Axe Men

Pablo Picasso; Guitar, 1912

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Sometime in the twentieth century, especially post Word War II, the guitar replaced and far surpassed the piano as the ubiquitous household instrument. While this has been a damaging thing for classical music, it’s probably been a beneficial thing in general. It’s nothing but good for people to get together and make music, and there’s nothing like a guitar in every garage to get the music going. The instrument does have two distinct advantages; in its electric form, it’s easy to get good and interesting sounds out of it even if you can’t play it all that well, and it’s also far easier to break away from the tunings of the tempered keyboard and explore different ideas of harmony.

The guitar, or banjo, was a part of jazz from the start, and there have been great guitarists in every generation, from Eddie Lang to Charlie Christian to Jim Hall to Grant Green to John McLaughlin. The piano was still the mainstay harmony instrument in jazz groups through those decades, however, and even the popularity and influence of McLaughlin and Hendrix didn’t change that much in the post-Fusion era. But something did move, eventually. I can’t break it down statistically, but over the last few years the number of new jazz releases with guitar in the band has been steadily outweighing those with piano. The six-string axe is now the harmony instrument of choice in contemporary jazz.

Pat Metheny is certainly behind this, though it’s not as if he engineered a conspiracy. His virtuosity, popular appeal, and shimmering, lovely chorused sound was a pervasive influence throughout the 1980s, but the current guitar sound has more to do with Bill Frisell and John Scofield – with a touch of Marc Ribot – who stand as the two poles of the styles I hear, Frisell’s impressionistic colors and Americana on one end, Scofield’s rock-ish blues and funk on the other. The ur-moment was probably the release of Marc Johnson’s first Bass Desires disc, the summer of 1986. Here was a jazz group in the form of a rock band – two electric guitars, bass and drums – playing a smart, hip, tough contemporary brand of the music that touched on everything from modes to country and slow, elegant swing. Frisell buzzed and slashed, Scofield finger-picked and got down, and now the landscape is populated with terrific guitarist, representing the music on five new CDs.

The first under review, As You Like, the debut recording from the group BANN, is firmly in the contemporary guitar jazz tradition. In sound and style, the disc sounds like a continuation of Scofield’s great 1990 Blue Note release, Time On My Hands . The new recording isn’t an imitation at all, it’s a veteran band – on tour since 2007 with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Jay Anderson playing bass, Oz Noy on guitar and Adam Nussbaum on drums – that has merely set out on the trail of the earlier CD and then surpassed it.

This is state-of-the-art contemporary small group jazz, a document of a group that simply plays flat-out beautifully. Jazz as practiced has a built-in structural problem, the seemingly unvarying way of playing a tune: head-solos-head. It gets monotonous and relies on the quality of inspiration, which can be inconsistent even with the best musicians. BANN makes a virtue of this cliché through the simple and effective means of altering the accompaniment behind the soloists. You can hear it on their cover of Monk’s “Played Twice;” after the tune is, um, played twice, Blake takes the first solo and the rhythm section immediately shifts into a reggae beat, followed by swing, then double-time swing. It’s not revolutionary, it’s just effective at keeping everything interesting and fresh by giving both soloist and listener a variety of musical ideas to work with. It’s also the kind of thing that the best working ensembles do.

As You Like is solid but unspectacular at first, opening with Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” then the Monk, then a lovely version of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere.” The ninth and last track is an awesome take on Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” and by then the group has really opened up on a series of original tunes that bring this CD to a whole other plane. The material is excellent, the kind of music that is so deeply embedded in the jazz tradition that it sounds like you’ve been hearing musicians play it for decades, even as you feel the freshness. It’s notable that the first of these tracks, “Will Call,” sounds like a bonus cut from Time On My Hands, yet not derivative at all. What’s happening is that, having decided to put together a group that plays a certain style of electric jazz, they just play it so damn well. Blake is one of the most fluid, coherent soloist around, digging into the harmonies and spinning out melodies with equal relish and accomplishment, every note and phrase making sense. Noy is very much in the Scofield mode, down to the crunchy, skronky sound, and adds an excellent ear for hip, funky colors, sharp rhythmic chops and brilliantly structured solos. Everything he does on the title track is an exceptional example of his skill and imagination. Anderson has the subtle drive of Dave Holland, and I love the way he hints at “Someone To Watch Over Me” in his solo that opens the exquisite ballad “Days of Old,” while Nussbaum is a superb ensemble drummer, swinging, musical, really bringing all the elements together. The band articulates different styles, including a touch of Western Swing on “At Sundown,” but this is not clever eclecticism. They have their sound, a balance of tough, fun and cool, and they can speak it identifiably in more than one palette. This is the best straight-ahead small group jazz CD I’ve heard since Henderson’s classic So Near, So Far , now almost twenty years old, and simply a great CD that you will listen to again and again. A best of the year pick.

Closer to the Frisell point on the axis, but again not in slavish imitation, is Chris Parrello. It’s not in the use of any electronic washes or his guitar sound in particular, which tends toward a more jagged side. Where I hear it is in the desire to express the dream state of the American imagination, the alchemy of Appalachia, Harlem, Death Valley, Detroit and Surf City U.S.A. that exists in no place except the vast expanse of our minds and hearts where we wish for things to be. It’s in the slow beat and lilting arpeggiation of “Anymore,” from his eponymous debut CD with his band Things I Wonder. This is a remarkable recording, and an exciting example of how fresh and fine the state of contemporary jazz is, how musicians are expanding this still young music into new territory while maintaining its core values.

It starts with the voluptuous pleasure of sound. Orchestration is usually a haphazard aspect of jazz, at best, but Parrello has clearly put together his ensemble of guitar, voice sax, bass and drums – and the additional colors of cello, trumpet and pedal steel guitar – with an ear towards the power and expressivity of timbre. The opening track “Choices” begins delicately and lyrically, with a rising harmonic rhythm, lightly propulsive cymbals, a pithy melody for soprano sax and Karlie Bruce’s evocative wordless vocals. It’s just gorgeous. Then the music darkens and toughens up considerably, developing a thrilling, insinuating, aggressive quality to frame the sax solo from Ian Young and Bruce’s affectingly hostile/erotic vocalizing. Parrello’s own thoughts on the music concern whether or not it’s jazz, but I think tracks like this, “Open Out” and “In Spite of You” are certainly jazz. They don’t swing per se, but the thing about swing is that it’s actual hey-dey not only came a generation after jazz was created but also didn’t last long. No one needs to swing to play jazz anymore, and they never did.

The band does play more than jazz on the disc, though. While other musicians have made covering Radiohead tunes a standard part of the contemporary repertoire, Things I Wonder is the first jazz group I’ve heard that actually makes their original music somewhat in the style of that band. Bruce is a big part of it, she emulates Thom Yorke a bit in timbre and her half-articulated phrasing, and Parrello is the other part in the way he adapts the rock group’s harmonic grandeur. There is material on the disc, especially the closing three song stretch of “Undone,” “My War” and “Welcome Home” that is firmly pop/rock in style, and is terrific, musically smart and played with bracing power. Parrello always sounds like his own man, incorporating his influences into an individual voice, keeping everything grounded in his expansively American sound. There are moments when he and the band fall back into stylistic and compositional mannerisms – “In Spite of You” leans heavily on “Anymore,” and Bruce threatens to drown the short “She Laughs” under a lugubrious delivery – but these are just as much quirks of an artist developing a powerful style. A beguiling, fascinating recording and a stunning debut.

You could describe the still relatively young guitarist Samo Salamon as a protégé of Scofield; he’s a long-time friend of the older musician and a former student. He favors a similar guitar sound, one that has a bite from blues and rock, but his voice as a musician is his own. He’s appeared on at least a dozen recordings as a sideman and a leader, in the company of Mark Helias, Gerald Cleaver, Mark Turner, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Sorey and others, and his new trio disc, Almost Almond , has him accompanied by a great rhythm section of Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.

Salamon strikes an excellent balance between the expected and the surprising. His compositions have structural and harmonic rhythm quirks that at first blush seem ill-conceived, but which after a few more bars, or at the end of the chorus, prove themselves to be his own personal and highly successful stamp on jazz logic. The disc opens with “Monkey Hands,” and almost immediately you’re wondering if those chords have any idea where they’re going, then you realize they brought you exactly where they should via a refreshingly indirect route. His original way of putting his music together makes Almost Almond more than just a standard blowing date. Gress and Rainey are involved partners, expressing the compositions, supporting the leader, working with each other and adding their own deeply musical expression.

The guitarist is the star, though, and he is a star. He is a tremendous player, articulating each note and line with clarity and force, no matter the velocity. He’s also an interesting player, able to say many things via many means, from Pat Martino like hard-bop phrases to rubato chords to abstract noise-making. I love his balance between structure and freedom, the sense that if he needs to go outside the guidelines of the tune to say what he has to say, then he will do so without hesitation and with complete artistic conviction. It’s not a common quality in jazz, where a lot of players go outside the changes for dramatic effect rather than having their musical idea forces them there, and it’s exciting and satisfying.

There are no real standout moments on Almost Almond, because the whole is so consistently fine. All the musicians are deeply involved in the music, the tunes themselves are interesting to hear for themselves, not just as vehicles for improvisation, and the improvising is top-notch. It’s a generous amount of music at over an hour, and the sense that the players are consistently exploring the music and making discoveries is so strong that the whole sounds like an integrated work. Compositionally, it’s not, but Salamon’s voice is so strong that he creates that impression. It’s an impressive and satisfying CD.

From a totally different aesthetic comes Skúli Sverrisson’s Sería II (an accompanying I is not yet available). Sverrisson has worked with a wide range of jazz and creative pop musicians, and may be most familiar as the guitarist in Jim Black’s fabulous instrumental rock band Alas No Axis. So the sound of Sería II will probably come as a deep surprise to many people.

This is a unique, lovely and alluring record, one that stands outside the regular streams of jazz, rock and pop music and belongs more immediately to cinema. It’s clearly inspired by the film music of Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota and has the soundtrack quality of painting a visual image. That image is abstract, though, there’s no particular narrative or scene related to the cuts, and I think that’s a strength. Ordinary film music makes sense and has power only in combination with the visual element, while excellent film music stands on its own, create a sensation that belongs to a film we need to create in our minds’ eye.

This is excellent film music, and it’s also something more. Technically, Sverrisson builds textures more than tunes, with the foreground melodies and background harmonies and rhythms compressed together into two dimensional space. That has something to do with the evocative quality of the music, it draws us into its world. It’s mood music, but rather than underlining what we’re supposed to be feeling about a scene, it offers a truly human juxtaposition of many moods, some steady, others mercurial, all eliding with one another. What seems simple, and perhaps even unambitious, turns out to be a very deep emotional expression. This disc is guaranteed to fill you with a mysterious longing, even heartache. It’s the soundtrack to “The Phantom Empire,” the imaginary universe in our heads made up of the fragments of the universal culture of cinema the modern world shares, the idea that in great part we have learned how to live, feel and relate to each other through the shared knowledge of Fred Astaire, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Godfather. ” The cinema is where our collective dreams are brought to life, and Sverrisson has made his aural version of that experience.

While Sería played on the stereo one recent afternoon, I looked out the window to see the vapor trail of a jet high in the blue sky. I couldn’t help it, the music made me think there was someone on that plane, heading home, leaving a loved one thousands of miles away, perhaps forever. It was a scene from a movie I had never seen and seen a thousand times, and the music was perfect for it. That’s the deep and mysterious power of this CD.

unofficial, but pretty nice

Back in the shared reality of life, Bill Frisell’s longtime bass player Kermit Driscoll, thirty years a sideman, has released his solo debut, Reveille . He leads a band with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, pianist Kris Davis and Frisell manning the axe. It sounds like a jolly reunion!

Driscoll was a vital part of Frisell’s early recordings, and his ringing note that ends the gorgeously wrenching “Alien Prints (For D. Sharpe)” on the guitarist’s 1987 masterpiece, Lookout For Hope , is one of my enduring musical memories. So close is the association that Reveille could easily be identified as a Frisell recording. He’s the lead voice, the main soloist, and the style of music, a jazzy, rocking, countrified sound, full of good humor, interplay and some real getting down, is familiar to any Frisell fan. That’s no criticism, just a reflection of what a great fit the bassist and guitarist are.

Not all the details of the disc are as fine a fit. Davis is a fine player, but both in the arrangements and in a lot of the soloing she doesn’t have the same amount and type of space as Frisell. Her solo turns are fine, but the guitar so dominates the sound and style that it’s tough for her to get in a constructive, idiomatic word. Driscoll’s straight-ahead tunes, like “Boomstatz” and “Chicken Reel,” are tasty, but other, more deliberately composed tracks don’t work as well, suffering from both a touch of compositional fussiness, like on “Thank You,” and what sounds like under-rehearsal, as on “Hekete.” Still, once the band gets down to just playing, soloing and working together, the music making is both excellent and a lot of fun. The mild flaws don’t detract substantially from the overall pleasure of the music, which is substantial.


  • I’ve just read your very thoughtful review of the new BANN CD. I have some review copies of Seamus Blake’s most recent CD, “Live at Smalls”. If you can give me a mailing address I’d be happy to send you a copy.

    Dan Blake

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