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