Sunday, May 15, 2016

CD Review: Keefe Jackson (& friends), Peter A. Schmid (& friends too)

Keefe Jackson/Jason Adasiewicz
Rows and Rows

Keefe Jackson/Josh Berman/Jon Rune Strøm/ Tollef Østvang
Southern Sun

Peter A. Schmid
Chicago Conversations
(Creative Works)

Tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Keefe Jackson never seems content with just one music project. Or two. He's released albums with the cooperative Fast Citizens (a group of Chicago-connected musicians who take turns in the leadership role), a series of quartets and the larger ensembles Project Project and Likely So, the latter an all-reed septet. There are more than I'm either forgetting or leaving out for no reason other than to turn attention towards his latest escapades: a duo session with a longtime Chicago friend; a quartet with another Chicago pal and two Norwegian players; and an album by Swiss multi-reedist Peter A. Schmid which features Jackson and several other musicians engaged in improvised duets and trios. 

Quite simply, Jackson and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz are deeply ensconced in the Chicago jazz scene, individually and collectively. But that doesn't mean they won't push and challenge each other, or the unsuspecting listener. Rather than rolling the tapes and just blowing, they work through seven compositions by Jackson and three by Adasiewicz which rely on freedom with bits of themes to hold it together.Rows and Rows features a mix of material, from noirish moods to free, choppy moments and even a theme or two that sound like Blue Note abstractions.

"Questioned, Understood, Possessed" begins with some wild sax blowing over vibes that create a dreamscape, before things slide into a tenor melody that Adasiewicz punctuates on the bars. Jackson plays bass clarinet appears on several tracks, which always guarantees an exciting blend of guttural eruptions and wails. It begins "Where's Mine," in a choppy unison with the vibes, which Adasiewicz uses to create some percussive clanks by clicking the frame and resonators. In "A Rose Heading" he plays chords behind the bass clarinet, followed by "Swap" which is exactly what they do: Adasiewicz takes the lead while Jackson riffs.

Switching back to tenor, Jackson reminded me of the Andrew Hill composition "McNeil Island," a brief out of tempo tune with a prominent theme that featured Joe Henderson. One of the most distinctive tracks of the whole set comes with the hypnotic "Cannon [sic] from the Nothing Suite," whose eerie, repetitive form sounds ripe for a crime scene on The Naked City.

Cornetist Josh Berman has been the brass foil to Jackson in numerous projects that both have lead or co-lead. Southern Sun puts them together with Norwegians Jon Rune Strøm (bass) and Tollef Østvang (drums), who founded the Stone Floor Records label in their home country. The group rapport is immediate. The American players both contributed three compositions while the rhythm players each wrote one. Everyone sounds right at home with the music.

Berman released "Blues" just a few months ago on his Delmark trio album A Dance and a Hop. With a saxophone foil, the Ornette feeling becomes a little more noticeable. The composer gets low and gravelly in his own solo, dispelling any notions of direct homage. His "Cold Snap" has a similar stop-start feel, though this time the whole quartet "plays" the melody, and Berman starts and the bottom register and works up to some shrill notes. 

Strøm's meditative "Melted Snow" has a rubato feel where the horns intertwine, leading to a pensive bass solo that feels understated, though it climaxes with the firm plucking. Østvang's "Blowing in From" closes the album with some of the strongest moments on the session. After the loose-limbed theme, Jackson blows unaccompanied, then the rhythm section dives into a chordless 4/4 mode, setting the scene for Berman to take off. This group should convene more often. The release might be a challenge to find, as the website redirects interested customers to a Norwegian distributor. But maybe some copies have floated into the states.

Some quick research reveals that Swiss multi-reedist Peter A. Schmid enjoys the sonorities of low-end reed instruments. of which he plays a few here: bass and contrabass clarinets and baritone sax. But he also plays sopranino saxophone, albeit very briefly and in a very percussive manner. 

The 24 tracks on Chicago Conversations feature a who's who of the Windy City's free improvisers, all joining Schmid for several tracks of sonic exploration. A few last less than a minute and only two come in around five minutes or a tad beyond. Some performances offer the most extreme examples of free improv, like when Schmid's contrabass clarinet and percussionist Michael Zerang sound like sea monsters scraping fingers nails on a chalk board. 

But at other times, Schmid, Jackson and Waclaw Zimpel (alto clarinet) present different facets of a clarinet trio, from moody long tones to quick percolations to multi-hued conversations. Schmid reveals himself to be a master of percussive slap-tonguing in several of them, sounding less like a reed than a musical PVC pipes. Jackson duets with Schmid on tenor late in the set, which often feels pointilist quality but are always intriguing. Other guests include Berman, percussionist Frank Rosaly (together with Zerang on a few tracks), trombonist Nick Broste and bassist Albert Wildman.

While all but diehard free improvisation fans might be turned off by Chicago Conversations on first blush (I felt like was revealed on the first listen until I went back to it a few times), there are qualities to this music that come out as the album is explored further. The way the various instruments are paced throughout the album helps too, presenting variations within variations to the sound. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

CD Review: Sonny Rollins - Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4

Sonny Rollins
Holding the Stage: Road Shows, Vol. 4

The recording studio can psyche musicians out. Not necessarily because it can be a relatively sterile, dry place, as compared to the stage, where everything lives in the moment, including the reactions of the audience. The problem with recording studios (if you can call it a problem) has to do with the fact that it allows musicians to overdub and or remove anything from a whole chorus to a series of notes, creating the perfect recording through technology. Or it can trick a musicians into thinking that way. "I began to think, 'Gee, maybe it could come out better,'" Sonny Rollins says in the notes to Holding the Stage. "That had a big influence on why the studio became an inhibiting factor."

That is also why the Great Sage of the tenor saxophone has released a fourth album of live performances. The Rollins that sets foot onstage doesn't have the chance to think about redoing anything. He simply hits the ground running and does what he does best.

Holding the Stage contains a wide span of time, with one track going back to 1979 and winding up with a couple from 2012. (Six months later, health issues required Rollins to take a break from performing, and he has yet to return.) Four tracks come from a September 2001 Boston concert just four days after the World Trade Center attacks, a show which has already been documented largely on Without A Song: the 9/11 Concert. At nearly 30 minutes of the disc, this newly released material serves as the album's foundation, also proving that at a time of uncertainty and sadness, Rollins was there to guide his audience through intense times and start the healing.

The biggest surprise might be the 1979 track, "Disco Monk." The title and the time period might imply a desperate attempt at relevancy, but hold onto your hats. The rhythm section of Jerome Harris (bass guitar) and Al Foster (drums) don't come close to four-on-the-floor, going instead for an elastic groove that acknowledges the serious funk of the time, without forsaking the serious swing of jazz. The tune itself continually breaks away from the upbeat groove to let pianist Mark Soskin get a bit introspective, making it too clever for the dance floor anyway. Rollins, as he does on most of the tracks, exhibits a full-throated sound with some references to songs that he recorded with Monk.

"H.S" pays homage to another collaborator, pianist Horace Silver. The tough blues (recorded in 2006) features trombonist Clifton Anderson adding to the boss' tone, and a tenor solo that gets delightfully gruff in all the right places. "Professor Paul" salutes the late saxophonist/arranger Paul Jeffrey, and suffers from an accompaniment that sounds utilitarian. Chalk it up to a recording quality perhaps, but the seemingly solid group that includes Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Sammy Figueroa (percussion) sounds stiff and unexcited. Rollins can't be deterred though, throwing in a quote from "Old Devil Moon" and making it work.

Several quotes pop up in "Solo," essentially a five-minute cadenza between "Sweet Leilani" and "Don't Stop the Carnival" from the 2001 concert. Rollins' classic "St. Thomas" pops up, as does "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" (he also could make the ridiculous sound sublime) and a few others. Lesser musicians may throw in quotes for yucks, Rollins does it to prove the legitimacy of the material. And I'll be doggone if he doesn't pull it off.

In closing, special mention should be made of "You're Mine You," which comes from the same concert. It might be reading too much into the situation, but Rollins' solo, full of blunt accents and muscular tone, comes off like his way of pulling us out of our fears and reassuring us that, since we are his, things are not too far gone. Even if that isn't the case, he can make you believe. And that's one of many reasons that makes this disc mandatory.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Show Preview: Adam Meckler Quintet.

This space doesn't normally serve as a preview forum for upcoming Pittsburgh shows. Mainly because I don't have it together to stay on top of previews beyond what I write for the local print media. But within a week of hearing about Adam Meckler's show at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, his CD arrived in a package with a few others by Minneapolis players, so I put it on before I could think twice. Makes me wonder if the Twin Cities area is similar to Pittsburgh, with maturing talent that's not caught by the national radar.

Meckler's trumpet playing is impressive in his wide range on the horn. He easily shifts into the upper register, displaying a brawny tone when he does, sounding clear but with a roughness that adds character to his voice. And speaking of voice, Wander, his second album with his quintet, contains some strong writing, with intriguing melodic lines, rhythm twists and vamps that make an engaging tug at the ear.

Concurrent with his quintet, Meckler also leads an orchestra that received attention for the 2014 release When the Clouds Look Like This, which was inspired by the work of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue. The quintet get a large sound out of Meckler's trumpet and flugelhorn, along with Zacc Harris (guitar), Graydon Peterson (bass), Greg Schutte (drums) and Joe Mayo (on one track) and Nelson Devereaux (on the rest) (tenor sax/soprano).

The title track tricks the listener a couple times, beginning with a rubato melody vaguely reminiscent of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" before going into a brighter, in-tempo theme. But during the solos the rhythm section tautly holds down a vamp that seems to be in 7/4 with a bar of 5/4 thrown in occasionally. Mayo and Meckler handle it with ease.

The disc comes from three different live performances, which include several pieces where they really stretch out. "The Call" has a staccato melody that resurfaces between solos as Devereaux, Meckler and Harris explore ideas and take things out for 14 solid minutes. "Atomium Jules" adds some skronk and power chords to fray, along with a theme that tips its hat to the Twin Cities' punk forefathers like Husker Du et al. (Well, maybe that's a stretch but these cats can hold their own with the rock.) "Drew's Beard" begins with a folkloric melody, which jumps into a major-minor two-chord groove that makes a great hook.

Opening will be tenor saxophonist John Petrucelli (in a trio), who is one of the city's most promising tenor players.

It all happens on Friday, April 29, starting at 9 p.m. $10. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 4412 Liberty Avenue. The BBT is a great, intimate venue which hasn't had edge jazz like this in ages. Come check it out.

For more info on the artist, go to

Monday, April 25, 2016

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up - Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up
Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

Last week it was announced that multi-reedist/composer Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer Prize for the "distinguished musical composition by an American" found on his 2015 album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Congratulations to Mr. Threadgill, his bandmates in Zooid and to Seth Rosner and Yulan Wang of Pi Recordings, who launched their label to support the composer, and consistently release thought-provoking albums that I wish I had more time to expound upon.

However, right as the Pulitzer announcement was made, Threadgill released a brand new disc with a new ensemble. Double Up features both Jason Moran and David Virelles on piano, Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald on alto saxophones, Craig Weinrib on drums and Zooid members Christopher Hoffman on cello and Jose Davila on tuba. Threadgill serves as conductor, and doesn't play any instruments.

The 46-minute suite Old Locks and Irregular Verbs was premiered at the 2014 Winter JazzFest, and I attended the first of two performances at Judson Hall. Dedicated to the late Lawrence D. Butch Morris - who created the concept of "conduction," which combined improvisation and conducting - the piece had a loose abstract quality to it. But even when groups of musicians broke away into what seemed like free improvisation, they played with great deal of direction, never letting their focus wander. When Threadgill took center stage towards the end, directing them in a series of rising, roaring chords, it was an intense experience.

Recorded in a studio over a year later, this disc recreates all the excitement of the initial performance and perhaps more, since it offers the chance to revisit the music repeatedly and discover its contours. According to the press release, most of the music was written out, which can explain why the unusual instrumentation works so well. Moran and Virelles play off of each other, and when they frequently work together, things never get too busy. Both seem pretty evenly panned in the speakers, as do the saxophonists, but "soloists" aren't indicated anywhere, putting the focus back on the piece itself. The saxophones spew sharp, idiosyncratic melodies which are probably worthy of Threadgill himself. Only during "Part Three" does one of them get overly aggressive, spilling out fast lines. Drummer Weinrib adds some intriguing moments on his own, like in "Part Two" where he rests as much he plays a simplistic blend of taps and clicks. In the next section his solo has a rich quality, like a written-through break for the trap kit.

This all paves the way for the final movement (the disc divides "Old Locks" into four tracks though it's actually one continuous piece). Threadgill assembled this section to sound like a funeral dirge, the clearest reference to Morris' passing. But even though the horns gradually create a funereal feeling as it takes shape, the mood does not feel bleak or distraught. The subject is missed but the music evokes both a remembrance of happy bygone days and the desire to move on his honor. That's when those powerful chords crash in, bringing it to a climax. Moran has admitted that the ending always brings him to tears, and it's easy to see why. This is moving music.

If In for a Penny, In for a Pound earned Threadgill the Pulitzer, what will this album get him?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

CD Review: Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith - a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Upon considering just a few aspect of Wadada Leo Smith's career - pre-AACM recordings with Anthony Braxton, the work of his Creative Orchestra for Moers Music and even his more recent works like The Great Lakes Suites - one project seemed like something of an aberration: Yo Miles, a band that pays tribute to Miles Davis' electric period. As a trumpeter who has gone to great lengths to create his own singular voice on the instrument, it seems like a surprise that he might take the time to look back.

But hearing this album offers a reminder of the connection between the two trumpeters. Davis could always exude a high level of lyricism from a select group of notes. Likewise, Smith is not a busy trumpeter. He likes his long tones, and he likes bending and squeezing them for all they're worth. When he does, they might not be quite as delicate as the Prince of Darkness, but they have a similar dramatic impact. This album presents many opportunities to get a greater understanding of Smith's sound.

Smith and pianist Vijay Iyer have a two-decade history together, which includes five years when they played together in Smith's Golden Quartet (click here for a review of an album). This album centers on its title track, a seven-part suite inspired by the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Each section is named for a phrase taken from Mohamedi's diary ("All becomes alive," "The empty mind receives," among them). The music has a loose quality to it, spontaneous but not completely improvised. Some sections begin starkly while others begin like a free wheeling cat-and-mouse chase. Smith emits squirts or wails. Iyer begins with low rumbles on one track and upper register shimmers on another. One piece seems to begin with nearly a minute of absolute silence. Crank up the volume, though, and the sub-woofer sound of Iyer's electronics will be detected.

Therein lies the power of a cosmic rhythm with each stroke. There are moments of beauty to it, like the blend of Iyer's high end cascades and Smith's muted trumpet on "Uncut emeralds." The intervals that Smith takes on "Notes on water," one of several tracks that feature Iyer on Fender Rhodes, sound equally as beguiling in their frankness. This is headphone (or earbud, to be modern) music, where deep listening moves beyond the spare instrumentation that might be felt in a casual listen.

A piece by Iyer and one by Smith, respectively, precede and follow the suite. "Passage" opens the album with a rolling steady tempo from the pianist and long, passionate tones from his accomplice. "Marian Anderson" honors the late operatic contralto/civil rights activist with a warm salute.

These two are coming to town for the Pittsburgh JazzLive International festival and guess who can hardly wait.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Suzanne Vega Remembers

After spending 30 years writing lyrics full of rich details, it's easy to forget one once in a while. Bob Dylan did it early in his career, bemusedly asking the audience for the first line of a song.

Last night at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, Suzanne Vega froze, a few phrases into "(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May," forgetting what came next. Having already established an intimate rapport with the audience with a little self-deprecation, I was almost expecting her to deadpan, "Line," like a thespian who needs to be prompted. Instead, she stopped, promising to revisit the song later in the set. To regain her footing, she launched into "Gypsy," a song she wrote at age 18 for a camp counselor (more on him later), which she recorded on Solitude Standing in the '80s. She needed a little help when she got to THAT third verse, but a friendly audience member fed her lines, and kept things going.

Even during the time she forgot, Vega maintained her poise, never turning it into a major deal. Unlike her previous Pittsburgh show, where guitarist Gerry Leonard joined her onstage, she was all alone with her guitar last night. She walked onstage with a top hat in hand, like last time, which could mean only one thing: she'd open with "Marlene on the Wall" again, putting on the hat to evoke the song's inspiration, Marlene Dietrich. From there, the set differed greatly from her 2013 appearance.

When I interviewed her for a City Paper article, she said fans could tweet song requests to her and she would try her best to pull them off. The solo set-up would limit what she could pull off (nothing like the more produced "Blood Makes Noise," she specifically said), and that probably explains why she dug into her first two albums for much of the set. "Small Blue Thing," "The Queen and the Soldier," and "Knight Moves" came from her debut. "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" - which might be considered obligatory at this point in her career - came from Solitude Standing, as did the still-romantic "Gypsy" and "Calypso." A couple songs from 2014's Tales of the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles came up too, as well as a couple from Songs in Red and Gray. 

The aforementioned camp counselor, whom Vega knew as a teen, also served as some inspiration to "In Liverpool" from 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees, since he hailed from the city of Beatles. That song has another one of Vega's swelling choruses, merging hooks and words, and it runs through my head on a fairly regular basis. Hearing it in live was a personal highlight of the set.

Vega through in a few other surprises, beyond the lyric slips. She started her encore with "Calypso," but stopped mid-way, asking the audience how they'd feel about a dramatic reading of Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd." (She'll be doing for an upcoming PBS program dedicated to New York City.) The way she introduced it seemed like she was going to play it, but she rattled off the words unaccompanied, which worked just as well considering its author did pretty much the same thing. Then she closed with "Rosemary," which appeared as a single, on the Tried and True compilation and on the fourth volume of Close-Up, her set of re-recorded songs.

The show was staged by Calliope, the long-standing local folk music organization that is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. They're bringing guitarist Leo Kottke to town on Saturday, May 7, which should also be a big night.

(Apologies to openers the Honey Dewdrops, who I missed due to tardiness.)

Friday, April 08, 2016

CD Review: Albert Ayler - Bells/Prophecy

Albert Ayler

My favorite Albert Ayler record is Vibrations. During high school, I heard in an Ayler album in a used record shop and it got under my skin. My brother told me that if I ever wanted to appreciate and understand the wild tenor saxophonist, I should buy an album, read the liner notes and listen with an open mind. Vibrations proved to be the perfect entry way. It turned my head around and I never looked back. Ayler recorded the session in Copenhagen in 1964, adding trumpeter Don Cherry to his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. The second horn was a fortuitous addition. Reissued by Arista-Freedom in 1975, my copy featured excellent liner notes by future Mosaic Records founder Michael Cuscuna. On top of all that, Vibrations was recorded in a decent studio.

The last observation is the important one in the case of this reissue. Many of Albert Ayler's most important albums were recorded under less than stellar conditions. Spirits Rejoice was recorded in New York's Judson Hall. A high-ceiling echoey former church, the setting buried the bass and made Call Cobbs' harpsichord sound like it was played in another room. New York Eye and Ear Control sounded as raw as the shambolic performance. An album of traditional spirituals also lost something due to poor sound.

Bells, originally issued on one side of clear vinyl, was recorded at Town Hall with similar results (though there's no harpsichord). The results were pretty lo-fi, though this edition cleans it up a bit. Ayler, his brother Donald (trumpet) and Charles Tyler (alto saxophone) come through loud and clear, while drummer Murray is heard somewhat and bassist Lewis Worrell cuts through during the quieter passages. Part of the appeal of the initial Bells release was likely due to the packaging, but if you're going for music, this set is a good bet. As Steve Holtje points out, this 1965 performance came at a time when Ayler was moving away from the compositions of the early trio towards a bigger sound based on vamps akin to a frenetic marching band.

ESP first released Prophecy in the 1970s, ironic since the 1964 performances at the Cellar Cafe predated the Ayler trio's debut for the label by a year. It's a valuable document, for one thing because it includes two discs of material, restored to its original order and correct song titles. Ayler classics like the oft-recorded "Ghosts" and the throaty, vibrato heavy "Wizard" (a fave the Vibrations session) are here, unleashed on what was probably an unsuspecting public, who clap politely and at least seem positively intrigued by the performance.

If you're listening to get a good handle on Ayler's approach to the tenor, Prophecy delivers. Recorded by poet Paul Haines, it clearly reveals how much power Ayler unleashed every time he blew into his horn. His bottom-end growls are spectacular. His vibrato was wide, though light years away from the overstated piddly vibrato used by commercial swing bands.

But even though Peacock and Murray can be heard, it's hard to get a feel for the way the trio interacted. Peacock, who had been playing West Coast cool jazz just a few years earlier, plays some obtuse lines, but the recording leaves them floating amorphously, rather than interacting with Ayler. Murray avoids his massive crashing sounds in favor of more subtle work, which thanks to the record sounds like his spends more time on the cymbals.

That being said, Bells/Prophecy is still required listening for Ayler fanatics. These two have been paired together before in previous issues. (The second disc of Prophecy was previously released under the name Albert Smiles with Sunny. But with quality and availability of them always in question, this version is the ideal copy.