Friday, July 31, 2020

CD Review: Jacob Garchik - Clear Line

Jacob Garchik
Clear Line

One of the defining moments of Clear Line occurs in the climax of "Moebius and Mucha." After trumpeters Jonathan Finlayson and Adam O'Farrill joust with each other, they inspire the 13 horns in the trombonist's latest project (Garchik only conducts and composes here) to create a descending line where 11 or 12 notes (it's hard to tell how many after awhile) are stacked on top of one another for a beautiful cluster of sound. When the ensemble comes together a moment later to quickly state a full chord, a sound echoes behind them that leaves a phantom note ringing in the ether. Whether they created a ghostly harmonic or one of the horns snuck that tone in behind everything, it's a testament to the power of acoustic instruments, still able to blow down walls or minds.

While Clear Line indeed features a baker's dozen of horns, Garchik jettisoned a rhythm section, not really needing one with four trumpets, three trombones, one bass trombone, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones and one baritone saxophone. They create some vast arpeggios in the opening piece, "Visualization of Interior Space" which might sound a little repetitive and Philip Glass-like (an approach Garchik utilized briefly in his Ye Olde album) were it not for the lifelike swirl of the horns as they rapidly fire off the notes. "Stacked Volumes" combines high-end dissonance, and long drones with silence, getting the saxophones to, among other things, create guitar feedback. In addition to the strong moments of group interaction, the music features pointed solos from saxophonists Anna Webber and Roman Filiu, and trombonists Natalie Kressman and Kalia Vandever and trumpeter Davy Lazar.

Garchik's inspiration came from a few sources, one remote and the other close to home. The music is his meditation on the "Ligne Claire" style of illustration first demonstrated by Hergé, who created the TinTin cartoon. ("Ligne Claire" is a song title, in fact.) Hergé drew his cartoon characters against a realistic background with solid lines and colors. Garchik's interest in architecture, graphic novels and scenery all factored into the music.

As a trombonist, Garchik has a long history of playing in big bands, a place where many musicians playing his instrument often spend a good deal of time. This group offered him a chance to break from the limitations of the style (screeching trumpets, woodwind doubling, mutes and "jazzy" harmonies among them) without mocking it or tearing it down. Sometimes things get a little rigid or repetitive but often times the repetition slyly evolves into another rich permutation of sound, again exploiting the possibilities of having this many horns at one's disposal.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

CD Review: Gordon Grdina Septet - Resist / Gordon Grdina's Nomad Trio - Nomad

It's time to look back at some music that's been here a few months that I've been meaning to write about but hadn't had the focus or time (or both) to put words down about them. Like a few other people that have been covered on this blog recently, Gordon Grdina has been on a creative roll for a while. No sooner did he release Cooper's Park (Songlines) with his quartet last year than his Nomad Trio (with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black [more below]) came out in January. He already started making waves a few years ago with his unique approach to the guitar and his use of the oud in an experimental jazz setting. I first heard him on the 2017 album Inroads and have been meaning to blog about him since then. Now it's time to catch up.

Gordon Grdina Septet
(Irabagast) Bandcamp link: (NOTE: this is the link to the High Def version of the album. There's also a regular def version on his Bandcamp page.)

Grdina didn't plan to create an extended piece that would encapsulate the turmoil of the last three or four months (Resist was released April 10). The Vancouver native was actually responding to the political rhetoric and just-below-the-surface racism that has been brewing in this country and around the world when he composed the 23-minute title track. It just so happens that the composition rather effectively transposes the turmoil of this year into music. Dark and ominous as it can be, it still maintains a rugged beauty. In other words, it doesn't simply leave us off at the pit of despair, even though a resolution isn't provided either. 

"Resist' puts Grdina's trio (bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen) together with the East Van Strings quartet and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. The additions to the ensemble leave the strongest impression. In fact, Grdina doesn't make a proper entrance until six minutes into the piece. The strings often sound staccato or rigid in places but that gets balanced by Irabagon's long lines that blow over them. As the music rises up in the final minutes, Irabagon, on tenor, delivers a passionate solo in which his technique almost sounds like a recording being played backwards. In between, Grdina breaks the mood with an unaccompanied oud solo. Often times, string quartets in modern jazz exploit dissonant scraping and whining to evoke drama. Not so here. The entire septet creates a rich sound that could be a soundtrack were it not such a realistic portrait of 2020. 

In some ways that opus is hard act to follow, but after a soothing oud interlude ("Seeds"), "Varsona" finds the group moving away from New Music closer to free jazz, with Irabagon's gruff tenor leading the way. The most impressive moment comes when the saxophonist's line magically (or so it feels) cues in Grdina and the strings who create a raucous pile-up of sounds, eventually climaxing in a taut guitar/saxophone line. 

Irabagon's pinched-reed sopranino squawks in "Resist the Middle" are a bit of a distraction during the blend of free heaviness and haunting minor strings. Luckily they don't last too long amidst the skronk. "Ever Onward" closes the album with a contemplative oud strumming blending with the strings. Hope might not be the answer provided by this music, but it sure offers resolve to continue working towards change.

Gordon Grdina's Nomad Trio

Released in January Nomad finds Grdina back in more of his experimental jazz mode, working closely with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black. Occasionally the music recalls Tim Berne's extensive lines that seem to flow freely, suddenly locking in on a structure that all three players seemed to sense long before a listener would notice.

Among the highlights, the title track is especially fascinating for the way that Mitchell doubles Grdina's guitar line with his left hand while the pianist's right hand plays a counterpoint that sounds light years away, rhythmically, from his other half. Again the final track, "Lady Choral," reintroduces the oud which succeeds a ruminative solo by Mitchell, which Grdina follows on lyrically. By waiting to use that instrument until the final track, it makes the oud sound less like an exotic instrument in a jazz context and more like one that can easily adapt to the vocabulary of free improvisation without losing its identity. Black, who avoids his trademark splatter approach to the kit for most of this set, steps away from the group until the very end of "Lady Choral," when it all comes together.

Much of this album sounds spontaneous, but Grdina wrote the music for the album with Mitchell and Black in mind, having desired to undertake a project like this for a few years.

While getting the Bandcamp urls together for this review, I noticed that Grdina has yet another new release too: the solo guitar/oud album Prior Street. Don't fight the feeling.

Monday, July 20, 2020

CD Review: Whit Dickey Trio - Expanding Light/ Whit Dickey - Morph

Whit Dickey Trio
Expanding Light
(Tao Forms)

Whit Dickey

Whit Dickey is in the midst of a creative spurt, both as a musician and musical booster. His Tao Forms imprint released The Piano Equation, an album by his associate Matthew Shipp, earlier this year. Now he presents his own trio session, Expanding Light, right as ESP is releasing Morph, a double-disc set that features him in two recitals with Shipp, one a duo and the other a trio that adds trumpeter Nate Wooley. All of this comes less than 12 months after AUM Fidelity released another double-disc Dickey set, Peace Planet/ Box of Light, with two iterations of his Tao Quartets. Known for years as a support player with numerous other groups, Dickey proves that he is more than able to lead projects, or as the case may be, act as the catalyst to get some deep conversations started.

Expanding Light features the drummer together with alto saxophonist Rob Brown and bassist Brandon Lopez. Writing credits are given to Dickey "in collaboration with the Trio," which could mean that these were complete improvisations. Yet ideas spring forth throughout the six tracks which feel like sketches might have been utilized at least to a small degree during "The Outer Edge" and later when Dickey and Lopez go into a 6/8 vamp with a big bass sound on "Mӧbius."

When Brown rides a fast and furious free wave created the rhythm section, he sounds similar to Ornette Coleman, although Ornette never played with quite the searing quality that Brown uses here. There are moments where freedom slowly takes on a more noticeable shape. Dickey bashes an open hi-hat enthusiastically in "Expanding Light," which feels at first like color commentary, but eventually shapes itself into a 5/4 beat. Expanding Light comes off as a rollicking set from start to finish and one of the best examples of free interaction so far this year.

"Blue Threads," which opens the Dickey/Shipp duo set of Morph (which, as a whole is sub-titled Reckoning) proves to be an appropriate title, as the pianist's ideas sound like strands of blues, strung together in a unique manner. After Expanding Light's dynamics, these duets feel much more subdued and introspective. By now these two have a rather telepathic rapport, but a deeper listen is needed to fully grasp it.

The addition of Wooley on the second disc, subtitled Pacific Noir, adds more color to the scene, bringing out all kinds of surprises from each player. Wooley is one of the more intense free trumpeters around, capable of producing some of the most unsettling pitches with his horn. He does just that in "Noir 2," making some ghastly sounds, somewhere between a struggle for air and bottom register noise. It sounds all the more intriguing because Shipp, in this track, plays so sparingly that it's hard to tell if he's playing percussively on the frame of his instrument or if Dickey is playing on the rims of his kit. Throughout the set, Wooley revels in holding a note and distorting it into a growl, sometimes back into a clean pitch, all without taking a breath. He combines this with a gentle side in "Noir 3," which could almost be considered a ballad, though Shipp's equally lyrical chords remain a bit jumpy, to make sure things don't get too sweet.

Dickey is not the type who feels the need to exert himself to make sure listeners remember whose name appears first on the album. He's fully capable of cutting loose on his kit, and it's quite enjoyable listening to all of these albums and focusing on his performances, but he's less concerned with the spotlight than figuring out what can elevate the music.

Note: Typically I'd list a url for the record labels, but considering the way music is being purchased these days - and since Bandcamp seems to be the place for impulse buying, I opted to listed pages on Bandcamp where each of these can be heard and purchased.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa - Hero Trio

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Hero Trio

After collaborations with the late Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, bop saxophonist Bunky Green and his peer of staggering technique Stephen Lehman, all of which preceded his Bird Calls album that recast Charlie Parker in a modern light, not to mention his work with the intense Indo-Pak Coalition, the last thing one might expect the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" that isn't ironic or irreverent in any way. But there it is, track number 6 on Hero Trio.

Mahanthappa explains in the liner notes that he first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder (also covered here) on Sesame Street as a kid: "They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre towards seeing music as a magical force that binds humanity." A post of mine from several years ago, covering similar thoughts about one of those people made a similar point wholeheartedly. So - amen, Mr. M.

However, "Ring of Fire" comes as a bit of digression of the path of Hero Trio, an album of covers that leans heavily towards Charlie Parker, as well as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. With Rudy Royston (drums) and François Moutin (bass), Mahanthappa pays tribute but takes the music down his own path. The focus becomes evident in the opening seconds of the album, when the saxophonist starts to pop off the buoyant melody of Parker's "Red Cross" but suspends the movement in bar two, getting Moutin to bear down on the root and stay there. They eventually get to the "mop-mop" hook of the tune but it comes more than a minute later and they take an back road route to get there. Moutin does similar pedal work in "I Can't Get Started," which adds a darker mood that seems even more disconnected when the melody shows up.

Mahanthappa enjoys playing with time in ways that might not hit on the conscious level right away. "Ring of Fire" has an extra beat added in an early phrase, giving the melody a chance to stretch a little, almost as if it's going to get behind itself, which of course it never does. Wonder's "Overjoyed" turns into a taut 7/4 vamp that the rhythm section dives into. The trio also blends Parker's "Barbados" with John Coltrane's "26-2," which itself was based on a Bird tune.

All the name dropping would point towards little more than a good record collection if the trio didn't deliver with such intensity, happy not with an homage but dead set on exploring new possibilities within the music. Someone once said that Charlie Parker was such an artist that he could change his mind three times about what to play over some changes even before he got to that part of a chorus (I feel like I might have used that nugget somewhere else recently). It wouldn't come as a surprise if Rudresh Mahanthappa can do the same thing now, spinning melodies with speed and clarity, which seem to evolve kaleidoscopically as he does. His partners play on a similar level with him. Moutin plays his instrument with ferocity and Royston swings hard even when he holds back.

The insert photo of the trio dressed in superhero costumes comes out off like a hoot after hearing the music. This is serious stuff and they still have the desire ham it up when all is said and done. Does that make them heroes?

A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich, to borrow a title of a '70s film.

But these guys are really good.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

CD Review: The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC

The MacroQuarktet
The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC
(Out Of Your Head)

I recently unearthed a copy of Discourse, the zine I sporadically published in the late '80s/early '90s. While it predominantly covered independent rock, the Spring 1990 issue had an interview with Tim Berne, which I lined up after calling New York directory assistant to find his number. During our talk Berne mentioned the moment on "Evolution of a Pearl," (on his then-current Fractured Fairy Tales album) when trumpeter Herb Robertson emitted a noise through his horn that sounded a little like a laugh and little like a moan of pain. "He just did that and we almost fell out. Hank [Roberts, cello] missed some entrance 'cause he was freaked out," Berne said. This might be the reason Robertson is credited as playing laryngel crowbar, in addition to trumpet and cornet, on the album.

The memory of that track came by while listening to The Complete Night, Live at the Stone NYC. Robertson and Dave Ballou are all about extended technique during the performances that make up this album. They played two sets there in June 2007 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Nothing was planned, everything was fair game and everyone plays with a lack of inhibition. Sometimes that results in some extremely abrasive high-pitched brass noise. At one point, Rainey toys with his hi-hat cymbal so it creates the scrape of metal on metal. There are also moment of heavy breathing through the horns and low guttural growls that sound like one of the horns is waking up after a long night of boozing.

The Complete Night isn't for casual listening. During one spin of  the first disc, Robertson and Ballou's hijinks burrowed deep under my skin and felt really annoying. Upon further investigation, perhaps knowing what was coming, a flow to the set became noticeable. The quartet works with dynamics and sonic attacks to make sure nothing - even the crazy technique - doesn't get overused. Plus there are moments when dynamics shift and oddball things surface, like an instrument that sounds like a guitar, minus the sound of fingers or a pick striking the strings. Along with the lack of being able to clearly tell Ballou from Robertson (though there are some clues), moments like this compel rather than repel deep listening.

The first disc of this set (the wilder one with the phantom instrument) was originally released in Europe in 2008 as Each Part A Whole on Ruby Flower. (That disc credits Robertson with electric megaphone, which could account for the phantom guitar noise, providing it's not Ballou's plastic hose.) The second disc is making its debut, and it includes some of the strongest moments of the whole set. After playfully dueling with one another, Ballou and Robertson come together with a long tone theme at one point, proving how attentive they are to each other's approaches. The space during the middle of the set recalls some open moments in AACM performances. Later, their chattering horns stop for a smooth transition into Gress' bowed bass. By the second set, the MacroQuarktet was a well-oiled machine. It's now hard to imagine hearing one disc without the other.

Although both sets each consist of a continuous performance, the discs break them up into bands, with titles that give a further look into the wit behind the music. Volume One features "Neuroplasticity" (in three parts), "Ducks & Geese...Or Rabbits" (in four parts, which might actually be an appropriate title) and "Basal D. Ganglia" (in three parts). Volume Two features only two different titles: "Crossing the Threshold)" (which covers five tracks) and "No Planet B" (two parts).  Following the breaks between tracks proves to be too much of a distraction while listening. Better to just imagine being at the old Stone for this evening, getting absorbed by the music.