Monday, January 04, 2016

Stuff You Might Have Missed: Jen Shyu, Chris Kelsey/Lewis Porter, Darts & Arrows

One of the reasons that it takes me a while to post album reviews stems from the rather obsessive way that I feel like I need to really know an album inside-out, up and down, before writing about it. As a result I have to listen to things numerous times, with close attention, which doesn't come easy to me. Add to that a pile of discs which grows exponentially before I can review but one, stir in my listening dilemma ("Hmmm, what should it be today? This? No. Maybe that. No, I think if I give this another listen maybe I'll stick to me.") and you see why I'm neurotic

Now that 2015 is over, and all the Critic's Lists have been out for a couple weeks, I have decided to double back and talk briefly about a couple albums that you might have missed over the past 12 months and should be reexamined. 

Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue
Sounds and Cries of the World

It was a good year for Pi, in terms of their releases. New albums by Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman have been heralded in year-end polls, and rightly so because they both released fascinating and challenging music. Pianist Matt Mitchell also released a double-disc album, which is nothing like the hot mess of his 2013 Pi debut. It does, however, evoke his current bandleader Tim Berne, in terms of composition and because it features Chris Speed, who played tenor and clarinet in Berne's Bloodcount group. And then there's vocalist Jen Shyu, who returns to Pi after four-year hiatus, following an album of duets with bassist Mark Dresser.

Full disclosure- I'm not big on jazz vocalists. Sure the legends are fine, but hand me an album with a current artist doing "My Funny Valentine" or anything associated with Frank Sinatra, and watch my enthusiasm wane. (I was quite disappointed to find out that the mediocre version of the mediocre Paul McCartney song "Bluebird," which I kept hearing at my old job, was recorded by a highly regarded jazz vocalist. Why spend time on such a lackluster song, and why soften the "b"s on the title to make it sound like "voo-vird"? It ain't sexy. At least when it's piped into a store.) At the other end of the jazz spectrum, I'm not really into vocalists who try to use their voice like a free jazz instrument either. It reminds me of annoying kids at the cafeteria table during junior high. Or bad Tourette's Syndrome imitations.

But Jen Shyu continues to rise above any vocal pitfalls. She frequently uses her voice like an instrument without the need for sibilant noises or warbles. Her delivery is fueled by passion for her material. Even when she sings in a non-English language, it's not necessary to understand the words to be won over by the performance.

Sounds and Cries of the World nevertheless makes for a challenging listen in terms of both compositional background and delivery. The lyrics come in English, Korean, Indonesian, Javanese and Tetum. All are printed in an accompanying book, with contextual information and translations. Half the album's tracks comes from a performance piece Solo Rites: Seven Breaths and most of the album's most intense moments are found there. Shyu accompanies herself on stringed instruments from Taiwan, Korea and Java.

On other tracks she's accompanied by Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Mat Maneri (viola), Thomas Morgan (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums). Much of it sounds loose and free, some almost blending together. But the interactions of the musicians, and the source material, gives the album its strength. Shyu occasionally goes into some upper register trills that some have compared to that Canadian-born folksinger that wrote "Woodstock" (another roadblock for me) but that's more of a generalization than a direct comparison. Shyu's performance is really unprecedented, going beyond easy categories and - with the closing "Thoughts of Light and Freedom" - reaches an intensity level that can't be contained.

Chris Kelsey/Lewis Porter
Free: Kelsey/Porter Duo Plays Ornette, Vol. 1
(Tzazz Krytyk)

Saxophonist Chris Kelsey was putting the finishing touches on this album of Ornette Coleman tunes, recorded with pianist Lewis Porter, when the legendary harmolodic progenitor passed away. So don't accuse Kelsey of jumping on the bandwagon. 

The idea of piano in an Ornette song is still something of a rarity these days, or at least worthy of a raised eyebrow. (Geri Allen played on his Sound Museum discs, breaking a moratorium of over 30 years since Walter Norris played on Something Else!!). But Lewis Porter knew him personally so if anyone else should have an appreciation for the way this music transfers to the piano, it should be him. 

Kelsey plays a straight alto saxophone on this session, which has a bit of a gruff tone. At times he sounds close to growling through his instrument, peeling off lines that are much more rapid than those of Ornette. Porter's melodic choices prove interesting as well. In "Free," he starts to play a walking bassline for just a few bars, as if to test the waters, or to see if his co-conspirator is paying attention. It's a clever move that vanishes as quickly as it appears, and this type of camaraderie runs through the album. The two of them get a little turbulent on "Harlem's Manhanttan," touch on more serious blues in "Airborne" and sound like they're having a genuine discussion on "Forerunner."

Free features a number of Coleman tunes that dig into the deeper reaches of his discography. A strong work on its own (which I'm sure the honoree would've dug), it also makes you want to rediscover the originals. (Incidentally, this disc came out around the same time as Duets NYC Woodstock, an album of free improvisations by Kelsey [on soprano sax] and guitarist Dom Minasi, 

Darts & Arrows

Guitarist Bill MacKay grew up in Pittsburgh, but we never crossed paths, as far as I can recall. But I wish I had heard him. As the leader of Chicago's Darts & Arrows, he too isn't settling easily into a specific style of music. Instead, his work has a pensive beauty that brings a little bit of jazz harmonies together with an execution that is similar to composers like Jeremy Udden or Wayne Horvitz (at least on his last album), evoking the wide-open plains of America and the suspense that comes when surveying it.

If that sounds convoluted, drop everything and find "Evergreen," the opening track on Altamira. The lonely chords of the song sound like the riff to "Hey Joe" spilled on the floor in arhythmical groupings. It has a yearning quality, bolstered by the addition of Nick Mazzarella's alto and Renee Baker's viola to the D&A quartet (which features keyboardist Ben Boye, bassist Kyle Hernanadez and drummer Quin Kirchner). Over the past couple of months, I couldn't get enough of this song.

As the disc moves on, the Dirty Three's style of delivery comes to mind, with mid-tempos and suspense built into dynamic shifts. But MacKay isn't one to beat out one riff ad nauseum. These songs move and breathe freely. "The Well-Wishers," originally a string quartet piece that MacKay composed for one of Baker's projects, has some of the same dark suspense to it. "Look Out" also goes in a rollicking direction of Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock.

Anytime you come back to visit, Bill, let me know.

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