In honor of my new membership in the Jazz Journalists Association, it’s time to offer reviews of a bunch of new and recent releases, discs from some of the smaller labels that may otherwise be overlooked in the shadow of noticeable releases from big names like Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau (reviews to come of each of those), but are all high quality of examples of the breadth and depth of contemporary jazz.
Arbitrarily starting on the outside edge of jazz and working toward the center, first up is Initiate, the new release from The Nels Cline Singers. This is top level guitar band music along the lines of Wayne Krantz, in a stylish package, with a heavier emphasis on a blues and rock quality. It’s not even remarkable today that music like Cline is producing on this two CD set (one studio and one live disc) is labelled jazz, but it’s worth taking a moment to examine what is really going on, because that’s part of the strong quality of the recording.
The music is jazz in sensibility, not in technical style. There’s very little concession to the classic elements of jazz, especially swing and, for guitars, a certain sonic coolness, but you can hear it prominently on the live ‘Blues, Too,’ a musical homage to guitarist Jim Hall. The tune is completely contemporary, though, full of musical interaction and counterpoint in the head, and then full on exploratory improvisation after that. Take that approach, give it a strong, straight beat and supply generous helpings of crunch and feedback, and you have the sound of this band. This is music that deliberately gives fusion a good name, and doesn’t shun progressive rock. The opening track on the studio disc, ‘Into It,’ is a sonic amuse bouche that, with it’s guitar loops and chattering nature sounds, places Cline’s sensibility into a world that includes Yes’ classic Close To The Edge. The way Cline, Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola improvise and keep the material fresh and surprising is impossible without the history of jazz, and the way they sound is impossible without the legacy of contributions of musicians like John McLaughlin, a great and important guitarist who was spawned rock followers who don’t understand him musically, and musicians like Cline, who completely incorporate the fundamentals of blues and jazz and seek a cracking intensity, as on ‘Floored.’ The music also explores the legacy of Sonic Youth with equal vigor and success on ‘Red Line to Greenland’ and the live title, ‘Thurston County.’ And it’s both satisfying and musically important to hear the cover of Joe Zawinul’s ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’ at the close of the live disc. That tune marked the point where Weather Report found it’s future, and their importance has been an open secret ever since. The Singers begin their version with a spooky, note-for-note, gesture-for-gesture recreation of the original, before settling into the deep groove and developing their own ideas on the music as an improvising group. Initiate is a pleasure to listen to and to contemplate.
Outside the changes but inside the world of jazz is Cyrillic, from the sax and drums duo of Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly. This is a strong album of energetic, expressive, clearly organized improvisations. It’s ‘outside the changes’ in the classic sense, as there’s no harmony instrument, but the creative intelligence and sensibility of the musicians keeps the direction and purpose of the music clear. This is not existential angst, but a constantly developing and sympathetic dialogue between Rempis and Rosaly, and they have a lot of confident, interesting things to say.
The disc rips open on the first tune, ‘Antiphony,’ with the saxophonist tossing off fragments of seemingly familiar Bop licks under a rolling drum beat. They’re establishing their language, which takes seemingly mainstream gestures, removes them from their accustomed context and recombines them in new ways. The meat of the music is this heady displacement of musical history into muscular explorations of rhythmic grooves and phrasing. Rosaly lays down meaty, forceful pulses. The balance between what’s happening at the feet and how it anchors the widest explorations of the head is the kind of thing that William Parker and Hamid Drake do so well and is further proof that a groove is always in good hands with the avant-garde. There are wistful moments on ‘Thief of Sleep,’ juxtaposition of classic Be-Bop and free on the substantial ‘How to Cross When Bridges Are Out,’ haunting pensiveness on ‘Still Will’ and some sharp, swinging funk on ‘In Plain Sight.’ This CD is an impressive and satisfying listening experience for progressive ears.
Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers established him as a new, individual voice in jazz, and the new recording he appears on is a stunning progression. Radif Suite is a collaboration between ElSaffar and saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, in a quartet with Mark Dresser playing bass and Alex Cline on drums. This is a gorgeous, moving and important recording.
The CD has two primary qualities, one sonic and the other emotional. The configuration of the band, their sound and style of playing are consciously in the tradition of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet, as updated via Masada. ElSaffar and Modirzadeh are not aping that sound and style, though, they’re expanding the possibilities and actually getting closer to the roots than similar contemporary groups like Mostly Other People Do The Killing. The key is not to think of being modern, but to being old-fashioned, via the blues. If Coleman has always been fundamentally a blues musician, than ElSaffar and Modirzadeh are as well, their blues just have a different location in the geography of the mind, in a place where the West and East meet as wary antagonists and partners in possibility. The horns here play in a highly vocalized style, making use of the expressive opportunities of microtonal intonation, the result being more of a cry than a shout. The sound of the band playing is fascinating; dark, soft, a little sour, the pulse moving fluidly through different paces, at times frenetic and at others still.
The changing treads and the cries at the heart of the music are the vehicles for the emotional expression. In this the music is as simply and honestly made as any can be. This is profoundly sad music and profoundly powerful in the strength and clarity with which it expresses itself. ElSaffar and Modirzadeh seem to be confronting the world they see around them and codifying their reactions to it. There is no interpreting of reality, no offering of blandishments, no attempt to change that world. It’s honest reporting, bearing witness, an incredibly heartfelt and complex expression of things that can’t be put into words. It is moving to listen to, but not sad, as the music is darkly beautiful and the sensation of hearing artists who have so much to say and do so with such unflinching honesty is thrilling. In the great jazz tradition, there is a constant sense of understatement, the idea that what could be said with a scream is instead said with a whisper. And rather than a scream being all there is, the whisper hints at many more secrets inside, just underneath and surface. The ear avidly seeks these out and also gladly follows at the pace ElSaffar and Modirzadeh set, as the music is so worthy of trust and commitment. A clear contender for one of the best recordings of 2010.
There’s a similar sense at the heart of veteran pianist Steve Colson’s new CD, The Untarnished Dream. This is a fine, subtle, complex recording by a master musician and a dream band, made up of the rhythm section of Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums, with the leader’s wife Iqua Colson singing on several tracks. The music is fresh, offering both expected satisfactions and intriguing surprises, and that’s partly a result of the seamless, experienced musicianship and partly the particular, and wonderful style these players express.
Colson is a longtime member of the AACM, one of the few pianists in that organization, and he’s something of a bookend to Muhal Richard Abrams. Those two men both start with deep roots in jazz. Abrams has explored the limits of composition and free playing in the jazz idiom, while Colson has incorporated both those concepts into an unshakeable jazz context, with sophisticated ideas and the intriguing sensation that complete freedom is merely a small shift away focused through the lenses of stride piano and the legacy of Bud Powell. While Powell had a fiery, highly neurotic energy, Colson is more amiable, more interested in seducing than shattering, but he has the same charming quality of a kind of keyboard naivité; a carefree abandonment of the standard rules for piano playing when the expression calls for it. The result is a childlike sense of joyous abandon, as the fingers lope helter-skelter over each other.
The music swings at all tempos, the musicians support each other completely and sensitively, and contained within the standard structures and bar-lengths, the head-solos-head arrangements, is a tremendously relaxed sense of freedom. It’s the simultaneously tight and loose feel that is arguably the highest goal in jazz playing, the kind of sound that is so exciting in Ellington and Mingus and the Miles Davis Quintets but is so hard to achieve. The CD benefits from the group sounding like a working band, and they are playing pieces Colson has had in his repertoire for years, if not decades, which gives the music a complete lack of self-consciousness, a focus on playing rather than producing a record.
There is much warm, lovely music here, like ‘Iqua’s Waltz,’ with it’s perfect tempo and a structure that is both logical and surprising; the melody moves in unexpected directions and across surprising sets of intervals, the harmony keeps the tonic tucked away for a long time before returning to it without fuss, and the bridge into the solos hints at sonata-allegro form. The opening track, ‘Circumstantial,’ wraps a lot of interesting rhythmic sparring into an updated hard-bop package. Iqua’s vocals are as refreshing as the rest of the music, definitely part of tradition stretching back through Abbey Lincoln, but seeking to create the future, rather than recreate the past. She keeps a lovely balance between the beauty of her tone and clarity of articulation, conveying both meaning and pure musicality. The lyrics are smart, surprising yet totally comfortable inside the music. Songs like ‘Digression’ and ‘The Untarnished Dream’ express a sensibility that is both outside the mainstream but not eccentric in any way, just solidly creative, like the rest of this recording.
Greg Burk’s Many Worlds is more deliberately and ambitiously modern. The CD describes a larger scale concept and compositional form. The title comes from the ‘Many Worlds’ suite which takes up six of the eleven tracks, but the integrated feel of all the tracks and the specific musical style binds together all the entirety of the CD into a coherent artistic statement. Burk is explicit about the influence of Paul Bley on his work, especially Bley’s style of interactive, coherent group improvisation. Burk’s way of organizing his material is to work heavily with rubato, maintaing rhythm, harmony and improvisational interplay while anchoring all the musicians to a pulse that is stretched back and forth through time, giving the music the feel of a substantial weight, swaying forward and backwards as it itself is carried through time and space. This gives it considerable emotional power, a determined, searching quality. The musicians clearly have the freedom to play as their mutual interaction inspires them, but there is a tonal center of gravity on each track, something the notes, like the time feel, pull away from then back to.
There’s a natural heft to this use of pedal tones and rubato tempi, and even introductory pieces like ‘Sonny Time’ are involving. Along with Bley, I hear Monk as filtered through Anthony Braxton in the playful, be-boppish ‘BC,’ and more than a touch of Weather Report in the lyrical ‘Look to the Lion.’ That track most closely fits the standard idea of a tune, with it’s clear cut harmonic progressions, tune, beginning and end. It’s a welcome oasis among the rest of the music, as is the swing in ‘Waves/Scattering Mix’ and the blues color in the concluding ‘The Spirit Will Take You Out.’ The only fault on the recording is that the music is a bit too unrelentingly powerful, there is so much emphasis on resonant minor key statements that profundity becomes stentorian without some contrasting colors and moods; even A Love Supreme has it’s gentle stretches, and Paul Bley, along with being an astonishing improviser, is a fantastic bluesman and player of standards. But we all need emotional envelopment at times, and this CD fulfills that admirably, and is spectacularly well recorded.
Mike Reed’s new People, Places & Things dics, Stories and Negotiations, is completely undogmatic and totally fabulous. The first moments drift into focus on this live recording, seeming to hint at a subdued freeform exercise. That’s just a prelude to Reed’s hard-swinging drumming driving a fiercely hot band in an an incredibly tasty and satisfying set. This is a horn band, a mix of brass and reeds that includes greats like Julian Priester and Ira Sullivan, accompanied by bass and drums. The lack of a harmony instrument gives the charts a fascinating sound, almost a gossamer delicacy yet composed of some very tough playing from the musicians. Reed crafts very fine ensemble hits behind the tunes and the soloists, yet keeps them to a minimum, defining the harmonic structures but confining nothing. The ensemble sound is similar to that of Dave Holland’s recent groups, but duskier, more bluesy and very much committed to contemporary muscular hard-bop.
The tracks are a mix of originals and not quite standards. Not many bandleaders actually do Sun Ra tunes, but Reed not only arranges ‘El is a Sound of Joy’ but makes it sound like it’s being played by a classic Mingus ensemble, and it’s great in every way. It’s also a pleasure to hear the updated, cooking bop of Clifford Jordan’s ‘Lost and Found.’ Each note on the disc is a pleasure, and the sound of so the dialogue between so much jazz history and so many new ideas and comments is tremendously exciting and fulfilling. A great recording, and one that is sure to reveal increasing depths with each listen.
Full of history by design, last but certainly not least, is a document of and tribute to the New England Conservatory of Music. Artifacts, 40 Years of Jazz at NEC is a substantial collection of music made by musicians connected to that great institution as performers, teachers and alumni. The lineup of names hints at what must be a massive amount of wonderful material that could not be included; Jaki Byard, Joe Maneri, Steve Lacy, Bob Brookmeyer, George Garzone, Ran Blake, and of course various editions of the Conservatory Orchestras. The music tells several stories, one of which is a narrative of the past, another premonitions of the future. The opening and closing big band arrangements of ‘Cottontail’ and ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ bind the Conservatory’s music making to America, and history, then Maneri’s evocative, mysterious ‘Zeibekiko’ and a recreation of Jimmy Giuffre’s ‘The Train and the River’ add the true polyglot color of American culture to the story. The tracks all come from concert recordings in front of understandably appreciative audiences. There is an equally understandable and expected distinction between the student ensembles and the performances by the masters (teachers). The students are on the long, dedicated paths to their own mastery, and their renditions are bright, clear, lively — the big band is consistently swinging and powerful, just listen to the exciting ‘All About Rosie’ — and also a little genteel, respectful of their elders. By contrast, Byard and Blake play ‘Round Midnight’ with a combination of irreverence and poignance, and Lacy’s ‘Thelonious’ has the wit and tangential sensibility that made the soprano saxophonist such a rare musician. Garzone, John Lockwood and Bob Moses play Coltrane’s ‘India,’ and it is the sound of one master conversing with another. This CD is a worthy tribute to a great institution and the musicians who have made it what it is.