Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Brass, Drums, Stories to Tell

photo by Austin Nelson
There are days when it's hard to believe that Dave Douglas has been recording since 1993 as it seems he's been around much longer (I mean that nicely).  As a composer, his music continues to mature and expand. As a bandleader, he continues to take chances and not settle into a routine for long stretches or time. As a soloist, he has a recognizable sound yet eschews cliches in favor of continually challenging himself.  Douglas is one of the more prolific recording artists (perhaps not in the same league as Anthony Braxton and pianist Satoko Fujii) with 47 CDs as leader or co-leader and as many if not more as a "sideman." His work with Myra Melford and John Zorn's Masada also stands out as highlights in his career.

His newest album, "Little Giant Still Life" (Greenleaf Music), is a collaboration with the brass quartet known as The Westerlies (trumpeters Riley Mulkerhar and Zubin Hensler plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch) plus drummer Anwar Marshall.  The music is inspired by painter Stuart Davis (1892-1964), whose work combined Cubism and Early American Modernism to help usher in the age of "pop art."  Take a look of one of his paintings (left) - "Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - 7th Avenue Style" -  and you might be able to see the influence of jazz music and improvisation on the artist.

The music Douglas composed for this sextet is, at times, as bright as the Davis's canvasses.  "Swing Landscape" evolves into a groove so serious, informed by the blues and funk, it's hard to sit still.  "Percolator" opens not with an imitation of a coffee pot at work but more like a "swing" take of a Steve Reich minimalist melody.  Marshall gooses the band forward, the stop-start rhythm supporting the melody and solos in such a playful manner.  The circular melody line that opens "Colonial Cubism" is played by the trumpets while the trombones create the bottom and the drums dances beneath. Don't bother thinking about the music and the paintings are related; listen instead to the smart interactions, the powerful solos, and fascinating melodies.

Do not overlook the fine ballads such as "Codetta" and "Worlds Beyond the Sky" as each song is a world unto itself. What one notices here (and, honestly, throughout the album) is how the listener cannot and should not try to put this music into categories.  Maybe it's me - we seem to be in a time where the most creative music defies easy categorization. One can imagine that these pieces could be translated to string quartet and trumpet or a trio of guitar, bass, and drums.  One of Dave Douglas's strong points is the malleability of his material and we are the beneficiaries of his hard work and inspiration.

If "Little Giant Still Life" inspired you to seek out the paintings of Stuart Davis or check out other recordings of The Westerlies or check out Anwar Marshall's work with Fresh Cut Orchestra or Kurt Rosenwinkel, then Dave Douglas has accomplished much with ensemble and recording.  The music should not be ignored either - the album is a treat from start to finish.

For more information, go to www.greenleafmusic.com.

Here is the title track:

Pianist and composer Jamie Reynolds has created a compelling new project.  Titled "Grey Mirror" (Fresh Sound New Talent), the Canadian native (now a resident of New York City) blends four pieces by his trio (bassist Orlando LeFleming and drummer Eric Doob), five with The Westerlies brass quartet, four with his Trio plus guitarist Matthew Stevens, and one beautiful piano solo, into a statement about creativity and how music can be seen and heard through various lenses.

The program is bookended by two versions of "The Earliest Ending", the first a short performance by the brass while the second features the trio plus guitar. The latter performance stretches out to 6:11.  It's quite a contrast with the final track having a series of dynamic climaxes and tempo changes, moving into a powerful "rock" beat that roars to a finish before the piano enters by myself to echo the opening melody.

Elsewhere, there are "mirror" versions of "Small Worlds", the first  with the leader on Wurlitzer piano while Stevens and the rhythm section ratchet up the energy.  This piece as well has more of a "prog rock" feel (listen to how LeFleming's electric bass plays the main melody and how Doob drives the track).  The "brass" version is slower, less insistent and more "prayer-like", yet with a darker edge.  Another "mirror" track pairs the Erik Satie-like piano solo "Lake Cycle" with the brass quartet - here the latter version is reminiscent of melodies created by Robin Holcomb.  Both performances are riveting, gentle, musical, and quietly filled with emotion.  Finally, there is the mysterious ballad "Church", the trio version with overdubbed Wurlitzer creating a percussion-like curtain for the solid melody while The Westerlies plays the melody fairly straight-forward over pulsating brass for 1:21.

There is so much variety here, from the high-powered "Sleep" (Stevens guitar loud yet shimmering) to the mysterious interactions on "Green-Wood" (rattling percussion, circular melodies played on the different keyboards) to the powerful stride of "Untitled Interlude" (a trio piece with no overdubs but endowed with a generosity of spirit.)

The concept of playing compositions by two different configurations is intriguing and Jamie Reynolds pulls it off with aplomb.  It does not hurt that there are pieces specifically for each of the ensembles (and the solo piece).  It would have nice to hear more of The Westerlies (they have the bulk of the shorter pieces) and just as nice to hear more trio interactions with Matthew Stevens but "Grey Mirror" is still a worthwhile experience, one that is fun to go back to again and again.

For more information, go to jamiereynoldspiano.com.

Most American listeners know bassist Lloyd Swanton (born 1960, Sydney, Australia) from his 30 years as a member of The Necks, a trio (piano, bass, and drums) that is known for its minimalist, long, compositions, often without improvisation. Their live gigs are always improvised. Swanton is also the founder bandleader of The Catholics, a septet that plays music from across the jazz spectrum with nods to music of the Caribbean and Africa (that group is in its 26th year of existence).  Swanton has played with many different leaders and groups from his native land but especially for his work with the late saxophonist Bernie McGann.

Knowing all that probably won't prepare you for his absorbing double CD "Ambon" (Bugle Records).  Named for an island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the place was the site for a bloody battle between the Japanese Army, Navy, and Air Force and a group of soldiers from Australia.  Outmatched from the beginning, the island (considered a strategic site in the Pacific theater) fell to the Japanese who used the bases to conduct raids on other combatants, even air raids on Australia.

One of the soldiers captured o the island was Lloyd Swanton's uncle Stuart Mill Swanton. His uncle spent most of his adult life before the joining the Australian Army working with the underprivileged people in the Melbourne area and playing violin. A year after he joined up, his battalion sailed to Ambon.  The older Swanton survived the ferocious battle and spent the rest of his life (3 and 1/2 years) as a prisoner of war (In an ironic twist, he died the day before the Japanese surrendered and his camp liberated - but few people survived).  Amazingly, Stuart Swanton kept a diary of his captivity and it is now part of the Australian War Memorial.

The album is a collection of tunes ranging from gospel tunes that Uncle Stuart composed in the 1930s to songs inspired by the diary to a field recording from Ambon over which a reed and brass quartet plays a hymn.  Swanton organized quite the ensemble, a 12-piece orchestra that includes Paul Cutlan (saxophones, clarinet, recorder), Sandy Evans (tenor and soprano saxophones), James Greening (trombone, cornet, baritone horn, tuba), Alex Silver (trombone), James Eccles (viola), Chuck Morgan (ukulele), Jon Pease (guitar), Michel Rose (pedal steel guitar), Fabian Hevia (cajon, percussion), Ron Reeves (kendang - Southeast Asian two-headed drum, percussion), and Hamish Stuart (drums, percussion) plus Jess Ciampa (glockenspiel on "The Ambon Waltz").

Sydney Morning Herald
There is nearly 109 minutes of music on the two CDs and extensive liner notes that tell the horrific story of life as a prisoner of war.  The captives were treated poorly but still found time to create art, build makeshift instruments, write songs and plays, and take care of each other even as they were starved to death or succumbed to disease.  Yet, the majority of the music is uplifting. On CD 1, the 14+ minute "Ambiont Jungle" blends the kendang drums with the ensemble and the sound of the viola (an instrument that belonged to Stuart Swanton) for a powerful representation of the setting in which the soldiers were dropped.  "Camp Concert I" is a 27 minute suite in three parts that uses the guitars, ukulele, and viola to great effect. Again, the music is quite melodic with no hints of the troubles as if the composer took pieces of the captives dreams, the most positive parts, to create the suite.  The last cut is "Hymn: Blessed Holy Spirit" that opens with excerpts from Uncle Stuart's diary; halfway through, the brass and reeds play the hymn.  The spoken text speaks to the daily horrors of being a prisoner and dealing with cruel captors.

CD 2 continues the powerful description of camp life but, this time, the instruments on "Camp Concert 2: Top Brass" include a tenor saxophone without a mouthpiece, the bell section of a trombone, a flute with a saxophone mouthpiece, a bass clarinet without a reed, and much more, all to symbolize the improvisation prisoners had to do everyday.  Other striking pieces include "Meat Case Bass" and "Big Noise From Hawthorn"; the former is a solo piece also symbolizing the make-shift life in the camp while the latter features the bassist and drummer playing the same instrument. "Work Song: The Long Carry" is a blues dedicated to the extremely hard work the prisoners did every day of the week. The piece includes powerful solos from trombonist Greening and guitarist Pease.  Now, one can feel the men are being systematically drained of their spirit and strength.  Stanton's final original piece, "The Ambon Waltz", celebrates liberation, the happiness of the soldiers who came to bring the freed prisoners back home, but also refers to those who survived and needed to be carried to the boats that brought back them to freedom.

There is great power in this story, one that may not resonate with my fellow Americans but anyone who had a parent, grandparent, relatives or friends who served in the Pacific know the horror stories of the prison camps (if you have read the story of Louis Zamperini related in the book and movie "Unbroken") knows these terrible experiences. In the hands and mind of Lloyd Swanton, "Ambon" is a story of hope, love, resistance, survival, and remembrance.  You need to hear this music, need to read the story of Stuart Mill Swanton, to remind you of the futility of war and the atrocious consequences.

To find out more and hear excerpts, go to www.rufusrecords.com.au/catalogue/BUG010.html or to www.buglerecords.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment