Monday, July 1, 2019

Time for Three Fours!

Nature Work is both the name of a quartet of talented (and busy) musicians and the title of that ensemble's debut album out now on Sunnyside Records.  The front line features the bass clarinet of Jason Stein and the alto saxophone of Greg Ward (currently the MVP of the music world having shown up on, at least, five albums released in the first half of 2019);  The stalwart rhythm section is composed of bassist Eric Revis (Branford Marsalis Quartet) and drummer Jim Black (Human Feel, AlasNoAxis, the Jim Black Trio, and former member of Tim Berne's Bloodcount).  The foursome, formed in 2017, creates a fascinating aural landscape on its nine-song program playing a repertoire of originals by Stein (four tracks) and Ward (five tracks).

This is modern music. Groups lacking a chordal instrument can get its influences from Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill. A group with two reeds can look at the work of Sonny Rollins.  Nature Work  certainly has those sounds in its hip pockets.  To these ears, each one of these musicians brings his individual strengths and, together, the players figured out its group sound.  Listen to Black and Revis push, prod, and power its way through Stein's "Hem The Jewels", the duos slippery rhythms supporting muscular solos from both Stein and Ward.  There is a funky feel to the saxophonist's "Opter Fopter", with the call-and-response conversation between the reeds swooping over Revis's powerful lines and Black's sledge-hammer drumming. That latter track pushed the limits of both my house and car speakers.

Yes, the music can be noisy but it's never off the rails.  The frenetic rush of the opening several minutes of Stein's "Porch Time" resolves into a rollicking up-tempo scramble held together by the reeds. If you've never heard Jason Stein play (he's recorded numerous labels including Delmark Records, Not Two Records, Leo Records, Northern Spy, and others), he has developed his own sound.  Ward's alto work can be sweet and sassy but he also displays power  and a vulnerability that makes his playing stand out.  The album has few soft spots but the saxophonist's "Cryptic Ripples" gives the quartet a rare opportunity to be introspective – the conversation between the reeds starts with both players in a melodic yet exploratory mood (Ward's high notes literally sing).  And, one should not be surprise when the band kicks the tempo into a much higher gear (one expects that from Black).

I hope Nature Work plays live in a venue near you, one with good sound.  In the meantime, its debut album stands out on the originality of the material and the excellent playing from every person in the quartet.  Find it, buy it, play it loud, and play it over and over.

For more information, go to

Here's the track that opens the album:

Here's a link to a live concert recorded in 2018 in Austria –

Photo: RI Sutherland-Cohen
The four gentlemen pictured on the left make up The OGJB Quartet.  Formed in 2015 by reed master Oliver Lake (alto & soprano saxophones, recitation), Graham Haynes (cornet, dousn'gouni), Joe Fonda (bass), and Barry Altschul (drums, percussion, mbira), the quartet contains two generations of master improvisers, instrumentalists who have the abilities to create music that goes in myriad directions, that blend ancient rhythms with modern sensibilities in styles that hearken back to the early days of the AACM and B.A.G. (Black Artists Groups), the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of Anthony Braxton's various groups, the World Saxophone Quartet, and so much more.

18 months after the group formed, they entered System Two Studios in Brooklyn, NY, to record their debut album.  "Bamako" (TUM Recordings) contains 10 tracks with compositions from each musician plus the two group improvisations that close the program. Altschul's "Be Out S'Cool" was first recorded by the composer on 1980's "Brahma" (Sackville Records) with trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias; he's featured on several other albums by groups he's led or co-led over the decades.  Why not?  It's so delightfully open-ended and allows all participants to have great fun.  Lake's "Is It Alright" was first performed and recorded as a duo with bassist William Parker – dedicated to the late trumpeter Roy Cambell, the piece is notable for the powerful drumming, playful bass work, and the interplay of alto sax and cornet.

Photo: RI Sutherland-Cohen
The album opens with Fonda's rousing and lengthy (nearly 15 minutes) "Listen to Dr. Cornel West".  The group takes its cues from the powerful bass work of the composer. I have known Joe F. for over 40 years and am amazed (and so pleased) how he's become such a great musician.  Haynes's solo lopes along over six minutes, covering a lot of musical territory, never rushing, riding the changes that the rhythm section negotiate beneath him.  The cornetist composed the title track – he plays the dousn'gouni while Altschul adds hand percussion and mbira. Lake recites an excerpt on his poem "Broken in Parts", the section dedicated to drummers from the Native American tradition.  Note Fonda's floating bowed bass work, the ethereal quality of the sound a perfect fit for this piece.

"Bamako" closes with the two group improvisations with "OGJB #2" programmed before "#1."  It's great fun to hear where the musicians lead each other, how they come together, pull apart, and move around each other without either the quartet or the listener getting lost.  That's the fun of this music. The sounds continually challenge the eager listener.  Masterful yet playful music from The OGJB Quartet.

For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

50 years ago, Anthony Braxton recorded and Delmark Records released "For Alto". a two-Lp set of pieces for alto saxophone created by the Chicago native. Since that landmark recording, he has released scores of albums with ensembles of all sizes, from duos to four symphony orchestras (all playing at once with the listener in the middle).  He's played standards, marching band music, created operas, worked with choirs, and much more.  His amazing output has many transcendent moments spread across five decades including numerous other solo albums.  Plus, he has influenced dozens of musicians/composers through his teachings and workshops.

This writer's favorite Anthony Braxton albums are his duos with musicians such as Max Roach, Mario Pavone, John Lindberg, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Abraham Adzenyah plus his quartet/quintet recording with musicians such as Kenny Wheeler, Ray Anderson, Marilyn Crispell, and Barry Altschul.  His new album on Firehouse 12 Records, "Quartet (New Haven) 2014", features a fascinating lineup – it's actually more of a surprising lineup in that besides Mr. Braxton (sopranino, soprano, alto, baritone, bass, and contrabass saxophones) and long-time associate and former student Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets, trumpbone), the ensemble is completed by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Saunier (Deerhof).  The album is comprised of four CDs, each one with an improvisation dedicated to a popular recording artist of the mid-to-late 1960s. That includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown, and Merle Haggard. Don't read that list and expect that this group is channeling, copying, or paying music by those people.  Remember, this is Anthony Braxton, he makes music like no one else (his "standards" albums often feature recognizable versions of the originals but his original music never has - and never will - sound like anyone but Mr. Braxton.

Photo: Eriq Robinson
Four tracks, nearly four hours of improvisations, and a fascinating journey all the way through.  Cline, who has done his share of experimentation over the decades, is right at home moving in and out of these various soundscapes. So is Saunier, whose main gig is propelling the experimental rock quartet Deerhof.  The drummer also leads or co-leads several other bands plus has worked with various artists including guitarist Marc Ribot, Sean Lennon, and harpist Joanna Newsom.  He and Cline often make a fine rhythm section plus the drummer has the power to drive the entire band.

Instead of writing about each track, listen to the track below (courtesy of Firehouse 12 Records) – it's nearly an hour long but, if you love "free" improvisations, you'll never get bored. A mix of quartet, trio, duo, and solo conversations, the quartet roars, purrs, screams, is contemplative, plays with great abandon, and, truly, sounds like they are having so much fun.  If you're an Anthony Braxton aficionado, you'll really enjoy these excursions. If you are curious because of the participation of Nels Cline and Greg Saunier, be prepared for the wild musical adventures.  Kudos to co-producers Taylor Ho Bynum and Nick Lloyd for making "Quartet (New Haven) 2014" a reality!

Give a listen:

Here's a link to Rolling Stone and Hank Shteamer's fine article about and interview with Mr. Braxton and this album:

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