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. 

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