Thursday, October 10, 2019

October, a Month of Delights & Challenges

Photo: Peter Gannushkin
If you've spent any time paying attention to creative music in the 21st Century, you know that there are a group of pianists who are always pushing the envelope.  Artists such as Jason Moran, Myra Melford (who started out in the last decade of the previous century and has never stopped exploring), Craig Taborn, Aruan Ortiz, John Escreet, and Kris Davis.  Ms. Davis seemed to spring out of nowhere with her 2003 debut on Fresh Sound New Talent and over the course of 13 albums as a leader or co-leader, she has continually expanded her musical palette.  In 2016, Ms. Davis inaugurated her own label Pyroclastic Records with "Duopoly", a series of two duets each with eight artists.  "Octopus" followed in early 2018, also an album of duets only this time her dialogue was with fellow pianist Craig Taborn.  She also leads a trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts (dubbed January Painters), another trio (this one named Borderland Trio) with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, plus she has a duo with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock.  One would not go wrong calling Kris Davis a very busy musician.

Her latest recording, "Diatom Ribbons" (Pyroclastic), is a program of 10 compositions (eight by the pianist and one each by Michaël Attias and the late Julius Hemphill) played by various sized ensembles ranging from a duo to septet with several others in between.  The one constant partner throughout is drummer Terri Lyne Carrington appearing on every track with other participants including turntablist Val Jeanty (all but two tracks), acoustic snd electric bassist Trevor Dunn, vibraphonist Ches Smith, guitarist Nels Cline, saxophonists JD Allen (only on the first and last tracks) and Tony Malaby (on three tracks) plus two cuts with guitarist Marc Ribot.  Esperanza Spalding adds her voice to two tracks, Attias's "The Very Thing" and "Certain Cells".  Attias's song has a lilting melody that the drummer underpins with her expressive playing with Malaby's tenor pushing in the background and Jeanty's swooshes and splashes painting quite a backdrop. "...Cells" builds from Gwendolyn Brooks's powerful poem "To Prisoners" and is a tour-de-force for Ms. Carrington's robust drumming.

Photo: Peter Gannushkin
There are moments throughout the album that capture the mind. The voice of composer Olivier Messiaen moves and out of "Corn Crake" as Ms. Jeanty's electronics swirl beneath the rambling piano lines and the rock-steady drumming. Ribot's lines spew out with force on the rocking "Golgi Complex (The Sequel)" (dig how Ms. Carrington and bassist Dunn lock into the groove) then engages in a duel with Cline on the following track "Gogol Complex."  That track not only pits the guitarists against each other but pay attention to the power coming from the rhythm section and Ms. Davis's thunderous piano work.

Photo: Daniel Sheehan/Martin Sarrazac
The album closes with Hemphill's "Reflections" (first recorded in 1975 on his second album as a leader "Coon Bid'ness"), a multi-sectioned piece that opens in an introspective mode with the two saxophones playing in unison behind the dancing piano lines and the counterpoint of the drums.  Dunn's bowed acoustic bass moans quietly while also producing overtones as the saxophones begin to state the song's theme.  A bit past the halfway point, the drums and bass drop into a funky beat, the saxophonists repeat the melody, and a highly processed proper British voice talks about learning.  Both Allen and Malaby solo, dancing atop the beat and Ms. Davis's pounding piano chords, the voice jabbering in and out of the background.

One of the more delightful attractions of "Diatom Ribbons" is how Val Jeanty adds her distinctive turntable sounds to the mix.  How Kris Davis utilizes her talents makes the album all the more intriguing, an integral part of a program in which all parts are integral – there is no wasted space.  Ms. Davis first teamed up with Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding to play a series of concerts to honor the memory and work of Geri Allen. That connection pushed Ms. Davis to create this project, one that will greatly appeal to the curious mind. Dig in, pay close attention.

For more information, go to krisdavis.net.

Here's "The Very Thing":



Saxophonist Samuel Blais came to New York City in the early years of this decade to study with saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master David Liebman.  In 2012, Liebman helped the young man create a saxophone quartet in NYC that featured the two of them (on soprano and baritone saxophones) in a partnership with tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and alto saxophonist David Binney. They toured in Quebec that year playing compositions by all four members, the first time both Binney and McCaslin had written for this kind of ensemble. The ensemble got back together in May of 2015, entered Red Rock Studio in the Poconos Mountain in Pennsylvania and, over the course of two days, recorded the 10 tracks that make up "Four Visions" (Sunnyside Records)

Interestingly, the four musicians each only play one reed instrument throughout the program although all but Binney play different saxes.  That choice gives the music more of a classical feel.  The entire is composed of originals by the band members insulting three each by Blais and Binney plus two each by Liebman and McCaslin.  On initial listening, one hears the influence of the World Saxophone Quartet, especially the writing of Julius Hemphill.  Once you dig into each track, the composers individual voices come out.  Liebman's "A Moody Time" starts as a ballad with each voice stepping out of the ensemble for short, solo, lines.  Suddenly, the baritone sax falls into a groove and the soprano takes off. The tenor joins the bari while the soprano and alt take the melody and off the quartet goes.  Binney's "Dunes" opens with the fours saxes sounding like a church organ but soon the quartet is off on a sonic adventure filled with melodic excursions and lightning-fast tempo changes.  "Empty Sunbeams" hs a similar opening but falls into a groove, one tha bears the sound of WSQ.

YouTube
McCaslin contributes the handsome ballad "Buy a Mountain", a piece that hints at the blues, the phrases the members play when they step out echoing Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, and others along the jazz continuum.  "Et Voit Le Jour" (translated as "and see the day"), composed by Blais, has room for a handsome baritone solo but be sure to listen to what the other three play behind him.  The support for the tenor solo is the same – make sure to listen to how clearly the band articulates the supporting lines.

Julius Keilwerth Saxophones
Liebman's "Inside Bach's Studio" is the longest track (15:53), through-composed yet leaves room for each saxophone to step out for solos.  Those "spotlights" are truly solo (sans accompaniment) and rubato yet fit perfectly into the expansive fabric of the composition.  There are several moments where one believes the piece is ending only to hear the quartet move into a new written section.

"Four Visions" is the work of four fertile minds brought together by Samuel Blais and Dave Liebman.  It's such a treat to hear both Donny McCaslin and David Binney in this setting, creating music that challenges them as much as the listeners.  What a treat1

For more information, go to sunnysidezone.com/album/four-visions where you listen to the opening track.

Here's the Quartet in concert playing an expanded version of the piece:



Photo: Harvey Tillis
Bassist, composer, orchestrator, and arranger Matt Ulery has been a busy member of the Chicago music scene since arriving two decades.  He studied at both Roosevelt University and Depaul University and played professionally with the likes of Patricia Barber, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and trumpeter Marcus Hill.  he first recorded as a leader in 2007 and, since then, has worked with numerous different-sized ensembles, from trios to quintets to nonets to a brass band and a jazz orchestra.  His compositions have been performed by groups as diverse as Eighth Blackbird, Axiom Brass, and the New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago.  In 2016, Ulery inaugurated his own label, Woolgathering Records, with red;eases by his Loom/Large ensemble, pianist Rob Clearfield, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and saxophonist Tim Haldemann.

Woolgathering Records
His new album, "Delicate Charms", features long-time associates Zach Brock (violin), Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Quin Kirchner (drums), pianist Clearfield, and the leader on bass and all compositions.  Ulery worked on the pieces for this lineup over the course of several years and the quintet went to Portugal in late 2018 where they received an ecstatic reaction from the audiences.  Immediately on arrival back in Chicago, the group entered the studio.  As to be expected, the music is beyond category but one can not miss the composer's love for melody, harmony, and counterpoint.  The rhythm section is a major component in the music as well, not just with its use of polyrhythms but their own medic additions.  What immediately stands out is the blend of the violin and alto sax – when Brock and Ward play together, the sound is so full and it's hard to tell them apart unless one is under headphones. Listen to the opening moments of the first track "Coping";  with Ulery and Brock bowing while Ward is playing, they sound like a string trio.  Then, the violinist takes the melody and Ward plays the counter-melody.  And, then they switch throughout the reading of the theme and verses.

Photo: Harvey Tillis
There are numerous delights on this hour-plus program.  Ward, who is my choice for 2019 MVP (most valuable player) shines on "Taciturn" – his wide-ranging solo pushes Brock who follows with his own sparkling performance. Meanwhile, the rhythm section is rocking beneath them. Clearfield's piano solo at the onset of "Nerve" (the final track) has a classical feel with overtones of Appalachian folk music. The melody that follows carries on that sound with a melody that pulls at the emotions Pay attention to Kirchner's active drumming as well as to how he puts the rhythm on simmer underneath Ulery's excellent solo. Notice the soulful alto solo where the phrases take flight, reaching towards the skies.

Every track on "Delicate Charms" is worth exploring in depth.  Over his career, Matt Ulery has created music that expands inside one's ears and mind, making the listener return to discover all that's in the music. With this album and July's release of "Wonderment" (a trio date with Brock and drummer Jon Deitmeyer), Matt Ulery has produced two of the best recordings of 2019!

To find out more, go to www.mattulery.com.

Check out Woolgathering Records (and the new album in particular) at www.mattulery.com/product/delicate-charms/

Photo: Jean-Marc Lubrano
The older I get, the more comfort I derive out of music that sounds like the musicians are having a great time playing.  Not sure how I can tell other than there are occasions of one band member extorting on the others but one feels the comfort these musicians have taking chances, interacting with one another, and the "dancing" quality that inhabits the music.  Drummer Ali Jackson (Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), bassist Omer Avital (Third World Love), and pianist Aaron Goldberg (Joshua Redman Quartet) all are busy sidemen as well as leaders – they have known each other for over two decades and, early in the 2010s, decided to form a trio. They took the name Yes! Trio and released their debut album on Sunnyside Records in 2012.

Seven years later, Yes! returns with a new album on a new label (Jazz & People, based in France) but with a renewed spirit and a whole mess of joy.  "Groove du Jour" features 10 tracks with four composed by Avital, three by Jackson, one from Goldberg plus "Dr. Jackle" by Jackie McLean and the standard "I'll Be Seeing You."  That final track listed is an excellent a=example of the trio's delightful approach – after a quiet beginning, Jackson settles into a slow shuffle beat and the song is permeated by the blues. Listen to the delightful piano solo. The program ranges from the powerful "Escalier", a Jackson composition that opens with the power of a McCoy Tyner that settles into a swinging groove. Avital's "Muhammad's Market" hints at a Middle eastern groove while it rumble forward on the strength of the drums and bouncing bass lines.  Jackson's "Claqué" dances in on the funky drums, the high bass melody, and Goldberg's Thelonious Monk-like blues feel.

The album closes with Avital's "Bed-Stuy", yet another delightfully swinging song.  Each member the trio gets to "strut his stuff" yet no one steps on anyone's toes.  This music is so alive and lively you'll want to get into "Groove du Jour" many times.  This is soul-affirming music from Yes! Trio!

Here's the band playing the opening track live:

 

Just for fun, here's the second track on the CD:

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Sounds Familiar, Strange, Loud, & Quiet

Photo: NEA
I have known Taylor Ho Bynum since his student days at Wesleyan University. He earned both his BA (1998) and Master's Degree (2005) there, all the while playing with various members of the faculty including Bill Lowe and Anthony Braxton.  After graduation, he played with numerous musicians and group but especially with pianist-conceptualist Cecil Taylor, trumpeter-conceptualist Bill Dixon, and with numerous ensembles led by Professor Braxton.  In fact, Bynum was the Executive Director of Braxton's Tri-Centric Foundation from its founding in 2010 until 2018.  He currently is teaching at Dartmouth College and leading the jazz and creative music ensemble. Bynum is a founding partner of Firehouse 12 Records, one of several labels that issue his music.

His latest record, "The Ambiguity Manifesto", is his sixth for the label, each one featuring a different ensemble.  The new one features his 9-tette, composed of two brass, two reeds, two basses (one electric, the other acoustic), a cellist, drummer, and guitarist. All seven pieces are Bynum originals and, as usual, the music goes in many different directions, often in the same piece.  Those of you familiar with Bynum's recordings for Firehouse may be surprised by the James Brown-style drumming that opens the album – to these ears, it also sounds somewhat like Julius Hemphill's "Hard Blues."  The song, titled "neither when nor where" utilizes that funky beat to introduce the different instruments.  Tomeka Reid's cello lines shows the influence of Abdul Wadud and it's fun to hear Jim Hobbs' alto sax in counterpoint to  Ingrid Laubock's tenor sax.  In the bridge, Bill Lowe's trombone dances over the sympathetic reeds.  Tomas Fujiwara is rock steady behind the drum while the rest of the band frolic.

The material ranges from the free-wheeling "anter ally" to the circus-like noise of "enter (g)neither" which at 18+ minutes gives the different voices of the ensemble a chance to converse together. Mary Halvorson's guitar lines have quite a percussive feel and supported by Professor Lowe's tuba is quite playful. The section where the guitar interacts with Ken Filiano's acoustic bass and Stomu Takeishi's electric bass leads into a slow marching beat where the music feels like a slow merry-go-round – note the smooth sounds from the leader, a bluesy feel even.  A lot goes on and all of it is absorbing.

Photo: Peter Gannushkin
The last two tracks, "enter ally" and "unreal/real (for old music)", are "freer" in their structures yet there are still multiple conversations going on in each song.  The former gets a bit noisy in the middle especially when the effects-laden guitar rolls in with the droning tuba. Since the piece is continually evolving, one must listen several times to absorb the soundscapes created.  The final track opens with the leader's cornet sputtering and wheezing alongside the rippling soprano sax (Ms. Laubrock) with the bowed cello, chattering guitar , and thrumming acoustic bass leading in the trombone, drums and alto sax.  Listen closely for the clucking electric bass and alto sax and the tenor sax – in the wink of an eye, the music falls into a gentle martial beat while the other voices either create sonic effects or play melodies.  Hobbs alto sax leads the ensemble forward as Fujiwara creates a straight-forward rhythm.  Roll with it and you'll be surprised where the 9-tette takes you.

"The Ambiguity Manifesto" does not beat the listener over the head but does take one on quite a journey.  Taylor Ho Bynum seems to relish composing for a larger palette (his Firehouse 12 albums range from sextet to septet to octet to nonet to 15 members) – this album shows his continued growth as well as his need to be part of the band and not in front all the time.  There's no plans to tour the band as of its September 27th release date but the Sextet appears at Firehouse 12 on November 8, 2019.

For more information, go to taylorhobynum.com.

Here's the opening track:


Three of the four musicians pictured below – Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara, and Tomeka Reid – are on the album above plus are members of Ms. Reid's Quartet. They, along with bassist Jason Roebke, have just released a new album.

The Tomeka Reid Quartet recorded and released its eponymous debut album for Thirsty Ear in 2015.  Since then, Ms. Reid has relocated to Queens, New York, and has entrenched herself in the contemporary music scene. She plays with Anthony Braxton and Nicole Mitchell and was featured on the latest Art Ensemble of Chicago album. Ms. Reid also is part of Hear in Now, a string trio with violinist Mazz Swift and bassist Silvia Bolognesi not to forget her collaborations with Roscoe Mitchell.   Ms. Halvorson and Mr. Fujiwara works together in the trio Thumbscrew (with bassist Michael Formanek) as well as with Taylor Ho Bynum, Chris Speed, and Ben Goldberg.  Mr. Roebke is a fixture on the Chicago music scene – he studied with Roscoe Mitchell and plays in or leads numerous groups.

"Old New" (Cuneiform Records) is, if anything, even more exciting than the fascinating debut from four years ago.  What stands out (what doesn't?) is how many of these pieces – all composed by the leader – are so rhythmic.  The title track comes bursting out of the speakers with an urgency and pace sure to raise the temperature.  Reminiscent of of the opening track of saxophonist Julius Hemphill's 1977 Black Saint Lp "Raw Materials and Residuals" (with drummer Famadou Don Moye and cellist Abdul Wadud), Roebke and Fujiwara lock in and push the music forward.  Ms. Reid creates a powerful solo (with Ms. Halvorson adding playful counterpoint) and she wails away.  The melody line, which is repeated at the end of the piece, is a delightful blend of plucked notes and melodic, flowing, lines.

Photo: Jasmine Kwong
The energy continues to flow on the following track "Wabash Blues." Again it's Mr. Roebke's muscular bass and Mr. Fujiwara's powerful drumming that leads the way.  In fact, the drummer gets the spotlight right after Ms. Halvorson's solo, one that's filled with her trademark "bent notes" and rippling phrases.  "Niki's Bop" follows, ushered in by the dancing New Orleans-style drumming and contains a boppish melody line played unison by guitar and cello that will have bobbing your head.  They stretch the lines out for over a minute before Ms. Reid and Ms. Halvorson dance/solo together.  Dedicated to flutist Nicole Mitchell, the music make sone want to get up and dance.

Photo: Jasmine Kwong
The recording has so many moments that turn your head with their inventiveness and the Quartet's splendid interactions.  For instance, "Sadie" swings with glee with Ms. Reid playing pizzicato throughout – the "boppish" quality of the song brings to mind the groundbreaking cello work of Oscar Pettiford as well as the "baby bass" playing of Percy Heath and Ron Carter. Ms. Halvorson's raucous guitar playing gives the piece a more modern bent.  Listen to her "shred" on "Edelin", roaring above the solid rhythm section.  The cello solo has a power of its own, filling up the "bottom" of the sound with deep notes.

"Old New" closes with "RN",  a piece with a handsome melody yet there is a pleasing rhythm to push the music along.  Mr. Roebke actually solos before the band can introduce the melody;  before long, Ms. Reid's lovely flowing lines produce a magical solo as does Ms. Halvorson although she fills her solo with echoing phrases that feel like bubbles about to burst.  There's a "singing" quality to the track tha promises new directions for the future of the Tomeka Reid Quartet.  This program is a delight-filled group of performances that shine, swing, rock, sway, explode, and push their way into your ears and mind.  And, it's an excellent effort from start to finish – give a listen, give 10 listens!

For more information, go to www.tomekareid.net.

Here's the title track:



There is something about the music of Thelonious Monk that allows it to be very much his own yet totally open to interpretation by others.  Pianist Michael McNeill, who have been active inBuffalo, NY, but currently resides in Saluda, VA, is a member, composer, and arranger for several groups including the Buffalo Jazz Octet plus a trio with drummer Phil Haynes and bassist Ken Filiano. He's also a member of the cooperative trio with bassist Denny Ziemann and drummer John Bacon.  It is with that rhythm section that McNeill has recorded "Refractions" (Jazz Dimensions Records), a seven-song program comprised of Monk tunes, all of which are pretty well-known.

The trio approaches the music from numerous directions. Whereas the album opener, "Ugly Beauty", has an abstract impressionistic, rubato, opening, "Hackensack" swings delightfully from the opening note.  Once the former piece "opens up" into its rhythm, the music remains exploratory but retains the handsome melody, especially thanks to the fine piano solo.  The latter is the longest piece on the disc, replete with delightful interactions between the piano and drums plus a long, wonderfully melodic, solo from the bassist.  The trio takes "Light Blue" as a ballad with rich solos from McNeill and Ziemann – "Reflections" is taken even slower with the bass and piano caressing the melody, both musicians basing their solos off the opening verse.  "Let's Cool One" has that "sit back and relax" groove. McNeill creates a delightful, two-handed, solo filled with spirit while Bacon's spotlight is playfully minimalistic.

The last two tracks start with a solo piano reading of "Monk's Mood."  McNeill gives the handsome melody a Gershwin-like spin, accentuating the harmonic possibilities and leaving just the right amount of breathing room to let the notes ring n the listener's ears. After a short melodic bass intro, "Straight No Chaser" jumps into an energetic rhythm and swings forward on the power of the piano solo and Bacon's propulsive drums.  Pay attention to Ziemann's solo latter in the piece: he's plays both melodically and rhythmically, managing to steer clear of clichés throughout (plus his dialogues with Bacon really kicks nicely.

Though Thelonious Monk has gone nearly four decades (and had retired from playing 11 years before his passing), his music continues to reverberate loudly through contemporary music.  On "Refractions", the trio of John Bacon, Michael McNeill, and Danny Ziemann honor his legacy by not playing it safe, but playing with joy and with an exploratory spirit.

For more information, go to michaelgraymcneill.com.

Here's the "long" song: