Friday, January 29, 2016

Duo, Trio, & Quartet Telling Stories

Over the past several years, Wadada Leo Smith has released a slew of impressive albums including 4 on the Finnish TUM Records label. His 5th is out now, a duo recording with bassist and friend titled "Celestial Weather." Recorded 6 months before his 2014 "Great Lakes Suite" release, the CD pairs the trumpeter with his good friend and bassist in the Golden Quartet, John Lindberg.  The program includes 3 suites including Smith's "Malachi Favors Maghostut - A Monarch of Creative Music", the title track which is a 5-part improvisation, and Lindberg's "Feathers and Earth."  This is intimate music, a conversation between friends, and, as one expect from these musicians, challenging and original material.

photo by Radcliffe Roye
The best way to approach the music is with open ears.  The tribute to the late Favors (1927-2004, the long-time bassist in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and first bassist in Smith's Golden Quartet)  is a heartfelt elegy, the first part filled with long tones and bowed bass lines before the duo begins a complicated dance of longer bass runs amidst flurries of trumpet notes mixed with raspy whispers.  "Part II" opens with a splendid bass solo and a lovely trumpet melody; while the piece picks with intensity near the end, the music paints an unusual yet powerful portrait. "Feathers and Earth" is a tribute to both large birds (vultures, eagles and hawks) and the world that supports them.  Its first part is impressionistic, soaring lines that are often hushed as if the wind carried the sound away.  "Part II" is a forceful piece with a well-defined melody line and powerful solos.

The title suite, with subtitles that include "Cyclone", "Hurricane", "Icy Fog", "Typhoon" and "Tornado", is actually more fanciful than stormy most of the time.  In fact, "Typhoon" is more of a ballad than a fearsome weather event, with muted trumpet, numerous short stretches of silence. Only "Tornado" lives up to its name with the furious twisting bowed bass lines and snaky tendrils of melody from the trumpet - even on this track, there is a section where the 2 musician slow down as if to take shelter.

"Celestial Weather" is an often fascinating hour of sonic explorations from 2 musicians comfortable in their own skins and willing to take chances.  The excellent sound quality allows the listener to feel the force that is Wadada Leo Smith and the splendid work of John Lindberg. Dig in.

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Here's the duo in concert 4 months before the recording:

In 2015, trumpeter, flugelhornist, and composer, John Raymond  captured lots of ears with his splendid "Foreign Territory" recording, a session that included pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Joe Martin and the master drummer Billy Hart (and reviewed here). His new album is John Raymond & Real Feels (Shifting Paradigm Records) and features the leader exclusively on flugelhorn partnered with guitarist Gilad Hekselman (who played on Raymond's 2012 debut CD) and drummer Colin Stranahan.
The 10 tracks include several folk songs, Radiohead' leader Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace", Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee", Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" and Dave Holland's "Blues for C.M." The recording opens with the lone original work, Raymond's "Thaddeus" (possibly dedicated to another fine flugelhorn player, the late Thad Jones) - it's a snappy piece, showing off the collective strength of the trio. Shanahan swings mightily, Hekselman gets in a great groove and Raymond plays a strong melody and solo.

The album is infused with a healthy dose of Americana. The bouncy "I'll Fly Away" (a hymn from the pen of Albert Brumley) may remind some of the work of Bill Frisell and Ron Miles - this trio drives this piece straight to church and into a backyard barbecue. "Amazing Grace" (not American in origin but treated that way in the arrangement) opens with an unaccompanied flugelhorn solo (not the melody)before the drums and guitar enter to help Raymond play the original theme slowly and sweetly.  Later in the program, the traditional English ballad "Scarborough Fair" is gently but firmly presented with the undercurrent of Stranahan's floor-tom work and the interactions between Raymond and Hekselman.  The trio really swings the daylights out of "This Land is Your Land" with fine solos from flugelhorn and guitar while the drummer creates quite a storm beneath them.

photo by Andrea Carter
The band really digs into "Donna Lee", giving it just the right infusion of bebop while swinging madly. Holland's ode to bassist Charles Mingus is a true blues with the 3 musicians hitting it hard. Hekselman crushes his solo, spurred in by Stranahan's mighty drums.  Raymond displays plenty of swagger as he pushes his way through the clamor of his bandmates.

The program closes with a impressionist reading of McCartney's "Blackbird", eschewing the melody until late in the piece.  It's quite an effective way to end the album in reminding the listener that musicians have the freedom to take songs familiar to most people and have fun while respecting the intent of the composer. There's a feeling of joy throughout the recording, the joy that these musicians have working together and "playing music in the true sense of play.  John Raymond & Real Feels is the real deal - kudos all around.

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Here's Messrs Raymond, Hekselman and Stranahan with Yorke's "Atoms for Peace":

"A New Kind of Dance" (482 Music), the 6th recording from drummer Mike Reed's People Places & Things, was issued in late September of 2015 making a slew of year-end Top 10 lists and I slept on it.  My mistake - it's a brilliant set that reminds the listeners that much of the music created throughout the world had and still has a social function.  Music brings people together and they interact, either by dancing or singing or playing.  Joining the quartet - Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Tim Haldeman (tenor saxophone), and Jason Roebke (bass) - on 7 of the 10 tracks (but never together are Matthew Shipp (piano) and Marquis Hill (trumpet). If you are already a fan of PP&T, you know how powerful the group's sound can be.  Adding Shipp to tracks such as the title song and Reed's "Jackie's Tune" allows the band to stretch in different directions.  The pianist brings the drive of McCoy Tyner to "A New Kind of Dance" and gives "Reesie's Waltz" an impressionistic feel while still pushing the music forward.  He, Reed and Roebke set the pace on the funky, up-tempo, take of Mos Def's "Fear Not of Man"; the horns enter and the one starts reveling in the solid beats from Reed.

Trumpeter Hill adds a cantorial voice to "Markovsko Horo", a tune that shows its Bulgarian roots from the opening notes, in its Klezmer-like bounce, and the intertwined lines of saxophones and trumpet. When the beat picks up, the music becomes a whirling dervish of sounds. There's a South African bounce in reed player Michael Moore's "Kwela For Taylor" and Hill rides the beat, delivering a spirited solo with Ward and Haldeman spinning their lines around him. When the reeds and brass join on the theme, one feels that gospel-like glow  (that you often hear in the music of Abdullah Ibrahim). Reed sits out the sweet version of "Star Crossed Lovers" (from the Ellington & Strayhorn Shakespearean tribute "Such Sweet Thunder.") Bassist Roebke adds excellent counterpoint to the melodic variations of the saxophones and trumpet.

While the guests do add much to the stew, the basic quartet plays with its usual gusto and style.  "AKA Reib Leitsma", from the pen of the late South African ex-patriate Sean Bergin, closes the program with a strong beat, a reminder that this music, even as the soloists blow mightily, is aimed towards the feet and the heart.  Music serves myriad functions, communicating even without words the importance of working, celebrating, and respecting each other.  "A New Kind of Dance" will move you in many ways, all of them life-affirming.

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Give a listen to the title track:

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