Thursday, October 27, 2016

Music That Moves (Live) & On CD

NY Times
During a particularly tough emotional time last year, I did not spend much time listening to music (not a good thing for a reviewer.)  The album I did listen to a lot was "Vista Accumulations", pianist and composer Matt Mitchell's stunning double album for Pi Recordings.  Not because the music was soft and reflective (much of it is not) but because of the way the Quartet - Mitchell, Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Chris Tordini (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums) - moved through the pianist's compositions, how they interacted with each other, and how the music was built upon a framework of myriad influences yet sounded like itself (above all else).

This Friday (October 28), the Matt Mitchell Quartet will come to New Haven to perform in the Fall 2016 Concert Series at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street.  They will perform 2 sets - 8:30 and 10 p.m. - featuring the music from "Vista Accumulations." Another one of the reasons the album sounds so good is how alive the music sounds.  I imagine the Quartet sounds even better in person.

For ticket information, go to or call 203-785-0468.  To fond out more about this very busy musician - he is a member of Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Rudresh Mahanthappa's Bird Calls, the Dave Douglas Quintet, and works with artists such as , saxophonist Darius Jones, John Hollenbeck, and multi-reed artist Anna Webber (see below) - go to

Here's the Quartet in action:


As stated above, Mr. Mitchell works with Anna Webber, the saxophonist, flutist, and composer from British Columbia, Canada. Along with another one of the collaborators mentioned above, drummer and percussionist John Hollenbeck, they make up Anna Webber's Simple Trio, named for the ensemble's "SIMPLE" CD released by Skirl Records. Skirl has just released the Trio's second effort "Binary" and it's a powerful followup to the group's debut album.  The saxophone-piano-drums trio is an interesting blend not often heard bit it works wonderfully with these musicians. The 12 tracks, all composed by Ms. Webber, blend short and long pieces, most with a sense of urgency that pins the listener to the chair.  Half the tracks are short (none over 3:35 and four under 2 minutes) "Rectangles" which could be group improvisations. Several, including "Rectangles 3a" and "Rectangles 3c", are powerful statements, built upon the insistent rhythms the trio creates. Yet "Rectangles 1a" that closes the program is a very quiet but still jarring tenor sax-led ballad.

Peter Hum
The other six tracks include three over 9 minutes. "Impulse Purchase", the longest at 14:30, is a multi-sectioned piece that opens with solo tenor sax playing a breathy circular melody until Mitchell joins playing counterpoint and a shape begins to emerge.  Hollenbeck joins in and the piece begins to morph. It's great fun to follow the trio as the music shifts in intensity, the pianist's powerful chords creating a storm beneath the saxophone which, of course, does not last as the musicians seem to tug and fuss with the melodic and rhythmic center.  The high-energy "Underwhelmed" (ironic title) jumps right out of the gate to the strength of the drums and the pianist's two-handed attack (notice how Hollenbeck plays the melody at times and how Ms. Webber can create such percussive saxophone riffs). The tenor and piano play gleefully atop the energetic beat.  The fragmented nursery-rhyme feel at the onset of "Tug O' War" features a circular melody played by all three (Ms. Webber on flute). Inevitably, the music changes direction, becomes quiet, even introspective (great brush work in the background) until the pace changes and the trio reprise the opening but that settles down quickly. The title track opens as a ballad but the trio keeps pushing at each other until the music reaches a boiling point (powerful tenor sax work from the leader).
Listen - that's what you need to do - "Binary" is filled with music that has an urgency that gets under your skin. Anna Webber's music is anything but "Simple", especially in the hands, hearts and minds of John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell.  There are moments when the musical interactions remind this listener of Trio Air (Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Fred Hopkins) and one is tempted to write that this music is influenced by the AACM of the 1970s. Yet, one can hear 21st Century rhythms in the work of the drummer and, occasionally, a minimalist bent.  All that to say that this is one stunning recording. Play it loud, let the house shake and the music reverberate, let "Binary" push you away from complacency into action.

For more information, go to or

Here's the opening track (and the obligatory "kitten" video!):

Guitarist Michael Musillami and bassist Rich Syracuse are both veterans of the music, putting in decades of travel, recording, practice, and teaching. Yet, they did not begin playing together until 2015. The guitarist has spent the last 2 decades at the helm of Playscape Recordings, touring with his trio of Joe Fonda and George Schuller, augmenting them with guest soloists. The bassist is best known for his long associations with baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and pianist Lee Shaw.

Musillami and Syracuse just released their debut album, "Of The Night: the Music of Wayne Shorter" (Playscape) and it's quite a charmer. It's the second excellent recording of Mr. Shorter's music released in the last few months - Denny Zeitlin's "Early Wayne" being the other - and illustrates just how influential a composer the saxophonist is.  Miles Davis gets plenty of credit for the music he created in the 1950s and 60s (deservedly) but one feels that the compositions of Mr. Shorter will inspire musicians for generations to come.  Why?  Because of the open quality of the pieces.  Listen to 13 minute "Footprints" that opens the duo's album.  Notice how the guitar and bass converse, how they play with and support each other and also play counterpoint to each other.  The expansive melody line and the chordal blueprint opens up so many exploratory avenues for these musicians and they do waste any opportunities.

That's what happens throughout the recording. The duo explores these works from different angles, such as the Mediterranean-sounding ballad "Black Nile" (from 1964's "Night Dreamer" Lp), the fulsome bass chords allowing the guitarist to lift off from the melody. "Iris" (first recorded by the Davis Quintet on "E.S.P") is a lovely ballad, the dialogue including a handsome guitar solo over as slow, rolling. rhythm. Mr. Shorter composed "One By One" for the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers in the early 1960s - here, the powerful hard-bop piece gets a bluesy overhaul, the swinging "walking" bass lines pushing the guitarist  to let loose but he stays "cool" and under control.  "Virgo" (also from the "Night Dreamer" Lp) is a slow blues that closes "Of The Night."  The slow tempo allows both musicians to create melodic solos that tale their time to develop. Musillami makes the most of his time, creating an emotionally rich and impressionistic solo that stretches over four minutes. Syracuse's solo is 1/3rd the length, mostly in the upper register of the bass, yet does not feel tacked on or obligatory but more like an energetic response to the guitar solo.

"Of the Night" has the feel of a late-night session but one that the participants had been thinking about for a while.  Michael Musillami and Rich Syracuse are certainly veterans but they play with the joy and energy of musicians half their age. Doesn't hurt that their explorations take place in the world of Wayne Shorter, a composer and musician whose music has inspired players and listeners for over five decades, music that opens so wide it allows for many different interpretations.  This is a delightful album that will yield many hours of listening pleasure.

For more information, go to

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