Monday, August 31, 2009

David Mott, Baritone Sax, Composer

I have returned after a brief holiday. There are many new and interesting releases to check out along with some worthy backlist. So we press on.

Today we set the clock back to 1990, and a CD called The Standard Line (Page Music), which features baritone saxman David Mott in a series of duets with pianist David Lopato. Other than "Body and Soul," the repertoire consists of Mott and Lopato originals that look backward while pointing forward.

David Mott got his degrees from Berklee and Yale, appeared on an album of post-Milesian electronic improv with his brother, the late Daniel Mott (who incidentally was a regular with the Baird Hersey Year of the Ear, an unjustly neglected, great band), and played with a bunch of important folks. He teaches at York University.

The Standard Line shows him to be a formidable baritonist, with great tone and agility, the ability to rear back and let it loose, and a very discerning compositional sense. His compatriot David Lopato shares with David a great feel for the tradition and its very modern transformation into the present.

This is out-and-in music, touching on the past and bringing it forward to the future. It sounds as fresh today as it no doubt did in 1990 when it was made. Get a copy now while you can.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No School Right Now

Right now I've been listening to one of the first Ayler Download-Only Series recordings (number 003): No School by the group called No School. It's three European cats, none of whom I have previously heard much about. (And of course, that only means that either 1.) I am hopelessly uninformed about the Eurojazz scene, or 2.) These are musicians that folks on this side of the pond are still learning about).

No School is alto and soprano player Jorgen Adolfsson, trombonist Andreas Hedwall and drummer Niklas Korssell. The set brings to mind one of my favorite improv recordings, The Forest and the Zoo (ESP) by Steve Lacy. What I mean to say is that the roles each player takes on and the structure of the music have resonances with that classic disk. Korssell has the kind of rough-and-ready energy and brusquely trashy approach that Louis Moholo had on the Lacy disk. And the sax-bone interactions bear some affinity with Enrico Rava and Lacy's trumpet-soprano explorations.

That's not to say that there's some kind of conscious imitation going on. Rather there is a genealogy of sound structures in which both ensembles participate. No School is somehow a descendant of The Forest and the Zoo. They both partake of some essence in common.

Even if you do not know that Lacy disk, though, you might well find this recording quite pleasurable, like I did. That is, if you appreciate the playful, puckish side of free improv. These are three musically compatible players out to make interesting group sounds, not so much to express strong emotions. They are like what a souffle is to a dish of pasta. After you listen there's plenty of room for something else, I would think. Though not extraordinarily heavy, their "course" should surely be memorable to you long after you have listened.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Steve Baczkowski, Baritone Firebrand

Steve Baczkowski first got my attention on the CD The Dim Bulb, which I reviewed for Cadence several years ago. It was (and is) a great free hoot-out, notable for the locking horns of Mr. Baczkowski and Paul Flaherty. Steve's baritone sax tears through the session and holds steady with outside music vet Flaherty.

The fact that Steve centers his activities around Buffalo, NY, may have something to do with why he isn't better known. But he certainly has a real presence in that town, from what I understand.

Anyway I found a later CD, Tongue Rust and Lead Moth (Ultech) a while ago and am belatedly giving it mention here. It is a series of duets Baczkowski made with drummer Ravi Padmanabha and it is quite a lively and exciting listen. Ravi plays a thrash-and-tumble set of traps with dexterity and flair. He is a very good match for Steve's baritone improvisations. And Baczkowski is in his element. He freewheels his way through the set, running the sound color changes on his instrument and showing the creative inventiveness that places him at the top of the heap of the out bari's.

He's a fellow that needs to be heard. That can happen if you get this CD.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Contemporary Big Band from the Aggregation

If you think big bands are moribund, calcified or otherwise somehow not especially relevant to the music scene in 2009, you may be right. But not always. In spite of the economics that would place many such affiliations in financial difficulties, there are some good bands out there right now, thriving musically despite the odds against them. And those bands generally continue to find life in, and fresh takes on the big band style.

An example is The Aggregation, headed by trumpeter Eddie Allen. Their new Groove's Mood CD (DBCD), due out this October, has plenty of verve, soul, and swinging energy. The program has a few jazz standards, like Hubbard's "Sky Dive," a rearrangement of "Wade in the Water," two Stevie Wonder classics, and a triad of nice compositions by leader Allen.

This is a tight, well rehearsed ensemble and the charts stand out as good examples of today's big band mainstream. Eddie Allen plays some nice horn too. The most ambitious number, Allen's "The Black Coming," holds the most interest for me. It is serious stuff and well played

My only quibble is the treatment of the Stevie Wonder songs. It may be that Mr. Wonder's original performances were so definitive that it is quite difficult to improve on them or find a fresh perspective. "My Cherie Amour" and "You are the Sunshine of My Life" are just classics. So why is it so hard to come up with arrangements that do something interesting? I have no answer. Thankfully this is a small part of the CD. The rest cooks, boils, and gives notice that Eddie Allen's The Aggregation is a big band to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Trespass Trio Combine Conscience with Creative Fire

The Trespass Trio. Three creative souls joined in the common endeavor of musical expression. It's Martin Kuchen on alto and baritone saxes, Per Zanussi on the acoustic bass, and Raymond Strid on percussion. They have a new CD, . . . was there to illuminate the night sky. . . (Clean Feed). It's a good one.

Judging from Mr. Kuchen's rather movingly poetic liner notes, this is a kind of meditation on the horrors of war and the violence in our world today. There are quiet moments. There are blazing improvisations. Everybody cooks freely. No note is superfluous.

It is yet another great example of Clean Feed's musical mission. They look for the best of the new improvisations and they generally find it. Certainly they do here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

James Finn, Tenor Man Who Deserves Recognition

In the world of the improvisational music sometimes known as jazz, time is an expanded thing. Music recorded in 2004 is not old; music recorded in 1938 is not necessarily old either. The greatest pop phenom from 2004, on the other hand, may no longer be a part of any scene today. That's the way it is.

So when I finally get around to listening to and reviewing James Finn's Faith in a Seed (CIMP) from 2004, it is with a sense that this music is still with us, that there has been no diminishing of whatever its value may be for us.

James Finn plays a tenor sax that has a virile, tensile strength. His vibrato can be almost as wide as Albert Ayler; his facility with runs that incorporate harmonics suggests Coltrane; but his attack and linear sense are all his own.

Faith in a Seed is a trio date with the flexible and eloquent Dominic Duval (of Trio X) on bass and the very musical drummer Warren Smith (vet of many projects) joining Finn in a set of originals. This is high caliber free music, with unrelenting saxophonic virtuosity. It is prime evidence that Finn is an important tenor stylist.

His web site states that Mr. Finn is currently unavailable for performances. This is a real pity and I sincerely hope that he is well, and that he re-emerges in clubs and concerts in all his distinctiveness. In the meantime listen to Faith in a Seed. I think you'll be pleased to hear James Finn's improvisational prowess in this full-strength recital. Spread the word.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Baertsch's Fifth Ritual Groove

There's at least one thing to be said about the music of Nik Baertsch. He works within his own idea of what a funky minimalism can be, and every release (the first six, anyway) sticks to the program. That is not to say that there is a kind of stasis to all of it. Subtle developments take place and there is a gradual refinement and evolution happening through time.

Listen to his Ritual Groove Music No. 5: REA (2004) (Ronin Rhythm) and you'll hear his Ronin quartet ensemble augmented by three horns. Poly- and cross-rhythms are ever more prominent, which adds depth to the trance repetitions. The ensemble generally locks into a cross-groove, each instrument with a set part and sometimes one instrument floating on top to provide melodic contrast.

The key, more and more, is the rhythmic interest the ensemble generates. I favor this one a bit more than volume four, and like volumes 1-3 the most. We haven't gotten to volume six yet, though. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Balladic Piano Artistry of Laurence Hobgood

As time passes, it's clear that there are a group of pianists active today that belong to a stylistic lineage that goes from Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock (in his acoustic mode) to later Keith Jarrett and on to newer players who add something of their own to the legacy. Laurence Hobgood is one such player and he shows himself to be a formidable practitioner in his own right, especially on his new CD When the Heart Dances (Naim Jazz).

Hobgood has been musical director and pianist for vocalist Kurt Elling for some 15 years. That collaboration has resulted in some superb music. It continues on the CD at hand, since Kurt adds his vocals to a number of songs on the disk. I can't say enough about Kurt. He is a true jazz vocalist and has a superior instrument. He's fabulous and his talents are in good evidence on the title song (written by Charie Haden) and the old warrior Stairway to the Stars.

Speaking of Charlie Haden, his bass blesses this session pretty much throughout. Particularly given the more or less balladic orientation of the set, he plays a crawlingly slow bass accompaniment on most of the selections. Haden has one of the most beautiful bass tones of any player I've ever heard, and as he slows it down, that beauty comes out ever more stunningly. That he is a master has been said many times. He has become ever more profoundly so.

The numbers here alternate between American Songbook standards, jazz standards and interesting originals. The mix works.

In the end, though, it is Laurence Hobgood's piano that makes or breaks this album. Makes is the word. He is consummate pianism personified. Technique is always harnessed to musical ends. His playing is just plain lovely on When the Heart Dances. An incredibly lovely tone. An incredibly lovely note choice.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Daniel Levin's Cello and the New Chamber Jazz

There seems to be a revived presence of chamber jazz coming forward today. The music captured on Daniel Levin's Live at Roulette (Clean Feed) is a good example. For the club performance digitally preserved on this release, Daniel Levin plays a technically impeccable and artistically imaginative cello. Then there's Nate Wooley with interesting exploratory trumpet improvisations, Matt Moran providing harmonic and melodically enriched vibes and Peter Bitenc holding up the bottom end with idiomatically focused acoustic bass contributions.

We've seen Levin on the Swell trio release spoken of a few days ago, and Nate was an integral member of Swell's Magical Listening Hour (Cadence Jazz), covered earlier in this blog. We have a loosely integrated set of musicians around New York making this music today. There are others too numerous to mention; they all have in common a free improvisational, more or less pulseless and drummerless small-group orientation. But aside from that what is most interesting is that they have forged a musical language that falls somewhere between avant concert music and "traditional" free improv.

Again, the Levin Quartet's recording exemplifies the approach and does it with interesting results. Four-way group creation is the main thrust. Their inventive prowess and sensitive musical personalities make the results significant and memorable.

I might say that it would even be better with Steve Swell's trombone added, but that wouldn't be quite fair. As it is it is music you should try to get your ears wrapped around. You will be rewarded in the process, I think.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Steve Swell's Mid-sized Ensemble Music, 2003

Mid-August is not typically a time where there are great numbers of new releases. People are vacationing, in whatever fashion they can afford right now, and generally aren't hunting down the latest music. I do have a couple of new CDs to cover in the next few days, but it is also a good time to highlight some older releases that may have been missed. So I do so today.

That's the idea with a look at Steve Swell's Suite for Players, Listeners and Other Dreamers (CIMP), a 2003 recording that should be heard by anyone interested in new thing jazz. It is in the form of an interconnected eight-part suite that abounds in interesting written lines both before, after, and in the middle of solo spots.

The group involved has the sound colors of a variety of instruments. Of course Mr. Swell's trombone, reeds by Will Connell, trumpet courtesy of Roy Campbell, Charles Burnham on violin, Francois Grillot on bass, and the drums of Kevin Norton.

Important contributions are made by all. Charles Burnham's violin is the biggest surprise to me. He can get a solo together that has idiomatic qualities to the style yet is informed by the violin's history and lineage. Then of course Mr. Swell's trombone is at the apex of what is being done today.

It is the arranging-compositional-free ensemble thrust that makes this CD a best-case example of how to work in a long form and maintain listener interest. There are full-flush ensemble tuttis and they contrast with interludes for a smaller segment of the group, in always-changing combinations. The written sections drive the solos and then the solos in turn drive the written sections. It pushes the listening time forward so that you become unaware of set length. In the CD era that is so important. I can't tell you how many CDs I've heard where I wish the 80 minute rule would not apply. Sometimes the old 35 minute LP was just about long enough. Suite for Players does not have that problem. Length gives this piece a chance to unfold properly, always interestingly.

In the end we have another joyous earful of Steve Swell the ever-evolving musical leader. If you aren't familiar with Steve's music, this is as good a place as any to start.

CIMP recordings are best obtained directly from the

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wake Oglaka, New American Musical Freedom

Wake Oglaka is the album title of a new Ayler Download recording. It features the chemically volatile combination of Mario Rechtern on reeds, Eric Zinman, piano, Jane Wang on bass and veteran new music drummer Laurence Cook. They proffer their own blend of old-school new thing music, free jazz if you insist on a label.

What distinguishes this from some of the many other releases out there of this sort is the specially sensitive drumming of Cook, a man who has spent years playing in and out of time, who is so familiar with his drum set up and the sounds he can coax out of it that he provides a reasoned virtuosity, a vertiable rainbow of sound colors. Pianist Zinman is appearing on recordings with increasing frequency. He is in the post-Cecil Taylor bag, loosely. He listens and he responds with chord clusters and lines that have nothing random about them; they show an expressive yet controlled musical consciousness. Mario Rechtern is a reedman with a human-volcano musicality. He is incandescent. Jane Wang plays a very appropriate bass complete with the rumblings and tumblings of early Gary Peacock and beyond, and the added bonus of some free vocalizations that fit the proceedings well.

It is the total group sound that predominates, however. If free blow-outs attract you, you'll find this one satisfies your need for exuberant chaos, but in ways that show the mastery of the artists and their own original take on the scene. And again, it's fabulous hearing Laurence Cook sounding so well. is where you'll find it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Anthony Braxton, Eight Compositions 2001

Somebody once wrote that "Richard Wagner's music is better than it sounds." Now I've forgotten exactly who said that, but with the humor there is a certain truth. Whatever Wagner's music is, and it is singular, it wasn't written for the direct pleasure of the listener. Sitting through one of his four-hour operas can have its excruciatingly painful aspects. In the end, though, if you are sympathetic to the music itself, you realize that you have been in the presence of greatness.

When it comes to some of the music of Anthony Braxton, I am tempted to think along similar lines. Take his Eight Compositions (Quintet) 2001 (CIMP). Braxton and Richard McGhee are on reeds and there are three percussionists. On first listen one realizes that there is a brilliant conceptualism at work, but that the result is somewhat tough going on the ears.

The group is pretty much split right down the middle. The reeds have lines and improvisations that have a pulse; the lines can be cycular and they can also be linear. The three percussionists also play to that pulse. What the latter do stylistically is a bit more along the lines of a traditional Afro-centered groove. It's as if there are two musics being played simultaneously. And the first listen is a little tough because the relationship between those contrasting performing sets is complex and basically non-intersecting.

What happens on repeated listening is that the two groups of sounds begin to coalesce in your listening mind. You begin to hear the connections and appreciate how they set up in this double-world of aural events. In the end, if you are patient, you hear it, you get it.

So ultimately Braxton's music on the CD is not better than it sounds. Rather it sounds as good as it is. And that's very good.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Steve Swell, an Important Trombonist and Leader with a New CD

Following his very interesting Magical Listening Hour (Cadence Jazz), trombonist, composer and bandleader Steve Swell returns to the fray with a trio (including Rob Brown on alto sax and Daniel Levin on cello) that continues in the chamber format. The CD, Planet Dream (Clean Feed), in a sense takes up where Listening Hour leaves off, with spontaneous three-way improvisations. The addition of Steve's lively compositional material and the denser, more contrapuntal texture gives the session a somewhat different sound, however.

Brown and Levin turn in good work and contrast nicely with Swell's burrish, airborne bone. Both compositionally and as one of the foremost new jazz trombonists active today, Steve Swell never gives anything but his best. If there were a clunker CD trade-in deal out there, I doubt if anything Steve has done would qualify.

Planet Dream manages to combine sensitive free interplay with the excitement and drive of historically more widely disseminated styles of jazz. It's one of the reasons we should look to Swell in the coming years as one of the handful of important musical leaders to emerge full-blown (no pun intended).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Baertsch's Ritual Groove Music No. 4

In our survey of Nik Baertsch's minimalist ensemble recordings released on Ronin Rhythm, we're now up to 2003, and his Ritual Groove Music No. 4--Live. Baertsch performs here with his paired down Ronin ensemble--Baertsch on keys plus bass, drums and percussion.

This one lays the groove on pretty heavily. And though, at least at first, it might be his most conventional set to date, there are polyrhythms and counter rhythms to appreciate, especially towards the latter part of the disk. Those who are attracted to Baertsch's music for its mesmerizing funk will like this one much. Those who also look for freshly interesting minimalist lines would do better with the first three.

It's quite nice, just not his best.

You can get the first seven Ronin releases as downloads now, as well as CDs, natch.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bennani's Tenor Sax and the Swallowed Note

When I first started taking a look at notated transcriptions of jazz solos, I observed that a certain note in a phrase might sometimes have parentheses placed around the ball of that note. I found out by reading the commentary and listening to the original solo against the transcription that these were parts of the phrase where the particular pitch was implied but the attack on the note utilized unconventional technique. The note was fingered and mouthed in such a way that either harmonic overtones or a kind of underblown sound was produced.

Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. . . they were masters of this sort of phrasing. It helped the phrases swing, gave the sound a forward momentum, made the directly articulated notes contrast with the swallowed sound and pulled the ear forward toward the end of the phrase.

Abdelhai Bennani, a relatively unknown (to me, anyway) tenor saxist who appears in a new trio recording with Benjamin Duboc on bass and Didier Lasserre on drums (Bennani/Duboc/Lasserre In Side, Ayler Download Series), swallows notes. In fact he swallows so many of his notes that one starts thinking of some musical pie eating contest. Though I say this in jest, my point is that he emphasizes the obliquely articulated musical phrase, in a musical and interesting way.

In other words, Bennani's playing is radical. His phrases consist almost wholly of those notes that Coleman Hawkins would play in passing. They are half-articulated, muttered, sounded with a blend of harmonics, in short, swallowed.

In Side gives you around 50 minutes of Bennani's playing, and it is a fascinating document. The trio itself is well-oiled. But it's Bennani's remarkable sound that stays in the mind.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Christian Lillinger, Eurojazz at its Finest

Lest anyone doubt that Europe has become a center for important Jazz, we have the example of drummer-composer Christian Lillinger and his first album Grund (Clean Feed). The group includes two bassists (Westergaard and Ladfermann), two reeds (Delius and Slavin), Lilinger's drums and several appearances by legendary pianist Joachim Kuhn.

This is the kind of music where the compositions and arrangements are at least equal to the solo time. Much good is made of the two-bass/drums rhythm section, which crackles, swings, tumbles and rumbles along as the ground (Grund) for what is built on top. The top consists of very interesting horn lines and some very solid solo work. It is free music but very much a disciplined approach to it. What is most impressive about the outing is the variety and sheer creativity of the pieces. There is an original voice at work and Mr. Lillinger has it.