Friday, December 29, 2006

Catching up, with a look back....

Playing right now: Charles Tolliver - With Love
(It's a new album that Blue Note is releasing, but it's not out for a few more weeks.)

So the holidaze kept me away from here for a while, so I'm going to catch up by posting some old reviews. I wrote these three reviews in 2004 for a magazine that never published them. A couple weeks ago, I came across them on my hard drive and thought it couldn't hurt to bring them back now. They're three far-flung albums deserving of more attention. And I always felt like Azita's cheerleader anyway.

Junk Magic
Thirsty Ear/Blue Series

Keyboardist Craig Taborn’s musical experiences include time with straight-blowing saxophonist James Carter, Detroit techno whiz Carl Craig and avant-garde saxophonist Tim Berne, so Junk Magic brings a lot of expectation to the table. The intrigue gets raised even further with a glance at Taborn’s band: drummer David King of the Bad Plus, violist Mat Maneri – an equally experimental microtonal jazz improviser - and tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart, who has worked with Anthony Braxton and Steve Coleman. Like recent discs in Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, the album Junk Magic strikes a balance between groovy textures and heady improvisation. The opening title track is something of a misfire; an off-center groove, with a programmed beat that sounds like a CD skip, quickly gets under the skin since no soloist jumps in for contrast. But “Mystero” quickly changes the scene. Taborn’s keyboards create a sea of texture over which Maneri and Stewart add dark solos. The drums initially sound looped, but by the end King definitely sounds live as he alternately holds the pulse together and breaks it apart for fun. Later on “Prismatica,” roles change when Taborn takes a solo and Maneri and Stewart hold down the fort. Sometimes the album’s sea of sounds is hard to penetrate, but the closing 11-minute “The Golden Age” indicates that Taborn’s crew is on to something when they have a chance to stretch out. (

High Two

For its first release, the Philadelphia imprint High Two chose to spotlight a musician whose all-encompassing approach to the piano has probably been heard in supporting roles more than as a leader. Dave Burrell has appeared on albums with Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and David Murray and while he has led sessions, none have appeared domestically since 1966. Accompanied by bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille - both prolific heavyweights in the world of avant-garde jazz - Burrell turns in seven challenging, diverse tracks that put this gifted solos and compositions in the spotlight. In “Double Heartbeat” the group sets up an interesting dynamic with Cyrille exclusively playing toms and bass drum while Parker plucks away and Burrell adds splashes of notes that evolve into clusters. Cyrille shifts exclusively to cymbals for “In the Balance,” a meditative piece that also has Parker switching to kora, a West African harp, to add to the texture. “Cryin’ Out Loud” is a piano and bass duet, in which Parker’s skilled bowing technique creates emotional wails and scrapes. It contrasts with the following track, a bright solo reading of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” with Burrell showing of his stride technique. “Coup D’etat” closes the album with a jaunty theme that evokes both Thelonious Monk and “Giant Steps,” although Cyrille ensures the trio puts their own stamp on the sound with the way he drives them. Hopefully more people will discover Burrell with Expansion. (

Life on the Fly
Drag City

From its clunky title to the obtuse mouthful-of-marbles vocals, Azita’s 2003 album Enantiodromia was an intriguing listen, and one that made listeners either love or revile the pianist and songwriter. At this point, I still haven’t found a kindred spirit who shares my fascination with Azita Youssefi, who once led the Chicago no wave band Scissor Girls. While her previous album sounded more like a pianist who enlisted friends to flesh out her songs, Life on the Fly sounds more like a band effort. Drummer John McEntire and bassist Matt Lux, of the bands Tortoise and Isotope 217, again play on all the tracks, with guitarist Jeff Parker and cornetist Rob Mazurek dropping in on a few to add to the texture. The sound shifts away from the noirish approach of its predecessor, but it in no way merits the Steely Dan comparison Azita has already garnered, in both the pejorative and positive sense, ironically. Granted her vocal delivery can be a challenge; when she sings off-key it sounds more like missed notes than intentional dissonance. The shifting rhythms and clipped quality to some of the musical phrases make standard verse-chorus hard to ascertain. But that again makes this music worth the challenge, from the catchy “Wasn’t in the Bargain” to the suspended “Antarctica.”


So many people are flooding the atmosphere with year-end lists. I submitted one to
JazzTimes a few weeks ago, but I haven't done a rock one yet. I'm not sure how many new rock albums I heard this year anyway. A lot of what I bought at the start of the year came from 2005. Plus some friends were swapping lists to Best ofs and I never replied to them. So I think I should reply to them first. But we'll see.

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