Thursday, December 31, 2020

CD Review: Geof Bradfield/ Ben Goldberg/ Dana Hall - General Semantics



Geof Bradfield/ Ben Goldberg/ Dana Hall Trio
General Semantics

When Cecil Taylor performed "Air," it might have swung in the pianist's own way, but it never swung like the opening track of General Semantics. The trio of Geof Bradfield, Ben Goldberg and Dana Hall are working more from the arrangement Steve Lacy used on his Straight Horn Of Steve Lacy album, where he smoothed out the melody into longer tones, which came from opposite registers in Lacy's soprano and Charles Davis' baritone. But this tenor/contra-alto clarinet/drum trio kicks the tempo up a notch, pulsed by Hall's fleet brush work, taking the melody closer to the swing standard "Cherokee." After completing the head, the two horns step lively around one another, soloing in relation to the melody but not feeling constrained by it.

Ben Goldberg is no stranger to pared down groups like this. He has played in duos with drummer Hamir Atwal and keyboardist Michael Coleman - and in a trio with both of them. On Unfold Ordinary Mind, Goldberg's contra-alto clarinet filled in for the lack of a bass, while acting as the third horn, together with saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. On the other hand, Geof Bradfield's 2018 album for Delmark (Yes, and ...Music for Nine Improvisors) put him at the helm of a larger group (including Dana Hall as the drummer), playing a suite that features some free excursions as well as big band-style moments. Here, Goldberg alternates between the contra-alto and the B-flat clarinet; Bradfield switches between bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone. 

General Semantics lives in an area where early jazz improvisation - heavy on counterpoint with parallel lines that respect the path of the other players - combines with an approach that isn't afraid of pursuing greater rhythmic and melodic freedom. Goldberg alternates between the contra-alto and the B-flat clarinets; Bradfield switches between bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone. Because of that, textures change regularly. In "Tioga Street Zenith" the two clarinets weave around one another while Hall uses the brushes behind them, out of tempo. "Lamentation" features more parallel improvisation but this time, they conclude by stating the theme over a straight ahead 4/4 groove, keeping the swing going.

The title track begins with some husky tenor sax playing, but quickly adds a heavy backbeat, and Goldberg proves to be the best substitute for a raunchy bass guitar. Duke Ellington's "Half the Fun" scales down to contra-alto and soprano sax, and it becomes clear that this trio interacts so well that they don't leave any time to miss a regular bassist or other harmonic accompanist. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

CD Review: Sonny Rollins - Rollins In Holland

Sonny Rollins
Rollins In Holland

The first Sonny Rollins performance that really knocked my socks off was his version of "Everything Happens To Me" from On Impulse. During my first summer in college, I did an overnight jazz show on the college radio station and discovered that album one night in the library. I figured you couldn't miss with Sonny Rollins and this track was 11 minutes long, leaving plenty of time before the next track needed to be cued up.

The most incredible thing about "Everything Happens to Me" was Rollins' tone. It felt warm and deep, wistful and romantic. The path of his solo isn't what got me - I can't recall it at the moment but I'm sure it was also deep - it was the delivery. That song alone might have been the tune that inspired me to program the 2 a.m. hour with nothing but ballads. On a warm summer night, that's what the world needed to hear.

The opening seconds of Rollins In Holland brought back the same feeling of euphoria. "Blue Room" (another song that from On Impulse) comes from a Rollins recording made at a Dutch television studio with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. His tenor resonates, using the natural reverb of the room to emphasize the richness of the horn. The trio, which assembled for the first just two night earlier at a club, work together like they've been interacting for months. The sound quality throughout Rollins In Holland might not be as powerful as "Blue Room" and the other three tracks recorded at VARA Studio5, but the creative spark makes up for any sonic shortcomings. 

This two-disc set from Resonance Records tells the story of these 1967 recordings in vivid, sometimes repetitious, detail. Sonny Rollins hadn't recorded an album in a year (the last being East Broadway Run Down, the followup to On Impulse!) and wouldn't release another until 1972. He jumped at an offer to play the Academy of Visual Arts in Arnheim in May of '67. Intent of playing in a trio setting, he made arrangements for Jacobs and Bennink to accompany him. Bennink had played with Eric Dolphy in the months before the multi-reedist passed away, and would go on to become one of the most creative, and inventive free jazz drummers in Europe. Jacobs was more of a traditional player, whose track record included work with Louis Armstrong and Bill Evans. Longtime friends, their divergent styles didn't keep them from meshing with Rollins. 

Their May 3 performance at the Academy fills the second disc of this set. The first piece of the set - a 22-minute version of "Three Little Words" - wraps up Disc One, following the VARA Studio 5 television recording and two more tracks recorded live for a television show. According to all parties involved, there were no rehearsals for the performances, nor was there any verbal directions. 

The trio hit the ground running, ears wide open following the saxophonist. To say they keep up is an understatement. After stating the theme on "On Green Dolphin Street," Rollins jumps into "There Will Never Be Another You," his mates right there with him. Throughout the set, Rollins throws in quotes from other songs, including remote selections like Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" and Chopin's "Funeral March." When he inserts Miles Davis' "Four," it's hard to tell if it's an instruction to trade fours with him or a reference to a song that will come later in the set. As a whole, his paraphrases come off less like a musicians showing off his musical knowledge and more like someone who has the opportunity to muse with depth before moving onto another idea.

Jacobs gets a little lost in the mix of the Academy set, drowned out a bit by Bennink's drums, which swing hard and hint at the freedom he could see coming down the pike. While the bassist might not be felt, he can be heard a bit, and the quality doesn't distract from the music's power. He does comes through clearly on the previous sets, which were actually recorded later, by which time the trio has developed even more of a rapport. 

This being a Resonance package, the 100-page booklet offers almost as much value as the music. Interviews with Bennink together with Jacobs (who died in 2019 after a long battle with cancer) as well Rollins himself are flanked by essays by Rollins biographer Aidan Levy and Frank Jochemsen, the latter who helped unearth and identify some of these recordings.

Sonny Rollins has always been his own harshest critic, never quite satisfied with his performances. He also seems very humble, which might have something to do with his self-examination. Yet, his thoughts in the booklet's interview betray feelings of excitement at hearing this music again. (He also raves about Jacobs' bass tone, which means another close listen is in order, in case I missed something.) That's probably the best endorsement of all.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

CD Review: Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI

Nate Wooley
Seven Storey Mountains VI

One of the first shows in Pittsburgh that was cancelled in the early days of the pandemic was to feature saxophonist Ken Vandermark, trumpeter Nate Wooley and drummer Paul Nilssen-Love. The two horn men had come to town before, creating music that was both lyrical and sonically intense, utilizing upper register wails that could, literally, vibrate the wax in your ears. 

In addition to his intense technique and perspective on his horn, Wooley also released something that avant-jazz fans might never expect in a million years: (Dance To) The Early Music (2015), a relatively straightforward tribute to Wynton Marsalis' Black Codes for the Underground and J Mood. (When interviewing Wooley for a JazzTimes article on that album, we both shared our fondness for Blood, Sweat & Tears' blockbuster self-titled album too.) These are just but a few of the many things the prolific trumpeter has done, but it reveals the vast vision that factors into his work.

Seven Storey Mountain is an extended piece - a song-cycle, in a way - that has evolved through six different iterations, with various musicians working with the trumpeter each time. This sixth one features a group of improvisors, a choir of women and an underlying message of courage and strength that filters through it. Folksinger Peggy Seeger's song "Reclaim the Night" is incorporated into the work. The album presents the music in one 45-minute track. Along with Wooley's liner notes, the CD edition comes with a graphic chart, laying out the flow of the piece and when musicians come and go. All of these present a greater perspective to what is an intense piece of work.

The notes assist in large part because it can be hard to tell how the sounds are being produced. After an opening vocal passage with the voices humming the melody, Susan Alcorn's pedal steel guitar drones gently, as a series of keyboard sounds and loops (some lifted from previous performances of SSM) resonate in the background. The first half moves languidly, with the soundscape getting wider, with more organ loops and violins (Samara Lubelski, C. Spencer Yeh) creating a feeling of anticipation as their bowing grows more intense.

By the 26-minute mark, things have reached a full boil. Drummers Chris Corsano, Ben Hall and Ryan Sawyer, who were simply brushing earlier, have begun moving over their whole kit. Guitarist Julien Desprez begins wailing like a jackhammer, with sounds panning from channel to channel. Ava Mendoza's guitar also kicks in around this time, though she isn't quite as close to the forefront as Desprez. The whole ensemble moves rapidly but together. They create a sound that resonates deeply, achieving Wooley's intention that he expressed to the players during rehearsals - "to make the room vibrate in a different way, and to make the room continue to vibrate long after we're gone." The collective vibration might sound chaotic or dense, but it's nothing compared that what comes later.

As the drummers drop out, followed by the guitarists, leaving Alcorn playing "gentle sounds" over keyboard loops, the 21 women of the choir began to rise up, first in ghostly chorus of "ah," then moving into the chorus of Seeger's song, the text of which appears on the disc's front cover. They repeat it seven times, with an echo beginning on the sixth to make it like a canon. 

Without any musical support, they begin to repeat a new line, from the folk song "Union Maid," ten times - "You can't scare me." As they reach the final repetition, the natural reverb has been stripped away, putting the women right in the face of the listener. After all the sonic frenzy, this is the most intense moment of the album, which Wooley had intended. In his liner notes, he explains that SSM6, which premiere in November 2019, was fueled by anger. "I was fucking angry watching the government attempt to wrest control of women's bodies and angry watching Black people be incarcerated and killed with impunity," he explains. The voices work as a way towards liberation from this oppresion. Wooley also is donating a portion of the royalties to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). 

Seven Storey Mountain VI might not be an easy listen. It's definitely not one that can be put on while working around the house. My first listen came during a long car ride and parts of it sounded completely different than it did while listening on earbuds, with the booklet in front of me. And the latter setting is the way it should be experienced because these 11 musicians created something deeply engrossing that will resonate long after the disc is finished.

And, like I often say at this point, it makes me want to track down the first five installments of SSM, which incidentally derives its name from the writings of Thomas Merton. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

CD Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time OutTakes

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time OutTakes 

Dave Brubeck's Time Out wasn't the first jazz album to break away from 4/4 time, but it was the album that took the farthest away from "standard" swing - without sacrificing the swing in the process. Its centerpiece, "Take Five" became a hit single and, arguably, one of the best known songs in jazz, all while it resided in what could be one of the most rigid time signatures of all - 5/4. "Blue Rondo A La Turk" crossed the blues with a Turkish rhythm and proved that if you could hum the melody, it didn't seem so odd after all.

Time OutTakes, released within days of what would have been Brubeck's 100th birthday, presents something that the general public has never heard since Time Out's original 1959 release - alternate takes of that album's music. According to Chris Brubeck - Dave's bass and trombone playing son - there exists more than 12 hours of music from the original sessions. "Take Five," which was credited to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond rather than the pianist, took a while to take shape, so the story goes. Drummer Joe Morello worked hard to get a good groove underneath it before he eventually felt comfortable enough to create a groovy solo built on melody as much as rhythm.

The chance to hear the song slowly take shape might be akin to hearing Bud Powell arrive at a definitive version of "Un Poco Loco," a song which always appeared in three takes when it was released on album. But the complete evolution of "Take Five" will have to wait for another day. Time OutTakes sticks to an LP-length format, with one alternate of each song from the album, save for "Pick Up Sticks" and "Everybody's Jumpin'" (both completed in one take). In their place comes a version of "I'm In A Dancing Mood" - arranged to maintain the album's theme of radical time shifts - and "Watusi Jam," an improv that is based on "Watusi Drums," which the band recorded a year prior on their In Europe album. The album ends with a four-minute collage of studio banter from the original sessions. 

Although the album isn't a deluxe boxset with myriad takes and false starts (though the Brubeck siblings offer inciteful notes), it is the first ever chance to peak behind the masters and get some clue on how they came to be the gold standards. What's here should tantalize everyone who has memorized the record. "Take Five" catches the band before Morello solidified his groove. Interestingly, Desmond sounds like he's struggling to find a place to catch his breath during the opening chorus. Unlike the master, in which Brubeck and bassist Eugene Wright continue their ostinato during the drum solo, they drop off. Perhaps as a result, Morello gets wild during this solo instead of displaying economical swing. 

An equal amount of jazz quartet aggression comes in "Blue Rondo A La Turk." The transitions between 9/8 and 4/4 have more punch. Both Desmond and Brubeck draw on more of a blues vocabulary here than they do in the master. Dave even sounds at times like Thelonious Monk, with quotes from the 9/8 theme sprinkled over his much longer solo. The lyrical "Strange Meadowlark" also has more jazz licks and syncopation from both soloists.

"Three To Get Ready" can be a little unsettling with its alternating two bars of 3/4 and two of 4/4, but Desmond bridges the transition smoothly while Brubeck, perhaps in response, utilizes his trademark habit of stretching the time over the group. In "Cathy's Waltz" - named from Brubeck's daughter who corrects the spelling in her notes from what "Kolumbia" Records used on the cover - Morello and Wright seem to move along with Brubeck as he shifts toward 4, rather than maintaining the waltz beneath him.

The track of studio banter is fun though it ultimately feels like a teaser. Chatter leads into a songs, which fade into the next bit of talk. Anyone who thinks this group was too serious will be surprised by the regular laughter between tracks, as when Brubeck flubs the "Strange Meadlowlark" introduction, saying he couldn't play it perfectly as he did on a previous take. Bits of "Take Five" again hint at what went on, but still only offer a fleeting glimpse. Maybe Sony would only allow a certain amount of music and talk to leave their vaults for this album. (This release is by the family-owned Brubeck Editions, not Columbia or Sony). But a whole disc devoted to "The Evolution of 'Take Five'' would surely be devoured by all manner of fans.

In the meantime, dig in. Happy Centennial, Dave.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

CD Review: Charles Mingus - At Bremen 1964 & 1975

Charles Mingus
At Bremen 1964 & 1975

It's very possible that every concert Charles Mingus performed during his April 1964 trip to Europe was recorded by some person or organization. Mosaic's The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (2012) included the entire April 10 set in Amsterdam. Sue Mingus' Revenge imprint took back a bootleg recording from Paris show from April 17 for a 1996 double-disc release. The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, first released in 1971, presented a three-record set of another Paris show on April 19. Enja released two volumes of Mingus In Europe that came from April 26 in Germany. The questionably legal Unique Jazz label released highlights from a performance in Stuttgart from later in the month, April 28.

Sunnyside's new four-disc set At Bremen 1964 & 1975 adds to the canon with a performance in that German city on April 16, 1964, coupling it together with the bassist's July 9, 1975 return with a new quintet. Both groups take up two discs each in the set. (Unique Jazz released portions of the '64 on vinyl previously.)

Mingus's 1964 sextet is considered one of his best ensembles, because they were able to understand the vast influences and personality that shaped his music. Eric Dolphy (flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Jaki Byard (piano), Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone), Johnny Coles (trumpet) and Mingus' right hand man Dannie Richmond (drums) all made the trip. Coles missed a few dates when he fell ill later in the month and Dolphy, who had planned on staying in Europe before the tour began, died tragically in June due to untreated diabetes.

While the sets were pretty similar on each night of the tour, the music took on different shapes every night. Mingus completists will revel in the new versions of "Meditations on Integration" and "Fables of Faubus," two of the six lengthy tracks from that evening, but this isn't simply music for jazz theorists, who want to compare and contrast shows.

The concert started late and the liner notes make light of the bassist's confrontational attitude that he had when he barreled into Radio Bremen's Studio F, a performance venue that has sold out all 220 seats. But the bad Mingus attitude doesn't come across in the performances. In fact, he even thanks the audience between tunes. Along with the two compositions mentioned above, the group also plays "Hope So Eric," (the blues usually titled "So Long Eric"), Byard's "AT-FW-YOU" (here, simply "Piano Solo"), Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Parkeriana," a complex blend of Charlie Parker tunes and original solos. 

Other than the piano solo and Ellington piece, everything lasts at least 21 minutes, with "Faubus" going on for 32. In other versions of the politically charged tune from the tour, soloists would play freely and the group would slowly morph into a groove similar to the Spanish-flavored bassline from "Ysabel's Table Dance," building in intensity until things collapsed and the theme cued the next soloist. This happens during Dolphy's bass clarinet solo, but not with Coles, Jordan or Byard. Instead, Mingus throws in a little bit of "Haitian Fight Song" and Byard quotes "Yankee Doodle" with the takeaway feeling new and equally as bold. 

"Parkeriana" also comes off more like a complex composition with jarring tempo shifts and blowing space, rather than simply a parade of Bird lines. Jordan rules the roost here, with Dolphy adding some commentary which is unfortunately off mike. The other surprise is the coda to "Meditations on Integration." While the group often the extended composition until it became a ball of fire, the last seven minutes find Mingus (with his bow) and Byard in a more reflective mood, with Dolphy adding some color with his flute. If the crowd didn't know what to think, time has revealed how deeply attuned this group was their leader's vision.

Eleven years later Mingus was back in Bremen at the Post-Aula Auditorium. Along with Richmond, the new quintet included Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor saxophone) and Don Pullen (piano). Many of the bassist's '70s albums were built on larger groups and compositions, but this appearance draws on music that would come out a year later on Changes One and Changes Two, two of his last triumphs with a smaller group. 

Mingus often referred to a new album as "one of the best things I've done," and he was pretty much on the mark with the Changes albums. Adams and Pullen could pivot between the rich Ellington influence in Mingus's writing and bring the aggression of free jazz to bear on wilder moments. All of this can be found in the 32 minutes of "Sue's Changes." Pullen solos alone and then goes into some two-fisted jabs behind the band. Adams adds some Ayler-esque honks to his solo. Walrath precedes both of them with a free passage that moves into a set of rich trills over a band vamp. A single-chorus romp through "Cherokee" could either be a send-up of free jazz attacks or just a fun moment, working either way.

The 1975 recording feels superb (as does the 1964) although it sounds as if Mingus was playing through an amplifier rather than being miked directly, the latter being that standard by that time. Although he can be heard clearly, the process eliminates some of his signature sound - of big fingers plucking the strings, making the wood of the bass resonate so personally. The other surprise is that "Devil Blues," which features Adams's hyper-animated vocals, almost sounds like it was aimed more at wooing the crowd than extending the personality of the band. It's not bad, just a tad anti-climatic. Of course it's hard to follow such a unique, charged statement as "Remember Rockefeller At Attica."