quartet formation for the equally imaginative Hot Box. The collection features compositions both by the Swedish born Råberg and group improvised pieces. Unlike the Råberg/Grenadier duo outing, the leader's electronic sound design gives way to the more organic setting of the quartet on this collection.

Joining Råberg and Grenadier are saxophonist Allan Chase and drummer Austin McMahon. Chase has worked with drummer Rashied Ali and composers Gunther Schuller and John Zorn among others. McMahon has been regular member of Jerry Bergonzi's Quartet and has worked with saxophonists Joe Lovano and George Garzone as well as guitarist Ben Monder. Råberg has led a number of groups including his Lifelines Quartet that included saxophonist Chris Cheek. Grenadier has appeared more than fifty recordings including works by pianists Marc Copland and Kenny Barron and saxophonist Chris Potter.

The opening "Autumn Cycle" and "Early Walk" are fine blends of composition and improvisation. Råberg's deep, resonant bass and McMahon's refined touch, drive the latter piece through excellent exchanges between Grenadier and Chase. "Atmos" and the title track (with a suffix of '97°F') are experimental and avant-garde, respectively. "Lost in the Attic (Borta på Vinden)" alternates between dream-like and jagged passages, touches of swing, along with highly improvised individual performances. "Autumnal Ballad" features beautiful extended solos from Råberg, Chase and Grenadier while "Sirius B" features rich contribution from Chase on baritone sax. "Solace/Epilogue" closes out Hot Box with spare and but sumptuous performances from each member of the quartet.

The collaboration between Råberg, Grenadier, Chase and McMahon is one that warrants high acclaim for all. The repertoire is an eclectic blend of modern jazz and beyond; melodically original and creatively enterprising. The improvised pieces are free of the kind of confused fumbling around that can occur in these settings and the more structured pieces are superbly crafted and flexible enough to provide the players with freedom to stretch. Hot Box is well worth repeated listening.

Track Listing: Autumn Cycle; Hot Box (97°F); Early Walk; Atmos; Lost in the Attic(Borta på Vinden); Autumnal Ballad; Sirius B; Solace/Epilogue.

Personnel: Bruno Råberg: acoustic bass; Larry Grenadier: trumpet, flugelhorn; Allan Chase: soprano, alto & baritone saxophones; Austin McMahon.

Record Label: Orbis Music

Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra: Galactic Parables: Volume 1 (2015)

Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra: Galactic Parables: Volume 1
In the past twelve-month period, composer, electronic artist and cornet virtuoso Rob Mazurek has lead on a half-dozen or so different releases. For the most part, each has featured different line ups and formations from solo efforts to large ensembles and each has garnered enough superlatives to tax the thesaurus. And yet again, Mazurek has raised the bar with his most impressive, far reaching and unique collection with the astounding Galactic Parables: Volume 1. Backed by the revolving cohort that is the Exploding Star Orchestra, this commissioned suite expands on the concepts that Mazurek began shaping with Matter Anti-Matter: Sixty Three Moons of Jupiter (Rougeart, 2013)

Released on the heels of an adrenalin-packed 2015 US tour with his São Paulo Underground and Black Cube SP, Galactic Parables: Volume 1 documents live performances at Sardinia's Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival and a later performance at the Chicago Cultural Center, both from 2013. Inspired in part by the music and overarching themes of Sun Ra and linked to AACM history in Mazurek's hometown of Chicago, the artist has long painted on a broader canvas, geographically, energetically and spiritually. This double-disc collection (and three LPs in the vinyl version) continues Mazurek's exploration of dimensions and concepts that defy boundaries and definitions.

The two live performances presents unique variations of the same five compositions, with "Helmets in Our Poisonous Thoughts #16 / Awaken the World #41" performed as a medley on the Italian disc but broken out at the Chicago performance. Damon Locks provides the text and interpretation of allegories on the spirit world and slavery, bookending Mazurek's compositions and adding occasional excerpts of Sun Ra's own verbal expressions. The first disc opens with the twenty-plus minute "Free Agents of Sound" where Locks' recitation builds in intensity then gives way to Mazurek's elegiac cornet, opening the door to the larger group. Guitarist Jeff Parker and pianist Angelica Sanchez have stirring solo moments followed by a swirl of instruments and some forceful performances from drummer John Herndon and saxophonist Matthew Bauder.

Without pause, Locks' narrative moves onto "Make Way to the City / The Arc of Slavery #72 (Part 1)," his voice electronically manipulated and finally breaking up like an errant satellite transmission. Another very lyrical solo from Sanchez guides the piece as she transitions to something much more resembling a Cecil Taylor abstraction. Mazurek's cornet growls its introduction but his playing overall is some of his best; pure and piercing tones, with less electronic deployment than on some of his recent work. "The Arc of Slavery #72 (Part 2)" begins like an airborne waltz with a steadiness that underlies the building conflagration. After a particularly stirring reading, the larger ensemble swells to an emotional pitch on "Helmets in Our Poisonous Thoughts #16 / Awaken the World #41" followed by the exotic, electronic Nuevo-calypso of "Collections of Time" which closes the first disc with some beautiful and soulful cornet.

The second disc excludes São Paulo Underground keyboardist Guilherme Ganado and his trio mate percussionist Mauricio Takara as well as Chicago Underground drummer/percussionist Chad Taylor. In the Chicago set, flautist and long-time Mazurek collaborator Nicole Mitchell adds a distinct turn on these versions of the compositions. Along with Parker's sometimes lucid, sometimes thrashing guitar, the pieces take on a new dimension while retaining the difficult balance between avant-garde improvisations, rock oriented grooves, electronics, narration and poignant impressionistic scores.

Galactic Parables: Volume 1 surpasses anything Mazurek has done to date. Pulsing brushes with disarray, intense and stimulating improvisations and gorgeous melodies are combined, broken apart and—in the end—translated to beautifully extended movements. Mazurek and company play in the moment whether in unhurried, probing passages or in unstructured expeditions into alien territory. This is riveting and spontaneous art, restless, moving and rewarding beyond expectation. It offers abundant satisfaction to anyone disposed to accept it on its own standing.

Track Listing: Disc 1: Free Agents of Sound; Make Way to the City / The Arc of Slavery #72 (Part 1); The Arc of Slavery #72 (Part 2); Helmets in Our Poisonous Thoughts #16 / Awaken the World #41; Collections of Time. Disc 2: Free Agents of Sound; Collections of Time; Make Way to the City; The Arc of Slavery #72; Helmets of Our Poisonous Thoughts #16; Awaken the World #41.

Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet, electronics; Damon Locks: text, voice, electronics; Angelica Sanchez: piano; Jeff Parker: guitar; John Herndon: drums; Matthew Lux: electric bass; Matthew Bauder: tenor sax, clarinet; Chad Taylor: drums (Disc 1); Guilherme Ganado: keyboard, samplers, synth, voice (Disc 1); Mauricio Takara: cavaquinho, electronics, percussion (Disc 1); Nicole Mitchell -flutes, voice (Disc 2).
Record Label: Cuneiform Records

Yells at Eels: In Quiet Waters (2015)

Yells at Eels: In Quiet Waters
It would seem that trumpeter Dennis González could easily find a place among the better-known artists in jazz were it not for a deep commitment to making generally undefinable music and priorities that include putting his academic and literary responsibilities out front. From the time of his first release as a leader, Air Light (Sleep Sailor) (Daagnim, 1979), González began toying with unusual amalgams like free improvisation and quasi-big band augmented with global dynamics. Much of the way González communicates his vision on In Quiet Waters is through those same sensibilities, playing multiple instruments and channeling life and less earth-bound experiences as musical influences.

Throughout the 80s González recorded on the Silkheart label working with artists such as saxophonists John Purcell and Charles Brackeen, bassist Malachi Favors and later—on Konnex—with guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Following a stint at retirement from music, González began performing with his sons, bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan, in 1999 under the name "Yells at Eels." Each of their previous albums has featured the appearance of one or more guests including saxophonist Rodrigo Amado on The Great Bydgoszcz Concert (2009), drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo on Cape Of Storms (2010) and Alvin Fielder on Resurrection And Life (2011), all on Ayler Records. In Quiet Waters marks the first time the core trio has performed without additional support.

Within In Quiet Waters there is a great deal of diversity from the spare—at times minimalist—"Lorca" and "Upper Arm" while "In Quiet Waters the Devils Are Living" could be mistaken for Rob Mazurek's São Paulo Underground were it not for an extended bass solo from Aaron González. "Hymn for Julius Hemphill" is a highlight of the collection. Opening with a protracted explosion of percussive effects (of which this trio employs many) and giving way to the senior González on button accordion, the fourteen-plus minute piece features fine individual efforts from each member of the González trio. Aaron González shows a deft skillfulness reminiscent of Joey Baron with subtle but commanding drive and assurance. As Dennis returns to trumpet for a poignant solo, he is matched by Stefan's own individual contribution. The piece eventually veers off to a more abstract treatment, at times suggestive of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago; not surprising, as the AACM was an early influence on González.

Each member of the trio plays multiple instruments imparting the sound of a much larger group. Aaron and Stefan are documented proof that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this exceptionally talented family. Leading up to the release of In Quiet Waters, each member of the González trio had undergone a year filled with individual tumult around health and personal issues. It can be felt palpably in the tension and release of more animated pieces such as ""Document for Walt Dickerson" and in the cautious tone of "Perpetual Gallows for Consecutive Selves." But dispersed throughout, there is an often raucous feeling of celebration at holding those devils hiding in quiet waters at bay.

Track Listing: Lorca; In Quiet Waters the Devils Are Living; Hymn for Julius Hemphill; Muse; Restless Debauchery I; Upper Arm; Document for Walt Dickerson; Lower Arm; Perpetual Gallows for Consecutive Selves; Restless Debauchery II.

Personnel: Dennis González: cornet, C trumpet, button accordion, charango, gong, percussion, bells, voice; Aaron González: double bass, bass guitar, gong, bells, vocals; Stefan González: drums, marimba, vibraphone, udu, darabouka, cabasa, bells, vocals.
Record Label: Fortune Records

Max Johnson, Kirk Knuffke, Ziv Ravitz: Something Familiar (2015)

Max Johnson, Kirk Knuffke, Ziv Ravitz: Something Familiar
New York native Max Johnson does not appear to require sleep. The bassist/composer, whose career spans the wide terrain from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to Lollapalooza to Anthony Braxton consistently delivers fresh, adventurous, high-quality music against an ambitious output. With his now-regular working trio of Kirk Knuffke on cornet and drummer Ziv Ravitz, the group has released their best work to date on Something Familiar.

As Johnson's star rises, so too does Knuffke's whose been drawing high spots in national polls with a performance resume that boasts of trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist William Parker and pianist Uri Caine to name just a few. His solo career has been prolific as well, tackling more ambiguous works and the extension on themes from Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Ravitz—whose credits include two releases with the Lee Konitz Quartet—is frequently in demand on the New York scene and is currently working with bassist Chris Lightcap in saxophonist Christoph Irniger's Trio.

With two previous releases, Elevated Vegetation (FMR Records, 2012) and The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sounds-New Talent, 2014), the Johnson-Knuffke-Ravitz trio has refined the art of assimilating clean melodies and extended techniques. Something Familiar opens with "Cindoze," a plaintive cornet joined shortly by Johnson's spare plucking before Ravitz kicks the piece into higher gear. Johnson's bass is deep, woody and very musical. He often brings to mind a hybrid of Dave Holland and William Parker in his uncanny ability to focus on a simultaneous approach to a balance of free improvisation and melody.

More abstract is "Blips and Bloops" with Knuffke utilizing the full range of the cornet, almost making the instrument speak in tongues. Similarly, "Cold Blooded" and "Little Arnie" feature fine and intricate extended solos from Johnson while remaining fully rooted in the avant-garde. "Les Vague"—with its mournful brass opening complimented by Johnson's bowed bass—is a beautifully melodic oasis in the midst of all the free improvisation of Something Familiar. "Hammer Song," another nice combination of melody and free playing, has pleasantly layered overlapping segments that bleed into the title track, an upbeat and leisurely piece propelled by Ravitz. The closing number, "Wind Song" enters as the title would indicate, quietly building on Knuffke and Johnson's contemplative drifting across the soundscape and tom-toms gently providing distant thunder.

A skill in and of itself is Johnson's ability to play powerfully without over-dominating the music. He, Knuffke and Ravitz have developed a sure-footed synergy and an empathetic relationship while meeting a high level of individual improvisation. Johnson wears three hats—as he often does—as composer, player and engineer and it's worth noting as the pristine sound quality becomes a fourth player in this complex music. These individual artists are well along the path to establishing legacies and Something Familiar is a great place to catch them along the way.

Track Listing: Cindoze; Blips and Bloops; Cold Blooded; Little Arnie; Les Vague; Hammer Song; Something Familiar; Wind Song.

Personnel: Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Max Johnson: bass; Ziv Ravitz: drums.
Record Label: Fresh Sound Records

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Maciej Fortuna Acoustic Quartet: Jazz From Poland Vol. 1 (2015)

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Maciej Fortuna Acoustic Quartet: Jazz From Poland Vol. 1
Polish composer and trumpeter Maciej Fortuna—a law school graduate and a PhD of performing arts—distributes his time as a session musician, multiple group leader and lecturer at The Academy of Music in Poznan, Poland. Fortuna has been exploring the frontiers of jazz for some time with successful efforts in electronica, free improvisation, ethnic derivatives and acoustic jazz. The latter two elements come together in his personal tribute to three generations of Polish composers on Jazz From Poland Vol.1.

Joining Fortuna is pianist Krzysztof Dys who recorded the excellent duo outing Tropy with the trumpeter in 2014 (Fortuna Music). Dys is integral to these successful interpretations as his and Fortuna's improvisational skills add substantial color to the older, more sedate compositions. Filling out the quartet are bassist Jakub Mielcarek and Przemysław Jarosz on drums. Both are largely unknown outside Eastern Europe but are entirely up to the task of reading these regional favorites and adding their own creative impressions.

Three of the pieces on Jazz From Poland Vol.1 are from Zbigniew Seifert, Poland's leading jazz violinist prior to his untimely death at the age of thirty-two. Seifert was influenced by John Coltrane and performed with his country's most prominent trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. His compositions are an appropriate fit for Fortuna who is often and favorably compared to Stanko. Krzysztof Komeda, Poland's best known modern composer, is represented with two compositions. Latter day composers are represented in the works of Janusz Muniak (who played with both Komeda and Stanko) and saxophonist Maciej Sikała who has recorded and performed with trumpeters Lester Bowie and Kenny Wheeler.

Fueled by the long political suppression of jazz in Poland, the country's music inherently has a feeling of lyrical sadness. This is particularly true of Seifert's "Love in the Garden," "Taniec Garbusa" and "Man of the Light." Komeda's compositions, "Szara Kolęda" and "Two Man and a Wardrobe—Main Theme" have that composer's symptomatically dark, cinematic atmosphere. Fortuna and company stay mostly on point with these pieces but add new life with their controlled improvisations. The compositions of Muniak and Sikała are slightly more emboldened by the melancholy is never far below the surface.

Fortuna has noted that Polish jazz suffers from being branded a second-tier imitation of its American counterpart, even inside Poland. But Jazz From Poland Vol.1 should demonstrate some of the unique characteristics that have been implemented by the country's more prominent composers. If, in fact, a Vol. 2 is in the offing, it would be interesting to hear Fortuna take up the transition to the current crop of Polish composers that can now be heard in the country's burgeoning club scene and on its up-and-coming record labels.
Track Listing: Maciej Fortuna: trumpet, piano (3); Krzysztof Dys: piano, fender rhodes; Jakub Mielcarek: double bass; Przemysław Jarosz: drums.

Personnel: Love in the Garden; Szara Kolęda; Taniec Mikołaja; Dwaj ludzie z Szafą/Two Man and a Wardrobe – Main Theme; Taniec Garbusa; Nie bądź Na Mnie Zła; Man of the Light.
Record Label: Fortuna Music

Amir ElSaffar: Crisis (2015)

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Amir ElSaffar: Crisis
Chicago area native, Amir ElSaffar has been working inside and outside the typical context of jazz since his Two Rivers Ensemble debut, Two Rivers (PI Recordings, 2007). The trumpeter and composer (and master santour player) has built a unique musical architecture based his study of the microtonal techniques of his ancestral Iraqi maqam. While ElSaffar was not raised with a strong sense of father's native culture, his own interest led him to travel extensively in the Middle East. His recent travels coincided with elements of the Arab Spring movements and ElSaffar found himself particularly influenced by the events in Egypt—where he had lived for a year—and had experienced the cultural turmoil related to the Mubarak regime and its troubled aftermath.

Crisis, the third release from ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble, is decidedly more political in nature but treats the music with the same fervent enthusiasm as the group had applied to their more folkloric improvisational recordings. The more abstract elements that ElSaffar had employed on Two Rivers and Inana (PI Recordings, 2011) are circumvented as the emphasis here is on the dualism of purer jazz and authentic Arab styles of music. In this technique, ElSaffar creates a distinctive paradigm.

The intent of Crisis is not in any way veiled. Following the brief opening "Introduction—From the Ashes," the suite moves into the "The Great Dictator" with its fluid themes that speak to both repetitive oppression and rare glimmers of light and hope. ElSaffar's solo trumpet improvisation "Taqsim Saba" relies heavily on maqam and Hijaz (a region of Saudi Arabia) influences. The quiet beauty of the piece bleeds into Carlo Derosa's marching bass intro to "El-Sha'ab (The People)" where the mood becomes more confrontational. "Flyover Iraq" adds further layers of complexity combining Turkish melody and the flair of a Chicago horn section.

"Tipping Point" is a self-contained study in its own right. The thirteen-plus minute composition opens with DeRosa's cautious bass lines before launching into a narrative that answers to the earlier "The Great Dictator." ElSaffar describes the structure of the composition as ..."simultaneously pulling in multiple directions." There is an endemic sense of potential chaos even in moments of calm as they inevitably explode in remnants of previous pieces that go careering by like shrapnel. The album closes with the melancholy "Aneen (Weeping), Continued," referencing the latter half of the "Two Rivers Suite" from that 2007 recording, and finally "Love Poem" and ancient Sufi poem set to music.

What ElSaffar is doing on Crisis is unique in music. From a perspective of compositional technique, perhaps only multi-reedist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh with his In Convergence Liberation (PI Recordings, 2014) comes close and it's no coincidence that ElSaffar was an integral part of that project. But from a political and historical vantage point, the task of narrating complex global events through instrumental music is more than challenging. ElSaffar has not only commendably told this personal and globally important story but has produced a masterpiece of a recording in doing so. 
Track Listing: Crisis Suite: Introduction – From the Ashes; The Great Dictator; Taqsim Saba; El-Sha'ab (The People); Love Poem; Flyover Iraq; (7. Bass Solo) Tipping Point; Aneen (Weeping), Continued; Love Poem (Complete.)

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, vocal, santour; Ole Mathisen: tenor and soprano saxophone; Nasheet Waits: drums; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq; Zafer Tawil: oud, percussion.
Record Label: Pi Recordings

A Bu Trio: 88 Tones of Black and White (2015)

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A Bu Trio: 88 Tones of Black and White
China is rarely thought of as a geographic source of jazz from the perspective of westerners, partly due to a less than robust presence of the genre and partly because the country remains closed off in many respects. In the past ten years or so, only a handful of "jazz" recordings have come out of the more open environment of Hong Kong. That music would be more accurately classified as pop or "Cantopop" (Cantonese popular music) as Chinese music critics dubbed the sound. However, there have been breakout moments such as Wynton Marsalis playing the irregularly scheduled Beijing Jazz Festival amongst many more unfamiliar artists.

In 2012, the President of China's division of the electronics/media giant Sennheiser witnessed a young pianist playing a small festival in Bejiing. The then thirteen-year old A Bu—a prodigy who began playing at the age of four—was shortly hooked up with a Grammy winning producer and engineer. Having studied at China's Conservatory of Music since the age of nine, Bu was already fully formed as a pianist and with the professional support was able to cut a recording that earned him a sponsored exchange spot in New York studying with saxophonist Antonio Hart.
88 Tones of Black and White is the first major market release from Bu whose trio consists of drummer Shao Ha Ha and Ma Kai on bass. The trio works through several John Coltrane covers, a couple from pianists Michel Petrucciano, Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk and a number of other standards. Bu opens with Petrucianno's "Miles Davis Licks" and more than does it justice, building up to fast-paced romp but without Petrucianni's over-the-top swagger. The same can be said for the Bu's rendition of the French pianist's "September 2nd" in that Bu's restraint actually adds value to the composition. "Very Early" is a spot-on version of Evans' recording with Kai and Ha Ha expertly reproducing the Chuck Israels and Paul Motian parts.

Bu inserts a tasteful cross-genre interpretation of J.S. Bach's "Invention No. 15" before moving on to a animated reading of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." The Monk/Cootie Williams "Round Midnight" is creatively opened as a lullaby-turned slow ballad with hints of the blues. It's a uniquely masterful treatment of one of the most over-recorded compositions in music. Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" and "Impression" give Kai and Ha Ha space to show their own considerable skills even as Bu drives at breakneck speed.

There are trio and solo versions of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," both with masterful improvisations from Bu and demonstrating his ability to blend advanced methods and empathy for the original composition. Where he plays with speed—and he often does—it is not for the sake of pyrotechnics. These are exacting and tightly controlled improvisations of well-established and exceptional composed material. 88 Tones of Black and White is a two-disc set, the second disc being a DVD of live performances including a piano duet with Chick Corea.Bu's potential is almost off the charts and as a trio, he Kai and Ha Ha are already on a plane that many musicians never reach.
Track Listing: Disc 1 - Miles Davis Licks; Very Early Start; All the Things You Are; September 2nd; Bach no.15; A Night in Tunisia; Round Midnight; Moment's Notice; Giant Steps; Punto Cubano; Big Nick; Impression; Giant Steps (Solo). Disc 2 - (DVD) Round Midnight; Meet Mr. Chick Corea; A Night in Tunisia.

Personnel: A Bu: piano; Shao Ha Ha: drums; Ma Kai: bass.
Record Label: Sennheiser Media

Maria Schneider Orchestra: The Thompson Fields (2015)

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Maria Schneider Orchestra: The Thompson Fields
At the time Maria Schneider released Evanescence (Enja, 1994), big band jazz—especially in the US—was overly predictable and indecisively hanging on like ballroom music in a ghost town. Schneider, while embracing the best practices of earlier legendary big band leaders and her mentors, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, had added unconventional elements to her own compositions. With each release she has become more of an avant-garde impressionist capturing the beauty and sadness of a nomadic soul wandering through what was once home.

Along with a GRAMMY for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Schneider seems to have walked away from Winter Morning Walks (ArtistShare, 2013) carrying with her a deeper appreciation for classical music. In that regard The Thompson Fields has a broader scope and a more purely orchestral feel than Schneider's last MSO release, Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007). Where threads of melodies were often created and expertly knitted together on the previous release, The Thompson Fields centers more on longer, fluent refrains. Though the themes may be extended and unhurried they still communicate Schneider's narratives on ruminating conflict and wistfulness.

Clarinetist Scott Robinson
—augmented by Frank Kimbrough's piano—bring to life the opening "Walking by Flashlight." The latter stages of "The Monarch and the Milkweed" are gently held together by Lage Lund's guitar as he stands up to the more powerful horns of Marshall Gilkes and Greg Gisbert keeping the whole piece floating as so many of Schneider's compositions do. "Arbiters of Evolution" settles on flight, a favorite subject of Schneider's and opening solo space for Robinson (now on baritone sax) and the superb Donny McCaslin on tenor. The very personal title track carries Minnesota winds over the farm fields of Schneider's youth while three of the remaining four compositions are dedications. "Home," "A Potter's Song" and "Lembranca" are tributes to Newport Jazz Festival founder, George Wein, the late Laurie Frink of Schneider's orchestra and Brazilian musician Paulo Moura, respectively.

There are many fine solos throughout The Thompson Fields as one would expect. Saxophonists Rich Perry
and Steve Wilson deliver stand out performances as does accordionist Gary Versaceorgan, Hammond B3 on "A Potter's Song." This album—more than any of Schneider's work—generates especially lucid emotions and should appeal to listeners across a relatively broad audience even outside of the jazz world. We can only hope that the Maria Schneider Orchestra continues to be as productive and inventive as it has been for the past twenty years.
Track Listing: Walking By Flashlight; The Monarch And The Milkweed; Arbiters Of Evolution; The Thompson Fields; Home; Nimbus; A Potter's Song; Lembranca.

Personnel: Steve Wilson: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute; Dave Pietro: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute, bass flute, piccolo; Rich Perry: tenor saxophone; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet; Tony Kadleck: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Greg Gisbert: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Augie Haas: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Mike Rodriguez: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Keith O'Quinn,: trombone; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Marshall Gilkes: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone; Gary Versace: accordion; Lage Lund: guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Rogerio Boccato: percussion (8); Clarence Penn: drums; Jay Anderson: bass.
Record Label: ArtistShare

Satoko Fujii Tobira: Yamiyo Ni Karasu (2015)

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Satoko Fujii Tobira: Yamiyo Ni Karasu
If ever there were a restless musical spirit, it would be pianist, composer (and occasional accordionist) Satoko Fujii. The Japanese artist has issued more than sixty recordings in settings from solo to full orchestra and most everything in between. While she demonstrates virtuosic straight-ahead balladry on occasion, her preference has long leaned toward unorthodox improvisation. Fujii has recorded with Tin Hat's violinist Carla Kihlstedt, pianist Myra Melford and fronted a trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black. Much of her best work has been in collaboration with her equally inventive husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura.

Fujii's previous quartet ended its run with the excellent album Time Stands Still (Not Two Records, 2013) and the sudden death of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu. The pianist regrouped under the banner of the Satoko Fujii New Trio bringing in bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani and recorded the well-received Spring Storm (Libra, 2013). Retaining Nicholson and Itani, the group now expands to a quartet (Satoko Fujii Tobira) with the addition of Tamura and the release of Yamiyo Ni Karasu.

Whether Fujii and Tamura work together or apart, nothing is predictable about the direction they may choose. With their Gato Libre group, the focus is primarily on more lyrical aspects while other outings are distinctly free and unstructured. They excel at both forms and on Yamiyo Ni Karasu managing that compelling combination along with harder-to-define grey areas. A frequent presence on the New York scene, Nicholson has worked with the violinist Billy Bang, saxophonist Frank Lowe and bassist William Parker. Itani was part of an iconic Japanese new wave group, The Plastics.

"Hanabi" is an intriguing study in contrast with Fujii and Tamura building in opposite directions. The trumpet produces wafts of sound at the opening, later joined by Fujii providing sharp melodic contrast. As the two move in and out of focus, Fujii progressively adapts a percussive style similar to Cecil Taylor while Tamura travels through transitional phases of noise-to-melody. Nicholson provides understated segues and the piece is further disrupted by Itani's emphatic drumming. More discordant is "Run After A Shadow" where Nicholson leads in with the bowed bass, switching to pizzicato for a confrontational one-on-one with Fujii.

The tracks alternate between trio and quartet with Tamura being the rotational player. He returns on "Fuki" in an explosive way, with high-pitched bursts and Nicholson matching him on speed and dexterity. The polar opposite of "Fuki" is the subsequent "Wind Dance," opening with Fijii's elegiac piano. "Centrifugal Force" again reverts to an absence of melody before "Potential Energy" brings all the disparate pieces together in a harmonious, moderate tempo composition. The title track ends the collection, the English transplantation meaning "The Crow in the Dark Night." Conveying the appropriate imagery, it moves across a blank canvas accented with noise and melody.

Yamiyo Ni Karasu—like much of Fujii's work—is demanding. Accessibility and noise coexist and if it is disconcerting, it is also the paradigm that makes her music so unique. This album coincides with the release of Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin Ichigo Ichie and a different Fujii quartet—KAZE—titled Uminari, all on the Libra label. Each is different in indescribable ways as is Fujii herself.

Track Listing: Hanabi; Run After A Shadow; Fuki; Wind Dance; Centrifugal Force; Potential Energy; Yamiyo Ni Karasu.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Todd Nicholson: bass; Takashi Itani: drums.
Record Label: Libra Records

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin: Ichigo Ichie (2015)

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin: Ichigo Ichie
If there is any doubt that a Satoko Fujii orchestra is an ensemble of a different color, one simply needs to look at the bleeding-edge personnel that have played a part in her New York, Chicago and several Japan based versions. Now a Berlin variety of her troupe presents Ichigo Ichie, the pianist's first European player dominated big band. Like all of Fujii's compositional collections, she creates and arranges to the strengths of the assorted band members and the results here are as stellar and unusual as has long been indicated through the prolific body of her work.

On hand for Ichigo Ichie is the very talented multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann, here on tenor sax only. Ullman has recorded with some celebrated figures such as George Schuller, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Joe Fonda and drummers Barry Altschul and Gerald Cleaver. Matthias Schubert

—one of Germany's top saxophonists—is a match for Fujii's prolific output, with more than forty recordings. Rounding out the reeds is Poland's Paulina Owczarek, a baritone saxophonist. German trumpeters Richard Koch and Nikolaus Neuser join Fujii's husband—and nearly ubiquitous musical partner—Natsuki Tamura and accomplished trombonist Matthias Müller, to complete the brass section. Bassist Jan Roder was a pivotal player in Alexander von Schlippenbach's excellent abstraction of Thelonious Monk, Monk's Casino (Intakt, 2005). Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi is well known in his country's free improvisation movement and the dual drummers, Germany's Michael Griener and Peter Orins (a regular Fujii collaborator) complete the ensemble.

Four of the five tracks on Ichigo Ichie are sequential movements of the title and were originally composed for the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival; the title's English translation is "Once in a Lifetime." With the opening track "Ichigo Ichie 1" we immediately enter a realm beyond normal analysis. An extended drum solo-duo leads to what feels like a full orchestra closing crescendo only to be followed by near silence with only Roder's minimal bass. Tamura enters with his unorthodox puffing/breathing techniques, creating gusts of wind before settling on a fractured melody. The larger group returns in a kind of slurred accompaniment where the horns and drums dominate.

Throughout the remaining three parts of the suite, there are varying degrees of participation from the ensemble, often abruptly changing from loud and full orchestration to a pensive, lone solo as happens early on in "Ichigo Ichie 2" where Tamura again takes over, this time more melodically. This piece swings back and forth landing on a wild saxophone improvisation near its conclusion. Parts 3 & 4 are frequently abstract with near-mainstream flourishes that tend to emphasize just how far off the beaten path the countering ideas are. Fujii keeps her piano at a distance through most of the recording but takes some very percussive solo time on the closer "ABCD."

The pieces on Ichigo Ichie are successful—in large part—due to a clear presentation of Fujii's musical objectives, despite the often busy nature of the compositions. Each piece contains multiple evolutions, each transformative in unpredictable ways from powerful and sober to exhilarating and mischievous. She embraces simplicity in the same measure as the extremes of complexity and shape-shifts the orchestra to represent traditional functionality or smaller group effects. The music on Ichigo Ichie can be as abrasive as it can be melodic and it often summersaults through the tumult and silences at breakneck speed. Fujii is an enigma best appreciated with repeated listening and an open mind.

Track Listing: Ichigo Ichie 1; Ichigo Ichie 2; Ichigo Ichie 3; Ichigo Ichie 4; ABCD.

Personnel: Matthias Schubert: tenor saxophone; Gebhard Ullmann: tenor saxophone; Paulina Owczarek: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Richard Koch: trumpet; Nikolaus Neuser: trumpet; Matthias Müller: trombone; Kazuhisa Uchihashi: guitar; Satoko Fujii: piano; Jan Roder: bass; Michael Griener: drums; Peter Orins: drums.

Record Label: Libra Records

Indigo Kid II: Fist Full Of Notes (2015)

Indigo Kid II: Fist Full Of Notes
At the risk of implying that the very selective UK-based Babel Label has gone "mainstream," they have—of late—issued a number of releases that certainly have a broader appeal. A homage to Bill Evans Postcard to Bill Evans (2015) and vocalist Emilia Martensson's fine Ana (2014), now share a catalog with cutting edge artists like pianist Alexander Hawkins and groups like Woven Entity
. To be fair, Babel has long produced more genre-agnostic talent like vocalist Christine Tobin (the best known artist on the label) and guitarist/vocalist Billy Jenkins, so they have always been more eclectic than uniform. Fitting in to the former classification is guitarist Dan Messore, who leads Indigo Kid II with a second release Fist Full of Notes.

Messore, relatively unknown in the US jazz market, is a UK native who lived in Costa Rica for several years, absorbing the cultural influences and working them into his strong inherent inspirations. Not limited to jazz, he has incorporated folk and theatrical themes in his inventive compositions. Following up on the self-titled debut (Babel, 2012), Messore returns with bassist Tim Harries, formerly of Bill Bruford's Earthworks and Steeleye Span. The other returning player is the esteemed saxophonist/composer Iain Ballamy whose work with Thomas Stønen (Food), Earthworks, composer/pianist and horn player Django Bates, pianist Kenny Werner, Gil Evans and Carla Bley, make him the household name in Indigo Kid.

New additions to Indigo Kid II include UK saxophonist/composer Trish Clowes, a rising star in her own right, with three leader recordings and glowing reviews in the British press. On Fist Full of Notes she essentially takes over the reeds from Ballamy whose participation is limited to two of ten tracks. English drummer Martin France has been a pillar of rhythm on nearly one-hundred recordings and dates with Loose Tubes, Human Chain and Delightful Precipice, cross-genre icon Elvis Costello 
as well as orchestrated projects with The London Sinfonietta and BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

The compositions on Indigo Kid's debut album were spare in comparison to Fist Full of Notes where there is a pervasive sense of business. More texturing applies throughout, whether in the Celtic jazziness of the opener "Snow On The Presellis" or the eerily electronic "Mr. Randall." Clowes' melodic tenor, on the first piece, and France's Bill Bruford-like drumming on the latter are good examples of the broad scope of music on the disc. Ballamy makes the most of his involvement, especially on the darkly cinematic "The Healing Process." "Carpet Boys"—the only long piece at nine-plus minutes—and "From Here to Our Place" are the best places to appreciate Messore's guitar.

Messore is a broadly talented composer and his playing often conjures up Bill Frisell's work on Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000). Messore is capable of drenching a piece in atmosphere and while he is as gifted technically, he wisely avoids showpieces, opting for group dynamics. Fist Full of Notes at times feels like too many stylistic variations for one album, but all are very good individually as are the veteran and younger artists themselves.
Track Listing: Snow On The Presellis; Waiting For Paula; Carpet Boys; All Hands To Dance And Skylark; From Nowhere To Our Place; The Healing Process; Mr Randall; Quiet Waters; The Bay; Sketches In The Fabric.

Personnel: Dan Messore: guitar; Trish Clowes: tenor saxophone; Tim Harries: bass; Martin France: drums; Iain Ballamy: tenor saxophone (6, 10).
Record Label: Babel Label

Stefano Battaglia Trio: In The Morning (2015)

Stefano Battaglia Trio: In The Morning
Over the past five years Stefano Battaglia could have easily taken bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani into the ubiquitous realm of classically trained piano trios, where improvisation, chamber and dark lyricism meet but rarely ignite. But along with his classical training and an established ear for free jazz, hard bop and mainstream, Battaglia has grown and capitalized on those collective skills. The Milan, Italy native has increasingly chosen an open mind and ear, an affinity for spontaneity, and an approach that has been additive over the years. His original ECM trio of bassist Giovanni Maier and percussionist Michele Rabbia Raccolto (2005) explored similar territories ten years ago, but the synergy of styles has grown more fluid and natural over time.

With the same excellent trio that produced The River of Anyder and Songways (ECM, 2011 and 2012), the combo returns with an enormously successful outing on In The Morning. The overarching theme is remote; a consideration of the work of the late American composer Alec Wilder who composed for jazz flavored pop, opera, film and was recorded by notables from Frank Sinatra to saxophonist Dave Liebman and Keith Jarrett. Though celebrated within the music community, and sufficiently recorded through his own projects and covers, Wilder, known in his time to be a somewhat domineering and disagreeable character, was not overtly recognized by the public music market.

Record live in Torino, Italy in April 2014 In The Morning reflects the eccentric combination of styles in which Wilder composed. The long title track (almost twelve minutes) opens with the type of lyrical Bill Evans style that Battaglia has been understandably fond of over the years. Maiore interjects a brief solo, Dani washes over the cymbals and Battaglia then picking up a more abstract variation of the main theme that effectively incorporates Wilder's pop experimentalism. Followed by another extended composition—"River Run"—the trio goes further out in pushing rhythmic and energetic performance, adding more color and texture.

Compositions like "Moon and Sand" and "When I Am Dead My Dearest" are given more poignant treatments with Maiore's deep, resonating bass anchoring the pieces and Dani moving them along with a more musical than pulsating approach. The lengthiest piece on the album, "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree" begins as a minimalist exercise and takes its time building up to more grounded and harmonic textures. The closer, "Chick Lorimer" is the most abstract song in the collection though it re-grounds and goes out in an uplifting manner.

The members of this trio have a strong understanding of each other and a seemingly transcendent connection that allows them to stray individually without losing context. Battaglia's traditional roots, both classical and jazz, are shared with his experimental nature and the results are always refined. In The Morning is the best of his trio recordings and a real pleasure to listen to.

Track Listing: In The Morning; River Run; Moon And Sand; When I Am Dead My Dearest; The Lake Isle Of Innisfree; Where Do You Go?; Chick Lorimer.

Personnel: Stefano Battaglia: piano; Salvatore Maiore: bass; Roberto Dani: drums.
Record Label: ECM Records