Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CD Reviews: Charles Gayle Trio & Chicago Underground Duo

Northern Spy has become a pretty prolific label in just a few short years. They've specialized in the more intense free improv and noise with bands like the Zs, the Jooklo Duo and Spanish Donkey (the latter featuring guitarist Joe Morris and keyboardist Jamie Saft). But these two releases bring two established and fairly reknown acts to their roster, which ought to bring more curious ears to their homebase to check everyone else out.

Charles Gayle Trio

Charles Gayle's catalog is pretty extensive, to put it mildly. A random sampling might draw on blistering free improvisations lasting up to 45 or 50 minutes at a pop, or the saxophonist's unique and knowledgeable takes on jazz standards. And then there's Gayle's past history of living homeless, allegedly by choice at least for awhile - which incorporates his devout religious beliefs - and his persona of Streets, a sad-faced clown whom he portrayed onstage in the '90s and whom he resurrects for the cover and title of this latest album.

Streets finds Gayle back on his original tenor horn (he has played alto in the past, not to mention piano and, more recently, upright bass). His tone is gruff, sounding something akin to a bar walking r&b honker. While his music is nowhere near that style, neither does he hit the ground screaming either. "Compassion I" begins with a descending line that feels like a Coltrane-esque theme, and Gayle develops that over Larry Roland's double stops and Michael TA Thompson's snare cracks. This track also shows a surprising sense of economy: Gayle's first solo ends around 2:55 and he turns the spotlight on Thompson. Before the track ends just a couple minutes later, Roland also gets in a solo.

The title track brings in some wide tenor vibrato over a droning bowed bass. At 10 minutes, this gives the trio a chance to stretch out, and even though things sound disjointed in the way they move, they still support each other. More surprises come in "March of April," with its marching drum beat, and "Doxology," another 10-minute piece that has a surprise coda that turns into a ballad courtesy of some more vibrato, this time more romantic than Ayler-esque.

"Tribulations" joyfully smashes the mood set up by "Doxology," heading into some old school Gayle wailing. Here, the trio evokes the image of a domestic fight in a classic film, with dishes being thrown as voices flair. Only in this case, that's a good thing. Long time Gayle supporters should enjoy this whole set. Those new to his work, who don't know where to start with his output, would do well to begin here.

Chicago Underground Duo
Age of Energy

Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have been making albums with the Chicago Underground moniker for 15 years, always challenging listeners to rethink the possibilities for what a couple guys (and the occasional extra friends) can create. Anyone who just wants to hear wild cornet and drums blowing is going to have to wait.

Age of Energy finds the duo creating a lot of texture and mood, sometimes very slowly, where things don't always move at a steady pace. "Winds and Sweeping Pines" last nearly 20 minutes and doesn't rush to get the action started. After four minutes of outer space electronics, a bassline finally surfaces, and Taylor gives it a backbeat 60 seconds later. This continues for about another five minutes, without much presence beyond the groove. In the last quarter of the track, things finally feel energized when a faster bass riff sets up Mazurek's cornet, and Taylor joins him.

"It's Alright" feels like a modern version of something like Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" from Get Up With It. A loop of electronics drones in the background while Mazurek sings the title through a wall of tremolo and blows some cornet through the haze. Some wild sounds pass through, like something that sounds like a feedback loop that speeds up and slows down, but it might have been more exciting if Mazurek played something more lines than long tones.

Taylor plays mbira (African finger piano) on "Castle In Your Heart," which sounds a little distorted and overdriven. The effect gives it a lot of presence and makes the duet with the cornet (the sole acoustic tune here) one of the albums best moments. With that, the duo wraps things up with the title track, a wild blend of buzzing synth lines, wild drumming and energetic horn blowing.

Check out these and more at www.northern-spy.com

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