Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda & Barry Altschul at Alphabet City

I went out of order again, posting about the Steve Lehman Trio's Sunday night show before talking about the OGJB Quartet show which happened last week at Alphabet City.

Every September for the last 15 years, saxophonist Oliver Lake has gotten together with City of Asylum to present a program of jazz and poetry with music and poets, many of whom are exiled from their native countries. In the past, he brought in the World Saxophone Quartet, Vijay Iyer and Jump Up. The one-night event has grown to a whole month of performances, where poets perform with live music, usually following a set that the band plays by itself.

This year Lake brought in his cooperative group that includes Graham Haynes (cornet, dousn' gouni), Joe Fonda (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums). (The name derives from their first initials.) TUM released their CD Bamako this year, presenting a great set of composed works and group improvisations by these veteran players.

Live, they were just as tight. One audience member seemed bothered by the fact that Oliver Lake seemed to stick to long tones on his alto, but the sustained notes just seemed to give Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul more freedom to roll and tumble around. Their contributions to the set were the highlights of it. But Haynes' switch to dousn' gouni (a stringed instrument) added to the other wordly sound of the performance, bringing some more sustained drones to it.

Poets Alicia Ostriker, Osama Alomar, Batsirai Easther Chigama, Efe Duyan and Takako Arai each performed with the group. Some of the poems were short and involved the whole group going into a walking groove behind them. Other ones were longer and more impressionistic with just one or two musicians.. Not all of the poets write in English, so translations were provided on the screen behind the band. While poetry and jazz can head down a slippery slope, succumbing to bad stereotypes about poets over-emoting, getting lost in the music, or just drowned out by it, the performers tonight worked really well  to integrate both words and music. It looked like Fonda had the words on his music stand - or maybe it was a music chart. So the group knew when to stop and made each reading stand alone as a unique piece, rather than just creating a backdrop for the poets.

(Note: the first picture here is a shot of the monitor on one side of the room. I was sitting near the back and couldn't get a good shot of the whole band otherwise.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Steve Lehman Trio in Cleveland

I've been a fan of Steve Lehman since I heard his 2009 album Travail, Transformation and Flow. The alto saxophonist recorded it with an octet, creating some of the most unique post-millennium jazz I felt I had ever heard. Plus his alto technique is pretty staggering, with lines that attack with lightning speed and still manage to stop on a dime, mid-thought, twisting the melody even more creatively into some time signature that gets too distracting to try and count. He has a wild tone as well, blunt and a little gruff but crystal clear at the same time.

Lehman has recorded a few albums with a trio of drummer Damion Reid and bassist Matt Brewer. The latest, The People I Love, adds pianist Craig Taborn to the trio and was released by Pi just recently. A few years ago, he brought hit octet to Oberlin College, including drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Having missed that show, I made it my mission to get to Cleveland to see the trio at the Bop Stop this past Sunday, September 22. It was worth the trip

First of all, the Bop Stop is a beautiful place. A few friends of mine head down there regularly (and in fact where there on Friday to see Miles Okazaki) but I didn't know what kind of space it was, jazz club vs. just a room with a p.a. It is a beautiful room with great acoustics, tables down front near the stage, a bar in the back and a great view of Lake Erie out the windows. (Locals might not call it "great," but this out-of-towner dug it.) Once a free-standing club, it's now a non-profit space connected to the Music Settlement, which provides music therapy and instruction.

Midway through a seven-day tour that started in California, the trio was extremely tight. You have to be for the kind of jagged music that they play, but they were comfortable with the nuances of it to take it to a level that generated excitement. 

Reid was a perfect example of this comfort level because he never looked at his kit while he was playing, but knew exactly when to hit, tearing off fills like they were nothing. It seemed like Lehman didn't stop to take a breath at all during the first piece, circular breathing to keep the notes flying. A few times, Brewer looked to his left and it seemed like he was keeping casual eye contact going with Reid. But after awhile, it started to look more like he was eyeing up the neck of his bass, as if he was getting into a deep conversation with his instrument about how to drive the music. Sitting right in front on center stage, it was sometimes hard to hear Brewer's playing clearly, but you could definitely feel it. His solo in "Fumba Rebel" provided plenty of evidence that he was working hard. A few tunes later, Reid opened a song with drum solo that hit hard as thunder.

Lehman didn't make light of it being the day before John Coltrane's birthday, but he did play two of the tenor giant's pieces. "Moment's Notice" was recorded on the trio's Dialect Flourescent and like that version, the theme proper didn't appear until the end of the song. Until the point, it was a detailed, pointillistic exploration of the melody. Earlier in the set, they played Coltrane's "Satellite," taking it in 7/8, which Reid swung like crazy.

On disc, I've been partial to Lehman's octet work but The People I Love is changing that. The trio has really grown and developed into a remarkable group. Instead of laying a foundation for the saxophonist's playing, Reid and Brewer play in a way that's deeply connected to Lehman, helping it stretch and retract as one.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

CD Review: Russ Lossing - Motian Music

Russ Lossing
Motian Music

This album came out in the early part of the year, and I've been listening to it a lot since then, waiting for the right moment to write about it, when the music is clear enough in my head to yield some coherent thoughts. Now's the time, it seems.

I've said this many times and, for that reason, this should probably be the last time it appears in print, true as it is: Paul Motian always seemed like he could express more feeling in one tap of the ride cymbal than most drummers could say in a whole solo. His approach to the drum kit sounded so personal, like thoughts flowing from the mind of a deep thinker.

By the same token, his compositions had much of that immediacy. They sprouted from the same focus on simplistic, but fertile, ideas. In Motian Music's liner notes, pianist Russ Lossing recounts the experience of reading through the drummer's compositions at his apartment as he finished them. "I play while he alternately hovers over me and walks around the apartment listening. 'It's slooooow,' he says... After I play the bare melody, Paul asks the inevitable question: 'What chords would you put under it?' A complicated question. to be sure; so many possibilities, so many directions."

Regardless of the possibilities, this set of of Motian's tunes gives credence to the idea that players shouldn't rush through the composition to focus on improvisation. In "Asia," which opens the album, Lossing doesn't stray far beyond the written theme. Instead, bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Billy Mintz open up a little, while the pianist repeats the theme with a bit more emphasis each time. It's not exactly the approach Thelonious Monk took, but his likeminded idea of keeping the melody close at hand comes through.

Mintz adds some very Motian-esque cymbal taps in "Introduction" which underscores Kamaguchi's simple pulse and Lossing's melody. A whole track of this would be enough, but they open it up into a detailed three-way conversation. "Etude" also begins gently, with Kamaguchi playing the melody, before Lossing picks it up and the trio rolls into it thoughtfully. When the song reaches a climax, the trio sounds like they're leading to a roaring finale, only to pull back and end as gently as they begin.

In addition to producing a stellar set, the trio's work also left me wondering how these tunes sounded when Motian played them, a sign of quality in any tribute album. While listening to it one night, I wrote down the original albums on which each track appears. Most of them are on ECM and are part of a six-album box set that the label released a few years ago. That list got lost in a sea of papers somewhere around here, but that just means that it's time to revisit the whole box. Or just play Motian Music again.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

CD Review: Ben Goldberg - Good Day for Cloud Fishing

Ben Goldberg
Good Day for Cloud Fishing

Ben Goldberg has incorporated poetry into his music on previous albums. His group the Tin Hat Trio drew from e. e. cummings for The Rain Is a Handsome Animal. The poetic musings of Allen Grossman, a writer and former teacher of Goldberg, were combined with music on Goldberg's expansive Orphic Machine. Good Day for Cloud Fishing takes the creative process deeper, creating a work that must be experienced physically.

The clarinetist wrote 12 pieces inspired by particular poems by Dean Young. When he recorded them with guitarist Nels Cline and trumpeter Ron Miles, Young came to the sessions and sat in an isolation booth, listening to the music. Not knowing which of his poems inspired the tunes being played, he in turn reacted to the trio by writing a new poem on the spot. The resulting 24 poems - the "entry" ones that lead to the music and the "exit" poetry that were born in the studio - are printed on cards that come in a clamshell box that houses the CD and a 16-page booklet.

The music on Good Day for Cloud Fishing can be approached from several angles. Overlook the poetic aspect of the album, and the attention zeroes in on a unique chamber group. It opens with a slow, whole note melody by Miles and Goldberg (who sounds like he overdubbed his contra-alto clarinet behind his B-flat clarinet). After the simple melody, which acts like a literal entrance, they turn the floor over to Cline, whose effects-heavy playing gives it a bit of a carnival-esque feel. All this serenity in a piece titled "Demonic Possession is 9/10s of The Law."

Throughout the set, the trio proves they could be a good accompaniment to Tom Waits ("A Rhyhtmia," "Ant-Head Sutures"), creates noirish soundtracks ("Because She Missed a Test, She Introduces Me to Her Boa"), get delicate ("Reality") and mix shrill and skronk ("Sub Club Punch Card"). Between Goldberg's contra-alto taking the role of a bassist, and Cline's rhythmic picking, it's easy to forget that the percussive feel in a track like "A Rhythmia" is not coming from a percussionist.

After exploring the music on its own, it's best to take a secondary listen with the poems in hand, understanding the way Young shaped the music, directly or indirectly. Goldberg didn't necessarily attempt to transfer a poem like "Surprised Again by Rain" into notes. But it, and the other poems, deepen the experience, in some way making the nuances in Goldberg's work more noticeable when they're discovered in tandem with the words.