Saturday, December 16, 2017

CD Reviews: Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal - Hide Ye Idols/ Tomas Fujiwara - Triple Double

Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal
Hide Ye Idols
(Loyal Label)

Tomas Fujiwara
Triple Double
(Firehouse 12)

This year in particular, it feels like there have been more drummer/composer/leader albums worthy of serious attention. There was a time when a drummer's session might have focused more on drum-centric creations, with the exception of albums by Art Blakey, who stocked his band with players who all the writing anyway. Bobby Previte really changed that in the '80s, with albums like my fave Pushing the Envelope. But in addition to people like Tyshawn Sorey, players like Vinnie Sperrazza and Tomas Fujiwara are all coming up with strong works that aren't focused on trap kit experiments.

Hide Ye Idols features the same quartet that Sperrazza convened on 2014's Apocryphal: guitarist Brandon Seabrook, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and bassist Eivind Opsvik. The combination of Seabrook and Stillman offers plenty of opportunities for contrast between the former's exquisite skill at noisy skronk and the latter's gentle, pensive tones. "Sun Ra" practically guarantees that the album begins with several adjustments of the volume before it finishes. A slow drone leads to a calm alto melody before the wildness begins. What's interesting is that the source of these wild sounds can be hard to pinpoint. It could be Seabrook working his magic (vocalizing into his pickups?), or Opsvik could be doing it on the bass. Whether or not the piece was meant as a full-blown homage to its namesake, it delivers a strong opening statement.

The Apocryphal quartet doesn't stay set in one role for the whole set, however. In "People's History" Stillman's tone turns jagged and raw on the staccato theme. With an opening that sounds like synth bass and a lengthy coda that recalls an air raid siren and pure static, the track makes the Brooklyn group sound like they're bringing their jazz chops to bear on a fearless indie rock sensibility. (The album's grainy cover photo and minuscule text on a navy blue background adds to this indie quality.)

And again, like any smart band, they don't stay there for long either. The raucous Mr. Seabrook, who sounds like he's cutting in and out on "St. Jerome," plays clean, beautiful chords on the ballad "Bulwer Lytton." The title track continues this mood, putting an echo delay on Stillman's horn.

Sperrazza already has a diverse c.v. that includes time with trumpeters Dave Douglas and Ralph Alessi. He came to Pittsburgh a few years ago in Hearing Things, a trio with saxophonist Matt Bauder and keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch, that played surf instrumentals that weren't ironic but right on the money. His work as a composer continues to grow too, with a group that brings great momentum to it.

The link between Hide Yr Idols and Triple Double is Brandon Seabrook. On Fujiwara's session, he is paired up with guitarist Mary Halvorson. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum provide two perspectives on their brass. Behind it, Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver both sit behind the kits. "Triple Double" in this case means two trios of the same instruments, or three duos, depending on how you look at it. Each guitar/drums/brass trio is panned to a separate channel, offering some ability to distinguish between the players. "Diving for Quarters" opens with  the guitarists engaging in a languid for turbulent duet, making it easy to separate the two most distinct voices. As each player gradually enters the composition slowly takes shape and by the time they finish, it's hard to believe that nearly 11 minutes have gone by.

A few "break-out" pieces contribute to the album's diversity. In "Hurry Home B/G" and "Hurry Home M/T" the same compositions is played by Seabrook and Cleaver first, Halvorson and Fujiwara second. "B/G" moves languidly, with slow guitar notes flavored by the occasional effect bend and waves of cymbal rolls from Cleaver. The second version sounds more turbulent. Halvorson plays at a quicker pace, with her guitar bathed in tremolo throughout. Fujiwara plays all over the kit.

"For Alan" features the two drummers creating waves of sounds, bookended by a recording of a lesson given by jazz drummer Alan Dawson (Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins) to a then 10-year-old Fujiwara. In the recording, the young drummer is uncomfortable with the task of improvising and Dawson explains it, later offering some insight into the foundation of syncopation. The way that the drums weave into the recording, and vice-versa, makes an intriguing listen that takes it beyond a simple "drum duet" idea.

The ability to get mileage out of smaller building blocks makes Triple Double a strong work. In the big picture, the lack of a bassist or any other low end, or chordal, instrument, never becomes a handicap. In his writing, Fujiwara builds "To Hours" on a rigid 5/8 riff that continues through the piece but it never feels stiff, due to the way the players add contrast and embellish it. "Decisive Shadow" is built on an even trickier 13/8 rhythm, which comes in a snaky blend of three 3s plus four (if I'm counting right) from guitars and drums.

"Love and Protest" might be the album's most dramatic piece. Both drummers roll and crash feverishly, with Seabrook sustaining a pedal point under the horns' pensive melody. The drumming never sounds busy or excessive as they fuel the energy of the piece. The album might take a few listeners to pick up on everything, but it's also the kind of album that keeps drawing you back for more anyway.

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