Wednesday, April 10, 2019

CD Review: Michaël Attias - échos la nuit/ Larry Grenadier - The Gleaners

Michaël Attias
échos la nuit
(Our Of Your Head)

Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Michaël Attias and Larry Grenadier each went into the recording studio alone for these albums. The similarity between these albums really ends there, although both of them captured the qualities that can make a solo album as rewarding a listen as any session with a group.

For échos la nuit, Attias plays both alto saxophone and piano, often simultaneously. He didn't overdub in the session. His left hand played alto while his right handled the keys. In some ways, it's almost as if he took Rahsaan Roland Kirk's two- or three-horn approach and expanded upon it. The piano often acts as an accompaniment to his crisp saxophone lines, confirming them in "Echoes I Mauve" and returning to the main phrase introduced by the horn. They also move together in the angular "Trinité," clashing on an interval at the end of a phrase and sticking to their respective notes, like a left/right battle of wits. The piano strings reverberate when Attias hits a certain note in sax-only"Circles," sustaining and echoing the sound.

Attias shows dexterity and ease when playing both instruments together. If things sound rigid, the music calls for it, not for lack of ideas. Some tracks are based on snippets Attias had in his head for a dozen years but the session was largely improvised in just over an hour. So even if he forgoes the piano and gets introspective or stuck on an idea (the repetitive "Rue Oberkampf" is based on his studies of the Schillinger Technique), he adds something to the music to keep it from merely sounding like an exercise and gives it a proper payoff.

Solo bass albums can be some of the more challenging of the single instrument solo performances, due to its stark soundscape and the way frequency range where it lives. As on any album devoted to one instrument, a player can forget about songs and get lost in a display of various techniques (pizzicato/arco, low and eerie/high and shrill). But that hasn't stopped ECM from releasing numerous albums devoted to the instrument, starting with Dave Holland and Gary Peacock, leading up to last year's exemplary End to End by Barre Phillips, which I kept meaning to write about here.

Larry Grenadier could arguably called ubiquitous. His name appears frequently on albums, from his long tenure in Brad Mehldau's trio to time with Paul Motian and Pat Metheny and the cooperative trio Fly. The Gleaners comes off like a well-organized recital because each track feels like a developed composition.

"Pettiford" might be a largely improvised homage to the bebop legend, but Grenadier lays out his lines, flowing from short phrases to boppish riffs, in an extended complete work. The way he strikes his instrument, heavily but not heavy-handed, is spellbinding, and lets the wood resonate. The wood can be heard too when he uses his bow, especially when he spends time in the upper register ("Oceanic"), playing with rich clarity. One of two bagatelles composed by guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel features Grenadier's strings gracefully harmonizing, bringing out the power of the brief track's slow melody. In the countryfied "Woebegone" he plays rhythm and accompaniment simultaneously, overdubbing a second bass track.

I've often said that solo albums give a chance to get inside the head of a musician and find out what goes on. If these two albums are any indication, Attias and Grenadier's minds are hubs of activity with constant movement and development happening.

Monday, April 08, 2019

CD Review: Anna Webber - Clockwise

Anna Webber

Anna Webber came to Pittsburgh last fall with bassist Adam Hopkins' Crickets band, in which her tenor acted as one-third of a saxophone section that added to the free jazz-cum-indie rock style of the music. But that set offered no indication of what appears on Clockwise, Webber's tenth album under her own name.

These compositions were inspired by percussion works of 20th-century composers, among them Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgard Varése and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than appropriating their music, she extracted ideas from them, often creating works that begin with rigid, almost minimal movement. They're executed by a septet that moves beyond the percussive foundation of the work, while frequently maintaining a stark, unsettling quality to the writing.

Things get off to an tense start with a literal clockwise grouping of instruments in "Korē II." Cello (Christopher Hoffman), bass (Chris Tordini) and Webber's tenor overtone honk create a rhythmic cycle that skips every so often. Gradually Matt Mitchell (piano), Jeremy Viner (clarinet), Jacob Garchik (trombone) and Ches Smith (drums) flesh things out by cutting in with another segment, making it sound like the whole thing was created through editing and looping. It wasn't, as indicated by some added clarinet and cello noise, and Smith's fills. Like its bookend, "Korē I" the addition of these slight embellishments (in "I" they come when Tordini adds some passing tones) keep things from sounding stiff.

But the jerkiness of "Korē II" is no preparation for the abrasive blend of Webber and Viner's tenors that continue for the first two minutes of "Idiom II." When they finally break and Hoffman moves into a solo, it almost sounds like he's apologizing for the horns' imitation of whiny children.

Beyond that, Clockwise features a pretty compelling blend of adventurous writing and playing. It might be the instrumentation but Webber's writing sometimes evokes thoughts of Henry Threadgill. The movement of the music might not be apparent but the players move with clear direction. A piece like "Array" goes into different sections and where it lands comes as a complete surprise, one that begs for further examination.

Webber only gives herself one opportunity to show off her tenor skills, in  the 1:39 "Hologram Best." Much of the time she plays flute, alto flute or bass flute, contributing layers to this intriguing music instead of acting as an improviser. Viner takes the tenor solo in "Loper" a piece that builds up slowly for ten minutes, following the opening blast in "King of Denmark I." The other two "King" tracks on the album are short improvisations by Smith and Tordini respectively which Webber edited and reconstructed.

The methods Webber used on Clockwise - transferring percussive ideas to melodic instruments, emphasizing timbre - aren't explained in liner notes. Without any road map, listeners might be left scratching their heads at the music. Like the composers from which she took inspiration, this set comes off more like contemporary new music rather than jazz. Improvisation factors into it, but often it sounds more like something pre-composed but played with a spontaneous feeling. At the same time, much of requires repeated examination and, for the most part, the music inspires that feeling - as well as a desire to hear the nine albums that Webber released prior to Clockwise.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

CD Review: Moppa Elliott - Jazz Band/ Rock Band/ Dance Band

Moppa Elliott
Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band
(Hot Cup)

Moppa Elliott is not one to shy away from a big concept. The bassist, after all, took part in a note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue with the release of Blue by his band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. That band's m.o. from their earliest days was to be able to both play free and be able to a "genuinely convincing version of rhythm changes if we want to," as he told me a couple years ago. Elliott, and by extension the group which otherwise played his compositions almost exclusively, might have been a little provocative at times, and perhaps a bit ironic, but the guy knows the music inside and out. He know what he's talking about.

The scope of Jazz Band/Rock Band/ Dance Band brings forth a triumvirate of bands, each executed separately. Spread over two discs (or three records, according to the press kit) Elliott convenes three groups that live up to the album title: Advancing on a Wild Pitch, a straight ahead jazz quintet; Unspeakable Garbage, a quintet that plays instrumental rock; and Acceleration Due to Gravity, a nine-piece group that might not exactly be a dance band in a modern or traditional sense, but nevertheless produces a strong set.

Jazz Band features Sam Kulik's trombone and Charles Evans' baritone sax in front of a rhythm section consisting of Elliott, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman. This album features compositions from the MOPDtK book taken in a largely straightforward direction. ("Slab" is the only new composition.) The blend of the two lower horns gives the session a particularly rich sound.

While the arrangements of the slow waltz "Can't Tell Shipp from Shohola" approximates the version that appeared on Slippery Rock, hearing it without Kevin Shea's gargantuan press rolls allows it to become more like a ballad. "Herminie," dedicated to pianist Sonny Clark, settles more into the Horace Silver-esque bass line (think of "Que Pasa"), and, like a number of these tracks, creates music that would have sounded right at home on a '60s Blue Note album. Note - that's much different that an album that tries to sound like or recreates the feeling of an album like that. Furthermore, Moppa the band leader, Moppa the record label owner and Moppa the bassist have been recognized. This disc pays special attention to Moppa the composer.

Rock Band was inspired by a love of '80s rock music by members of the group that play on this session. Although they appear with era-appropriate pseudonyms on the cover, it consists of Elliott, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Dan Monaghan, keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and guitarist Nick Millevoi. On first examination, this set evokes one clear thought to someone who grew up in the not-always-awesome decade that it evokes: television theme songs. In the previous decade, funk made its way into living rooms via Sanford & Son and Barney Miller. In the '80s, the studios were merging big band charts  - and strings - with distorted guitars in a crossover attempt, much as the network brass was trying to lure viewers.. Catchy melodies were still there, but Magnum P.I.  and the sax-heavy opening to Cagney & Lacey added some steroids to the sound.

It's not hard to imagine a freeze frame on a smiling supporting cast member while listening to the anthemic "Stone Hill." "Big Rock," the final track, even moves with the farewell of a closing theme, as the credits role. During the themes of these cuts, Irabagon could very well be Tom Scott, belting away as if he's afraid of being drown out by the amplifiers.


Listen a few more times and you realize Scott would never unleash a torrent of altissimo wails and make a complete statement with them like Irabagon does in "Rocks, MD." (James Carter might, but that's another story.) Scott would also never get into a battle of noisy wits with a Farfisa organ as it happens in the punchy "Punxsutawney." Once the culture shock wears off, the charm sets in. This is no novelty. Elliott means it. Or if he doesn't, I'm still watching. Um... listening.

Dance Band features the bassist along with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Bryan Murray (soprano, tenor and his own balto! saxophone), Matt Murray (alto, soprano), Kyle Saunier (baritone), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Dave Taylor (trombone),  George Burton (piano) and Mike Pride (drums). It also has some of the wildest performances of the whole set.

This set features the one non-Elliott piece in the form of Kanye West's "Power." The arrangement will most likely leave its author scratching his head. In addition to regular interjections for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," it includes a pungent alto solo by Murray, followed by an absolutely searing trumpet solo from Wooley, a harmonized soprano duet that could have been lifted from the last track and a final statement from Mendoza. The rest of the set is equally dense, coming off sometimes as heavy but also highly layered.

It all makes you wonder how Moppa Elliott can follow a magnum opus like this.