Pi Cubed

The good people at Pi records sent me two new releases for this winter, Vision Towards Essence (PI23) from Muhal Richard Abrams and Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers (PI24), while I myself paid for the new recording from saxophonist Steve Lehman, On Meaning (PI25). I’ve been listening to them each over the past couple months, and have some thoughts on the music.

Abrams is a veteran band-leader and pianist, an important figure in the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective dedicated to pushing the creative envelope of contemporary jazz, and whose figurehead ensemble has long been The Art Ensemble of Chicago. This new disc is a piano recital, recorded live at the 1998 Guelph Jazz Festival, the performance broken down after the fact into three long, unnamed parts. Abrams is improvising from the very start, ruminating mainly on sonic possibilities; chords, textures, pedal tones. He’s trying things out, in search of material. The feel is quiet, relaxed, ruminative. A little more than eight minutes in, he finds his to way more energetic material, some cascading short runs punctuated by a hint of violence in the bass. This gives way to a general back and forth between contemplative, quasi-mysterious minor key explorations and more rhythmic material that gives hints of the stride piano tradition so important to jazz.

About seven minutes into “Part 2,” the pianist finds his way to a fairly consistent tempo and rhythm, and a sense of major tonality for the first time. There’s a very modern version of stride and blues happening here, the left hand jaunty, the right repeating short arpeggios, runs, tremolos. It’s not the blues, but there’s something of the blues there, and the refreshing sound of major seven and nine chords after a long stretch of minor tonality.

It’s not long, though, before Abrams returns to the device of cascading clusters in the right hand, up and down, and tight three or four finger arpeggios over a darker bass. He then surprise with a bit of a toccata of sharp bass notes and higher clusters, then a further taste of jazz, this time the walking bass supporting an idiomatic solo. Again, though, this feeling of energy and pulse doesn’t last, and the playing returns to less pressing concerns.

If I seem unenthusiastic about this recording, that is accurate. This seems, for the most part, a very internal exploration for Abrams; the entire performance gives off the sense that he’s practicing or satisfying his own needs in the studio, rather than presenting a concert. There’s a lot of wandering in to musical dead-ends, repetition of the same technical devices, material that either breaks off too soon or overstays its welcome. Free improvisation is fiendishly difficult and exhausting, and hardly any performers have lived who can pull it off consistently well each time they sit in front of an audience. Abrams does not have technique of a Cecil Taylor or a Keith Jarrett, and so cannot just thrill us with pianism while searching for interesting material. Unfortunately, he doesn’t find much on this record, but it could just have been a bad night.

ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American jazz musician, which already brings a lot of extra musical baggage to having a listen. This is just a musical experience, though, and one that means to blend material from Iraqi culture, musically and instrumentally, into American jazz. It’s clearly a personal statement and the product of immersing himself in the traditional musical culture of Iraq, a process which included learning to play the santoor (a hammered dulcimer) along with his main instrument, the trumpet. The result is very personal as well; the tracks take the form of a suite, and the tone is one of respect and inner exploration. The very opening phrases of the record, on “Menba’/Jourjina” are powerfully remeniscent of a similar ‘world music’-jazz ‘fusion’ artist, Trilok Gurtu, and his exceptional “Shobarock.” But this record and style is different, the music belongs to ElSaffar. Throughout, he presents music that is slightly understated, although clearly heavy with emotion.

Overall, this is a success and a welcome addition to a long line of jazz recordings that seek to blend music from other parts of the world with the jazz idiom (of course, jazz itself is a blend of music from different parts of the world, birthed into new life in America). It also makes an intriguing book-end to John Zorn‘s Masada projects, which make the same attempt from the opposite side of the semitic musical tradition. Two Rivers does not groove as much as Masada does, but it does maintain a supple mix of jazz rhythms and bass ostinati. ElSaffar’s own vocalizations, the off-centered turning of the santoor and Zaafer Tawil’s portamento-style violin playing add a microtonal, singing flavor to the project that Masada does not explore. The suite gradually picks up musical and emotional momentum, assisted in great part by de facto Pi house saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, one of the most intense players on today’s scene. The closing “The Blues in E Half-Flat” is a satisfying culmination. One quibble is that the suite takes a while to pick up steam, and the three tracks which cover the first 21 minutes of the recording are difficult to differentiate in quality. Still, this is a recording that has been rewarding my repeated listening, which is truly the best compliment. The excellent band includes Nasheet Waits on drums, Carlos DeRosa on bass and Tareq Abboushi on percussion.

Saving the best for last, we have the excellent On Meaning. Lehman’s previous Pi release was the intriguing Demian as Posthuman. That record was exploratory in the truest sense, a series of short, almost fragmented musical statements that seek to respond to the notion, what happens if I do this? It’s not the most successful musically, but taken on its own terms its terse, focussed nature is extraordinarily stimulating, especially as Lehman does not offer definitive answers. Instead, we get suggestions, material to be responded to in a dialogue with tradition and contemporary ways. The new record consolidates some of this exploration, especially in the manner in which the production of music via electronic effects can be translated in to material purely for playing.

The record features the alto saxophonist’s Quintet; Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. It’s a group that is reminiscent in sound and style of the Dave Holland Quintet and the musicians assembled for Jackie McLean‘s Destination Out. Lehman and his musicians are pioneering a truly new post-bop style that has a locus in New York City and, to a great extent, at Pi. He (and others like Vijay Iyer) are clearly influenced by popular music, especially hip-hop and its sub-genres, and the technology used to produce it. This comes through and the palette of rhythms head not only the drums but incorporated into the melody lines as well. There is intricate layering of syncopations between drum and bass, a quick, stuttering attack on the cymbals and side of the drums, and an equally syncopated and stuttering division in the melodies, which, as o the opening “Analog Moment,” make a great deal out of repeating single pitches. This is an acoustic adaptation of the type of cut-up, quickly paced start-stop beats that are the product of ubiquitous music production software like ProTools and Logic. In the Quintet, though, there’s never any actual drop of the beat, everything flows, everything is pushed just that little extra bit forward by the excellent Sorey, another favorite of the label.

Along with the ideas from contemporary pop music, Lehman explores territory laid out by Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, but he’s not as abstract – he has more of a “come along with me” musical personality. And he loves a good groove, like on the high point of the recording “Curse Fraction,” a tune with a weighty yet flowing beat and a simple melody that is both skittering and nicely sweet. The ensemble hits the right balance of tight and loose, and the open sound that the vibes provides is refreshing. Finlayson is a fine foil for Lehman, his trumpet punchy and rounded while the saxophone has that right-on-the-edge sound that McLean made work so well, and that Lehman learned from that master. There’s the pleasing nervous energy that is specifically associated with Be-Bop but is also a featured flavor of New York City jazz, and this is very much New York City music – there’s a lot going on, and it’s all moving ahead. Get on the ride, this guy has got something going on. I don’t think there’ll be many new jazz releases this year as satisfying as On Meaning.

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