Saturday, May 30, 2020

CD & DL Review: Threadbare (Jason Stein/ Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton) - Silver Dollar & Greg Ward/Jason Stein/ Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux - 85 Bears

Though, at this point, we're all still pretty much under quarantine, a number of albums are still being released. In fact, several musicians will have multiple albums hit the street in 2020, in some fashion. Matthew Shipp is one of them, which reminds me - my review of his latest album, Piano Equation, is up on JazzTimes' website, and can be found right here.

Add Jason Stein to that list. The bass clarinet maestro has two new releases with two vastly different projects, both destined to raise intrigued eyebrows due to their musical and, perhaps, physical formats. 

Threadbare (Jason Stein/Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton)
Silver Dollar

Threadbare finds Stein putting his musical head together with guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton. The latter two are Oberlin graduates who have jazz pedigrees but they also play in the indie rock band Moontype. Together with Stein, they create something that sits at the crossroads of adventurous jazz and post-rock. To be specific, they evoke a version of the Dirty Three, with Warren Ellis' violin switched out for Stein's bass clarinet. Much like that Australian group, this trio doesn't always seem in a rush to move at full throttle, preferring a languid opening in a piece like "Threadbare 02" before reaching a shambolic climax.

Cruz strums an unsyncopated rhythm in the intro of  "70 Degrees and Counting Down," with Hunton bashing behind him, unsure whether to keep the tempo or break loose. But while the Dirty Three use elongated time and dynamics to make their points, Threadbare draws on both their technical skills and indie rock candor to take this music places. This track in particular rises in waves, only to pause and start again at a lower volume.

While Cruz could have coasted on his chordal playing, he also peels off some strong leads, recalling Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock during a distorted break in "Funny Thing Is." "Untitled" also shows off his melodic skills. Hunton's inventive playing offers a strong future that could find him amazing free jazz or rock. Hopefully both.

The album's heaviest moment comes in "Silver Dollar," where Stein and Cruz create a long sustained low drone, with Hunton stoking the waves that crash against them. The piece has harmonic variety to it even as they create a fierce noise. Rather than just savage squalling, Stein's overtones give it dimension even as it threatens to make the whole thing melt. Cruz adds some upper register chordal variety to make it sound fuller. Not satisfied to blow listeners ears, the trio brings it down to a calm level to close it.

All the tracks on Silver Dollar were written by either Cruz or Hunton, with one a collaboration. The trio's wide ranging sound could sound right at home in an edgy jazz club or they could fit right in at a primitive DIY space with a few indie rock bands.

Greg Ward/Jason Stein/Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux

Following last year's excellent album/band Nature Work, Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward come  together with some friends for something much looser. The order of the day is free blowing and the overarching theme, for lack of a better word, gets its power from the 1985 roster of the Chicago Bears. All 11 tracks are named for a member of that Super Bowl XX-winning team.

Bassist Matt Lux and drummer Marcus Evans play on the majority of the tracks, though Chad Taylor occupies the drum stool on three. Evans interacts well with the horn players, occasionally playing in duet form. On the opening "Lament for Sweetness," though, his switches to electronics for a 59-second sound puzzle with Ward. Throughout, Stein and Ward bounce ideas off one another, blowing long tones or running parallel. (Maybe they are evoking football players after all.) Lux often acts as more a support player, adding shape to things.

The biggest surprise comes with Taylor's performances on "Wilbur," "Gault" and "Suhey." He overdubbed his parts two years after the initial tracks were laid down. But you would never know consider the way his feisty rim work on "Wilbur" blends so well with Ward and Stein. He and Lux sound right at home behind the bass clarinetist in "Gault."  These concise tracks have a direction that isn't always felt throughout the rest of the album. However there are many points where things congeal and with the longest track coming in at seven minutes, the scene changes before things get too aimless.

The label ears&eyes typically releases albums on CD but 85bears is being sold as either a download (hence the Bandcamp link above) or, for those still missing the '90s, on cassette. Hearing it on tape might make the starts and endings of different tracks hard to detect, but in some ways, that's part of the fun of it, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

CD Review: Dayna Stephens Trio - Liberty

Dayna Stephens Trio
(Contagious Music)

Maybe it's my ears, but between "Ran" and "Faith Leap," the first two tracks on Liberty, Eric Harland's drum sound changes. On "Ran" his snare drum cracks and rolls the way one might expect from a recording made at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios, where this album was made. "Faith Leap" is built on a straight 4/4 beat and the snare has a dry sound, like one that could be sampled from, or for, a more contemporary pop/R&B song. It fits perfectly into the track, though, guiding Ben Street's understated, funky bass line and leader/saxophonist Dana Stephens' highly melodic lines which say a lot without rushing.

Harland returns to a crisp snare crack for "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact of John Coltrane's "Straight Street" with a theme that lives up to its bent title. Then two tracks later, "The Lost and Found" takes the tempo down slow and Stephens switches from tenor (which he plays on the majority of the album) to baritone, and that dry, spare snare sound returns. Originally appearing on Stephens' debut album, The Timeless Now, it features the saxophonist and Street harmonizing on the melody together rather than working as soloist and accompanist.

These are some of the more minute things that come while examining Liberty at close range (and on different sound systems, for what that's worth). There is plenty to dig into on a more immediate level with the trio's performance as well. Stephens writes bright, ear-tugging melodies that generate some strong, infectious group interplay. The lack of a chordal instrument opens up the space and each player takes the opportunity to branch out, not necessarily with complexity but with dynamics and accents. 

The effects can be liberating, to borrow from the album. "Loosy Goosy" is built on "rhythm changes," but doesn't betray that melodic source when the trio digs into them, even when Stephens and Harland trade some heavy fours. "Tarifa" has Stephens on alto (double-tracked in the theme) for a rhythmic folk melody inspired by the titular locale, on the edge of Spain, just miles from Morocco. While bass and drums vamp, Stephens plays over them, going in several directions which all manage to lock in with his bandmates.

Saxophone trios might not be as common as, say, a piano trio with a horn. But the setting usually brings out a keen awareness in players about how space can be filled or left open. One JD Allen performance made me think he was combining funk and Coltrane. Years ago Sonny Rollins set a gold standard on albums like Way Out West, while Ornette Coleman charted a completely different path in his trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, making close listening paramount to a where the whole composition might go.

Dana Stephens is no newcomer to this music. Liberty is his ninth album as a leader. But at this point in his career, which was sidelined for some time due to a rare kidney disease, his playing reveals greater maturity and depth. In other words, he knows all about Liberty.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

DL Review: Steve Lehman - Xenakis & the Valedictorian / Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - InWhatStrumentals

When the coronavirus pandemic kicked into high gear, Pi Recordings responded proactively with a musical series entitled This Is Now: Love In the Time of COVID. The label is producing special digital-only releases, with the proceeds going to people hit hard by the pandemic. Two have come out so far, with more promised in the near future.

Steve Lehman
Xenakis and the Valedictorian

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman was balancing a remote teaching position at California Institute of the Arts with the homeschooling of his two children in March of this year. When he realized the quarantine was going to preclude celebrating his mother's 80th birthday with her, he sent her a few short recordings of his daily saxophone practices - recorded in the passenger seat of his 2011 Honda CR-V. They became the tracks for his new EP.

Far from a lo-fi set of practice tunes, Xenakis and the Valedictorian is a ten-minute/ten track series of blasts that reaffirms Lehman's reputation as an innovator. He swears in the Bandcamp description that these tracks weren't doctored with effects. If that's true, he did a fine job of imagining what his horn would sound like if it were run through a flanger ("808s") or a vintage digital delay pedal with the pitch manipulation ("Formant vs. Formant"). Each brief track flows into one another, extended technique quickly getting shoved out of the way by tart blowing, and percussive pad smacking sharing space with the sound of air flow. Consider this a modern take of For Alto, created in a time where brevity is de rigeur and still allows a musician to make a strong statement. 

And happy belated birthday to Mrs. Lehman. (If I got your surname wrong, I apologize.) 

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

Pianist Vijay Iyer and poet-producer Mike Ladd released In What Language in 2003, capturing the mood of the post-9/11 world where discrimination and scapegoating were in full effect for Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and other non-whites. This new release takes the instrumental tracks from the album and presents them in some ways as meditations that reflect on both the current malaise and what the world looked like 17 years ago. 

Without words to drive the music, the instrumental set emphasizes the way Iyer arranged sharp contrast between tracks, in terms of mood and instrumentation. Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone) and Dana Leong (trombone as well as cello) create an often dreamy ambiance, while Iyer alternates acoustic piano and electronic keyboards, with Ladd also playing the latter. His longtime collaborator, bassist Stephan Crump, lays down grooves with drummer Trevor Holder that allow Iyer to play contrasting time signatures ("Rentals") or sprint over the piano keys like Cecil Taylor ("Iraqi Businessman"). As instrumentals the music still offers plenty to take in and contemplate. 

Proceeds from Lehman's album will help musicians in need while those from Iyer and Ladd's album will support immigrant groups and commnunities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

CD Review: Lina Allemano's Ohrenschmaus -Rats and Mice/ Lina Allemano - Glimmer Glammer

There are several things I would like to write about now, and I thought about grouping them together thematically, rather than by artist. A review of a few solo instrument albums occurred to me. Lina Allemano's solo trumpet disc seemed like the perfect thing to combine with solo albums by saxophonists Steve Lehman and Tim Berne. But I haven't gotten Berne's album yet. His album with Nasheet Waits has only gotten one play so I still want to dig into that, which reinforced the idea of keeping the artists together. Plus Lehman's mini release was quickly followed by another online Pi release by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, making the artist and label combinations seem like the way to go. Which brings us to.......

Lina Allemano's Ohrenschmaus
Rats and Mice 

Lina Allemano
Glimmer Glammer

Trumpeter Lina Allemano splits her time between Toronto and Berlin, where she leads a number of groups. Two of them have even made it to Pittsburgh - the thoughtful wild bop of the Lina Allemano Four and the free and raucous Titanium Riot. Based in Berlin, Ohrenschmaus (German for "ear candy") finds her in the company of Norwegian bassist Dan Peter Sundland and German drummer Michael Griener. 

If one were to construct a Venn diagram of Allemano's work, Ohrenschmaus would likely fit in the gray area between her quartet and Titanium Riot. This trio has the frenzy of the latter - in fact the album begins with Allemano emitting some guttural blasts while Griener sounds like he's tinkering in a metal shop. They're also just as likely to settle into a bit more structure, sometimes rubato and sometimes freely but always in a manner where they work in tandem with one another.

Sunderland is credited with electric bass, and several tracks feature him with bow in hand. It infers that he either alternates between the bass guitar and upright, or that his pizzicato work replicates the sounds of bass guitar strings on a fretboard. (A quick Google image search found shots of him playing a hollow body bass guitar, bow in hand so maybe I'm wrong on both guesses.) His seering bow work blends perfectly with Allemano's breathy technique in "Rats, Mice and Everything Nice." In "Ostsee," Sundland and Griener make a rigid 5/8 vamp feel groovy before they toss things into free territory. Griener, who accentuates his kit with metallic artillery, adds color and visceral force to the trio. 

The contributions of the two players gives Allemano the chance to draw on her full range of techniques. After the moments during the first half that evoke a scaled down Art Ensemble, "GrĂ¼ner Schmaus" begins with a crisp, clean line that almost ventures into straightahead territory. Of course it doesn't, but she uses the rhythm section's groove to great advantage. As good as the trio is with the improvisation, Allemano gives the tracks composed lines that bring the ideal amount of cohesion to the freedom, and adding some forward direction.

For Glimmer Glammer, Allemano goes it alone, with just her trumpet and a few resonating devices to bend the sound of her horn. Solo horn albums, as interesting as they are (at least to these ears). can often be more like a series of improvisations each designed to show off different extended techniques rather than act like a solo recital of compositions, spontaneous or otherwise. While Glimmer Glammer does show off some bold technical ideas, it's not chops on display. These are fully developed pieces. In "Portrait of Sticks" she continually returns from improvisations that utlize the range back to a melody that combines bop with a brighter version of "Taps." It sustains itself for all eight minutes, never slowing down.

The multiphonics of "Clamour" come next, with Allemano providing a dead-on imitation of a guitar run through a pedalboard of effects. Through the use of circular breathing, her instrument never even sounds like a trumpet until the final second, when she comes up for air. Things get even more abstract in the title track, with staccato notes breaking through sounds that she produces in her left hand, crumpling paper or something similar.

Allemano was motivated to create the solo album in part due to the 2019 death of her friend and collaborator Justin Haynes. The album closes with a piece dedicated to him, "One Man Down." In it, Allemano deftly alternates between open bell and mute, sliding from one to another in an emotionally direct but extremely dramatic melody. Bookended by lengthy pauses, she glides into to more bottom-end growls, which makes the whole track encapsulate the moods of loss, from reflective to melancholic to distraught. It's a dramatic end to the album and also presents all of Allemano's skills as a player on display.

Monday, May 04, 2020

RIP Richie Cole

The past Saturday afternoon, I was on my break at work, scrolling through the usual media traps on my phone when I saw it. Pittsburgh bassist Mark Perna posted that Richie Cole, the world-renowned alto saxophonist and Pittsburgh resident for about seven years, had passed away. The loss felt really personal.

His family has said Cole died of natural causes. But having spent the early part of that morning reading about a musician friend who is dealing with Covid-19 (even after having tested negative for it) and thinking about another musician friend who is sidelined with something similar, it's hard to wrap my head around Cole not being on the planet anymore. That feeling comes in large part because he was so full of wild energy.

After having heard that he was living in town, I finally met him in 2016. He was tearing it up with a quartet at a bar in Carnegie, PA that didn't look like it was a place to hear jazz. (It looked more like a place where you'd go to watch football.) Yet, there he was blowing through standards like nobody I had ever heard outside of Phil Woods, who had been a mentor and teacher to Cole when he was growing up. And Woods had passed away a year before that, so it really appeared that Richie was the heir apparent to that throne. He was the last of a generation of alto players that came up following the bebop era that could still find a wealth of ideas in those classics. There are great alto saxophonists out there but Cole was the kind that made you hit the bar and yell, "Goddam!" when he cut loose.

Cole was a ham too. That first night I met him, he invited a few younger guys to sit in with him. One asked Cole if he knew "Blue Bossa," trumpeter Kenny Dorham's merging of bossa nova and hard bop, and a song that often gets trotted out at jam sessions. "I hate that song," Cole said, gruffly. There might have been an expletive in there too, but I can't quite recall. A few days later when we reconvened at the bar for a formal talk, he told the bartender, "There's an interview going on. Don't get to yappy."

But he had a way of blurring the line between jokes and seriousness, schmaltz and quality music. He arranged a version of the Frankie Avalon hit "Venus" that started out sounding like "Poinciana" and made you realize that the former song was pretty catchy after all. He quoted "The Candy Man" in the middle of "Pure Imagination," another song that came from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When he started to solo, watch out. There was not clowning going on then.

While the mention of Buddy Rich gets many people thinking about his flashy solos or the controversial tapes recorded stealthily on his tour bus - in which the tough drummer berated the players in his band - Cole had nothing but good things to tell me about Rich. "Buddy used to say, ‘The bus leaves at 12:00, and I don’t mean 12:01.’ He only asked you to be on time and do your job. That’s why Buddy and I got along great. I did my job. I minded my own business and I treated him with the respect that he deserved."

The last time I saw Cole was last summer. He attended an event at the cemetery where my wife worked, checking out a performance by local puppeteer Dave English. The saxophonist was walking with a cane but there was still plenty of fire in him. I had heard earlier this year, pre-pandemic, about a recording that might be involving him. Now I won't get a chance to ask him about that or anything else that's going on, or bond over our mutual wearing of berets

This isn't a proper obit or bio of his work. If you want more details on his life, JazzTimes just posted a real obituary for him which you can find here. At the bottom, there's a link to my feature on him for the magazine.

But I felt that I needed to pay homage to Richie. It's not often that a jazz musician who has already established himself suddenly settles down in Pittsburgh. It was quite a coup. And I think we did something for him. He called Pittsburgh "my own Shangri-La." He also hooked with a number of players who helped him put together his Alto Madness Orchestra, which exemplified Cole's sharp arranging skills, something he considered a bigger priority than playing alto. With the help of the aforementioned Perna, and a cast of players, Cole added to his already-massive discography while living in town. The guy was full of ideas.

So in closing, I'll leave you with the one thing he told me that really summed him up. For once, I don't have to edit this for word count: “I don't play the saxophone. I sing the saxophone. I blow the saxophone as a vocalist. I tell a story. ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ does not have a trumpet solo, a piano solo and a bass solo. It would ruin the whole thing. It’s a story – a short story. You want a novel, listen to John Coltrane! And that’s good too, man!”

Thanks, Richie.