Thursday, July 09, 2020

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa - Hero Trio

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Hero Trio

After collaborations with the late Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, bop saxophonist Bunky Green and his peer of staggering technique Stephen Lehman, all of which preceded his Bird Calls album that recast Charlie Parker in a modern light, not to mention his work with the intense Indo-Pak Coalition, the last thing one might expect the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" that isn't ironic or irreverent in any way. But there it is, track number 6 on Hero Trio.

Mahanthappa explains in the liner notes that he first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder (also covered here) on Sesame Street as a kid: "They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre towards seeing music as a magical force that binds humanity." A post of mine from several years ago, covering similar thoughts about one of those people made a similar point wholeheartedly. So - amen, Mr. M.

However, "Ring of Fire" comes as a bit of digression of the path of Hero Trio, an album of covers that leans heavily towards Charlie Parker, as well as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. With Rudy Royston (drums) and François Moutin (bass), Mahanthappa pays tribute but takes the music down his own path. The focus becomes evident in the opening seconds of the album, when the saxophonist starts to pop off the buoyant melody of Parker's "Red Cross" but suspends the movement in bar two, getting Moutin to bear down on the root and stay there. They eventually get to the "mop-mop" hook of the tune but it comes more than a minute later and they take an back road route to get there. Moutin does similar pedal work in "I Can't Get Started," which adds a darker mood that seems even more disconnected when the melody shows up.

Mahanthappa enjoys playing with time in ways that might not hit on the conscious level right away. "Ring of Fire" has an extra beat added in an early phrase, giving the melody a chance to stretch a little, almost as if it's going to get behind itself, which of course it never does. Wonder's "Overjoyed" turns into a taut 7/4 vamp that the rhythm section dives into. The trio also blends Parker's "Barbados" with John Coltrane's "26-2," which itself was based on a Bird tune.

All the name dropping would point towards little more than a good record collection if the trio didn't deliver with such intensity, happy not with an homage but dead set on exploring new possibilities within the music. Someone once said that Charlie Parker was such an artist that he could change his mind three times about what to play over some changes even before he got to that part of a chorus (I feel like I might have used that nugget somewhere else recently). It wouldn't come as a surprise if Rudresh Mahanthappa can do the same thing now, spinning melodies with speed and clarity, which seem to evolve kaleidoscopically as he does. His partners play on a similar level with him. Moutin plays his instrument with ferocity and Royston swings hard even when he holds back.

The insert photo of the trio dressed in superhero costumes comes out off like a hoot after hearing the music. This is serious stuff and they still have the desire ham it up when all is said and done. Does that make them heroes?

A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich, to borrow a title of a '70s film.

But these guys are really good.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

CD Review: The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC

The MacroQuarktet
The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC
(Out Of Your Head)

I recently unearthed a copy of Discourse, the zine I sporadically published in the late '80s/early '90s. While it predominantly covered independent rock, the Spring 1990 issue had an interview with Tim Berne, which I lined up after calling New York directory assistant to find his number. During our talk Berne mentioned the moment on "Evolution of a Pearl," (on his then-current Fractured Fairy Tales album) when trumpeter Herb Robertson emitted a noise through his horn that sounded a little like a laugh and little like a moan of pain. "He just did that and we almost fell out. Hank [Roberts, cello] missed some entrance 'cause he was freaked out," Berne said. This might be the reason Robertson is credited as playing laryngel crowbar, in addition to trumpet and cornet, on the album.

The memory of that track came by while listening to The Complete Night, Live at the Stone NYC. Robertson and Dave Ballou are all about extended technique during the performances that make up this album. They played two sets there in June 2007 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Nothing was planned, everything was fair game and everyone plays with a lack of inhibition. Sometimes that results in some extremely abrasive high-pitched brass noise. At one point, Rainey toys with his hi-hat cymbal so it creates the scrape of metal on metal. There are also moment of heavy breathing through the horns and low guttural growls that sound like one of the horns is waking up after a long night of boozing.

The Complete Night isn't for casual listening. During one spin of  the first disc, Robertson and Ballou's hijinks burrowed deep under my skin and felt really annoying. Upon further investigation, perhaps knowing what was coming, a flow to the set became noticeable. The quartet works with dynamics and sonic attacks to make sure nothing - even the crazy technique - doesn't get overused. Plus there are moments when dynamics shift and oddball things surface, like an instrument that sounds like a guitar, minus the sound of fingers or a pick striking the strings. Along with the lack of being able to clearly tell Ballou from Robertson (though there are some clues), moments like this compel rather than repel deep listening.

The first disc of this set (the wilder one with the phantom instrument) was originally released in Europe in 2008 as Each Part A Whole on Ruby Flower. (That disc credits Robertson with electric megaphone, which could account for the phantom guitar noise, providing it's not Ballou's plastic hose.) The second disc is making its debut, and it includes some of the strongest moments of the whole set. After playfully dueling with one another, Ballou and Robertson come together with a long tone theme at one point, proving how attentive they are to each other's approaches. The space during the middle of the set recalls some open moments in AACM performances. Later, their chattering horns stop for a smooth transition into Gress' bowed bass. By the second set, the MacroQuarktet was a well-oiled machine. It's now hard to imagine hearing one disc without the other.

Although both sets each consist of a continuous performance, the discs break them up into bands, with titles that give a further look into the wit behind the music. Volume One features "Neuroplasticity" (in three parts), "Ducks & Geese...Or Rabbits" (in four parts, which might actually be an appropriate title) and "Basal D. Ganglia" (in three parts). Volume Two features only two different titles: "Crossing the Threshold)" (which covers five tracks) and "No Planet B" (two parts).  Following the breaks between tracks proves to be too much of a distraction while listening. Better to just imagine being at the old Stone for this evening, getting absorbed by the music.

Monday, June 22, 2020

CD Review: Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits - The Coandă Effect / James Brandon Lewis/ Chad Taylor - Live in Willisau

Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits
The Coandă Effect

Although 2020 is going on record as one of the worst years ever (at least in my lifetime), Tim Berne is having a good year, artistically speaking. During the Covid 19 pandemic, he has managed to drop several new albums and remastered one from the '90s. Those release came after some activity in the early part of the year when his group Snake Oil moved from ECM to Intakt and released The Fantastic Mrs. 10. That disc features some of the best group interaction and writing that Berne has released in quite some time. Along with a solo alto disc, Sacred Vowels, he also released The Coandă Effect during the spring. Like Mrs. 10, it captures him in a fully inspired clip, with a drummer that many might not expect to be on Berne's shortlist of collaborators.

Nasheet Waits' resume includes a few albums as a leader and numerous other sessions with other musicians. Probably best known for his tenure in Jason Moran's trio, he has also worked with the late Andrew Hill, the group Tarbaby and Christian McBride. Ergo, he might not seem like a player Berne would work with, but his wide-ranging experiences make him an ideal fit. 

The Coandă Effect was recorded live last October at Brooklyn's Sultan Room and consists of two tracks: the 39-minute "Tensile" and the nearly 10-minute "5see." The former feels like a suite, with Berne introducing some melodic themes that he methodically pushes into various shapes. Waits helps build up the excitement behind him, working all over his kit and helping to direct the music into those multiple directions. Both players listen attentively to each other, reacting to and spurring each other on. Things get propelled constantly, with neither sounding like they needed to stop and consider where to go. They're on their way forward the whole time. When they come back down on the theme at the end, the dynamic drop feels as exciting as the freer moments. 

"5see" begins as more of a sound sculpture moving into a more grounded series of alto ideas, with Waits on brushes. Before it's over, the drummer coaxes Berne to build up the dynamics yet again. 

James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor
Live in Willisau

With a great deal of humility, I have to say I'm a little late to the James Brandon Lewis party, having heard good things about the tenor player but not getting around to his music yet. Live at Willisau, recorded just a month earlier than The Coandă Effect at Switzerland's Jazz Festival Willisau, gives several indications of what I've been missing and why it's time to catch up. Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor engage in some deep discussions, which even seems so bowl over the saxophonist himself, if his between-song talk offers any indication.

Their 67-minute set almost comes off like a dissertation on all the elements that make modern jazz so vital to players that want to push it forward. In addition to several original compositions, they interpret Duke Ellington ("Come Sunday"), Mal Waldron ("Watakushi No Sekai") and Dewey Redman ("Willisee"), the latter a piece that Redman played with drummer Ed Blackwell on the same stage in 1980.

Then there's the rapport between these too, which is the real selling power of Live in Willisau. Lewis tears into the music with focus and enthusiasm, building "Twenty-Four" on a simple riff which he continuously states and reshapes. The piece references John Coltrane but the clipped line also feels like a fragment of Roland Kirk's "No Tonic Pres" although could be due more to Lewis' rapid delivery that recalls Kirk's opening salvo from Rip, Rig and Panic. Either way, it's the perfect thing to yank you into this set and never stop listening.

Taylor works freely over his kit on this piece and during the whole album. But there are times when he also turns a corner and gets some grooves going while Lewis continues down his solo path. These shifts elevates the music further. When he switches to mbira, it brings out the delicate beauty of "Come Sunday," as it also does in the original "With Sorrow Lonnie."

Normally, I'd post links to the labels that have released these albums. This time I opted to post links to Bandcamp since many people are doing their music shopping there, and it's also a way to preview music. Go there and check out both of these duo sets. Also, I just reviewed the Chad Taylor Trio's The Daily Biological for JazzTimes. That review can be found here.

Friday, June 19, 2020


I spent the early part of June thinking a lot and writing a big article for JazzTimes about ESP-Disk'. In a way, it was six months in the making because I did my first interview for it back in January. For four months, I just thought about it, without really picking up until May. At that point, I conducted some follow up and support interviews and started writing. When I have an opening scene/paragraph in my head, I'm set. So I dug in and, in a remarkable display of organization, I turned the piece in the weekend before it was due.

Considering the state of the world lately and how screwed up things are, and the lack of strong leadership anywhere, it's been hard to get much done. So I was happy to finish that. It was a rare situation where I forced myself to write long - go over my word count - and pare it down over the course of several days later. Even with a 2500 word count, I still find things that I would like to include but can't. Having those extra days helped you come to the conclusion of what is really needed and what can be left out.

Somewhere along the way of writing that article, I decided to skim the comments left on this blog. It used be that I would get an email whenever there was a reply posted. Not anymore. So I totally missed the comment that appeared at the end of last October's post about buying an original copy of Erica Pomerance's ESP album which came from......... ERICA HERSELF!! (Fanboy warning.) I realize there were some things in the post that might leave her miffed but hopefully you can tell that I was over the moon when I got the record. But the fact that she would find me, read the piece and comment....I felt so flattered.

Correction: I felt like a dope that it took me two freakin' months to see it. (She commented at the end of March.) By that time she was probably long gone and she's probably forgotten about me. Oh well, she knows I'm out here.

Then, just when there seemed like there might be a break in the dark mental clouds, at least for a moment, a tree fell down in our yard Tuesday night. I came home from work and Jen and Donovan were watching Some Like It Hot. I had a little something to eat and eventually joined them in front of the t.v. (I have never seen the film all the way through.) At first I thought some animal was running across our roof, which happens occasionally since our roof abuts the neighbor's yard. But the sound kept going and all of a sudden there was a loud crash. I was worried for a second that the big dead tree had fallen into our house. But what happened was a tree in our neighbor's yard had fallen across our yard, taking out our tool shed in the process. Just what you want to hear at 11:45 at night.

The good news is there was no major damage and no one was hurt. The bad news is, it was just hard to deal with yet another thing weighing on my mine. And the idea that there is something else in nature that could mess up our house (besides rain and the slim chance that critters might get in). It's an irrational feeling I get, but it's a feeling that can be hard to shake.

Thankfully, the tree is gone now. The day after it happened - the first of my two days off this week - I got a tree guy out to look at it, Then he had his crew get rid of it yesterday. They did pretty quick work of it, truth be told. Now I just need to get the shed out of there. But I had a guy come out and take a look today.

This was going to be a short intro to a review, but I think the review will just come later.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

CD Review: Nina Simone - Fodder On My Wings

Nina Simone
Fodder On My Wings

Only Nina Simone could take a song as maudlin as Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" and rework it to explain her troubled relationship with her recently deceased father. Accompanying herself on piano, Simone's new lyrics spin a confession that arguably ranks with John Lennon's "Mother," laying everything out candidly. The difference is Lennon faded out of his song screaming, never finding peace. Simone, on the other hand, reaches closure 

Early verses confess how she "despised this man" who she is "glad to say, he's dying at last," after years of resentment. With classical flourishes dropped in between verses, a synthesizer swell appears midway through, acting almost like a cinematic cue for redemption. In the final verse, she admits that "I loved him them and I loved him now," and how his passing broke her. Parental bonds can do that to a person, no matter how fractured the relationship.

The centerpiece on the reissue of an obscure Simone album from 1982, "Alone Again (Naturally)" didn't even appear on Fodder On My Wings when it was initially released in France. It and two other tracks were added to a few reissues in the late '80s and early '00s, and they are here on Verve's new edition. The album was made while Simone was living in Paris, her mental illness getting worse while, at the same time, she was feeling artistically inspired by African musicians she met in her new country. 

This duality can be felt throughout the album. Opening track "I Sing Just to Know That I'm Alive" sounds empowering, especially with the African vibe of the band. In "Liberian Calypso" she sings about going to a club and dancing to American music, all done over the melody of Louis Jordan's "Run Joe," which is clear when the shout chorus comes around.

But her darkness is always at arm's length. "I Sing" is followed by "Fodder In Her Wings," from which the album's variation on the title comes. A song that Simone recorded several times, it puts all of her despair front and center, as beautiful as it is melancholic. "I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them" has an Afro-Latin groove, complete with slapped bass, but the message is clear her too. It even has some Cecil Taylor-esque fills underneath for extra emphasis.

But even if she wasn't in the best frame of mind, Simone still sounds like she's enjoying herself. The brief "Color Is a Beautiful Thing" reveals a humorous streak. "Vous Etes Seuls, Mais Je Désire Etre Avec Vous" could have been a bit shorter, but the chorus of voices offers some healing, as does "Le Peuple En Suisse," which is bolstered by some organ swells and trumpet blasts. "Heaven Belongs To You," which she introduces as an African song her father sang to her, is another repetitive song with an infectious groove. 

Throughout the album, Simone's voice often sounds rough, especially on the sustained notes, but the rawness does nothing to impact her delivery. In fact, it helps. Throughout her life, Simone was an artist with many layers and Fodder On My Wings adds to that fascinating complexity.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

CD & DL Review: Threadbare (Jason Stein/ Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton) - Silver Dollar & Greg Ward/Jason Stein/ Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux - 85 Bears

Though, at this point, we're all still pretty much under quarantine, a number of albums are still being released. In fact, several musicians will have multiple albums hit the street in 2020, in some fashion. Matthew Shipp is one of them, which reminds me - my review of his latest album, Piano Equation, is up on JazzTimes' website, and can be found right here.

Add Jason Stein to that list. The bass clarinet maestro has two new releases with two vastly different projects, both destined to raise intrigued eyebrows due to their musical and, perhaps, physical formats. 

Threadbare (Jason Stein/Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton)
Silver Dollar

Threadbare finds Stein putting his musical head together with guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton. The latter two are Oberlin graduates who have jazz pedigrees but they also play in the indie rock band Moontype. Together with Stein, they create something that sits at the crossroads of adventurous jazz and post-rock. To be specific, they evoke a version of the Dirty Three, with Warren Ellis' violin switched out for Stein's bass clarinet. Much like that Australian group, this trio doesn't always seem in a rush to move at full throttle, preferring a languid opening in a piece like "Threadbare 02" before reaching a shambolic climax.

Cruz strums an unsyncopated rhythm in the intro of  "70 Degrees and Counting Down," with Hunton bashing behind him, unsure whether to keep the tempo or break loose. But while the Dirty Three use elongated time and dynamics to make their points, Threadbare draws on both their technical skills and indie rock candor to take this music places. This track in particular rises in waves, only to pause and start again at a lower volume.

While Cruz could have coasted on his chordal playing, he also peels off some strong leads, recalling Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock during a distorted break in "Funny Thing Is." "Untitled" also shows off his melodic skills. Hunton's inventive playing offers a strong future that could find him amazing free jazz or rock. Hopefully both.

The album's heaviest moment comes in "Silver Dollar," where Stein and Cruz create a long sustained low drone, with Hunton stoking the waves that crash against them. The piece has harmonic variety to it even as they create a fierce noise. Rather than just savage squalling, Stein's overtones give it dimension even as it threatens to make the whole thing melt. Cruz adds some upper register chordal variety to make it sound fuller. Not satisfied to blow listeners ears, the trio brings it down to a calm level to close it.

All the tracks on Silver Dollar were written by either Cruz or Hunton, with one a collaboration. The trio's wide ranging sound could sound right at home in an edgy jazz club or they could fit right in at a primitive DIY space with a few indie rock bands.

Greg Ward/Jason Stein/Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux

Following last year's excellent album/band Nature Work, Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward come  together with some friends for something much looser. The order of the day is free blowing and the overarching theme, for lack of a better word, gets its power from the 1985 roster of the Chicago Bears. All 11 tracks are named for a member of that Super Bowl XX-winning team.

Bassist Matt Lux and drummer Marcus Evans play on the majority of the tracks, though Chad Taylor occupies the drum stool on three. Evans interacts well with the horn players, occasionally playing in duet form. On the opening "Lament for Sweetness," though, his switches to electronics for a 59-second sound puzzle with Ward. Throughout, Stein and Ward bounce ideas off one another, blowing long tones or running parallel. (Maybe they are evoking football players after all.) Lux often acts as more a support player, adding shape to things.

The biggest surprise comes with Taylor's performances on "Wilbur," "Gault" and "Suhey." He overdubbed his parts two years after the initial tracks were laid down. But you would never know consider the way his feisty rim work on "Wilbur" blends so well with Ward and Stein. He and Lux sound right at home behind the bass clarinetist in "Gault."  These concise tracks have a direction that isn't always felt throughout the rest of the album. However there are many points where things congeal and with the longest track coming in at seven minutes, the scene changes before things get too aimless.

The label ears&eyes typically releases albums on CD but 85bears is being sold as either a download (hence the Bandcamp link above) or, for those still missing the '90s, on cassette. Hearing it on tape might make the starts and endings of different tracks hard to detect, but in some ways, that's part of the fun of it, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

CD Review: Dayna Stephens Trio - Liberty

Dayna Stephens Trio
(Contagious Music)

Maybe it's my ears, but between "Ran" and "Faith Leap," the first two tracks on Liberty, Eric Harland's drum sound changes. On "Ran" his snare drum cracks and rolls the way one might expect from a recording made at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios, where this album was made. "Faith Leap" is built on a straight 4/4 beat and the snare has a dry sound, like one that could be sampled from, or for, a more contemporary pop/R&B song. It fits perfectly into the track, though, guiding Ben Street's understated, funky bass line and leader/saxophonist Dana Stephens' highly melodic lines which say a lot without rushing.

Harland returns to a crisp snare crack for "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact of John Coltrane's "Straight Street" with a theme that lives up to its bent title. Then two tracks later, "The Lost and Found" takes the tempo down slow and Stephens switches from tenor (which he plays on the majority of the album) to baritone, and that dry, spare snare sound returns. Originally appearing on Stephens' debut album, The Timeless Now, it features the saxophonist and Street harmonizing on the melody together rather than working as soloist and accompanist.

These are some of the more minute things that come while examining Liberty at close range (and on different sound systems, for what that's worth). There is plenty to dig into on a more immediate level with the trio's performance as well. Stephens writes bright, ear-tugging melodies that generate some strong, infectious group interplay. The lack of a chordal instrument opens up the space and each player takes the opportunity to branch out, not necessarily with complexity but with dynamics and accents. 

The effects can be liberating, to borrow from the album. "Loosy Goosy" is built on "rhythm changes," but doesn't betray that melodic source when the trio digs into them, even when Stephens and Harland trade some heavy fours. "Tarifa" has Stephens on alto (double-tracked in the theme) for a rhythmic folk melody inspired by the titular locale, on the edge of Spain, just miles from Morocco. While bass and drums vamp, Stephens plays over them, going in several directions which all manage to lock in with his bandmates.

Saxophone trios might not be as common as, say, a piano trio with a horn. But the setting usually brings out a keen awareness in players about how space can be filled or left open. One JD Allen performance made me think he was combining funk and Coltrane. Years ago Sonny Rollins set a gold standard on albums like Way Out West, while Ornette Coleman charted a completely different path in his trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, making close listening paramount to a where the whole composition might go.

Dana Stephens is no newcomer to this music. Liberty is his ninth album as a leader. But at this point in his career, which was sidelined for some time due to a rare kidney disease, his playing reveals greater maturity and depth. In other words, he knows all about Liberty.