Friday, March 26, 2021

CD Review: Joe Lovano/Trio Tapestry - Garden of Expression

Joe Lovano/Trio Tapestry
Garden of Expression

If a track from this album were used in a Blindfold listening test, it might be hard to figure out that Joe Lovano is the saxophonist in question. Throughout Garden of Expression, he doesn't quite come across as the muscular tenor saxophonist player for which he is known. Which is not meant as a put down. He moves through the album thoughtfully, preferring long, drawn out lines over more complex harmonic developments. Sometimes it sounds simplistic, but his focus in this music gives it the added force to lift it up. 
Trio Tapestry first came together on a 2019Lovano album of that brought the saxophonist together with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. Crispell might seem like an odd pairing with Lovano, considering her works that took many hints from Cecil Taylor. But the two of them crossed paths when the pianist played with Anthony Braxton, and both of them spent much time playing with the late Paul Motian. Crispell's recent, more introspective-sounding work also goes well with Lovano's searching side. Castaldi and Lovano have a history that goes back to their younger days in Cleveland, where both grew up and continue when they both attended Berklee. 

Space serves as a key element to this music, as is often the case with ECM albums. The group allows the music to breathe and reflect. That way, when "Night Creatures" modulates from its single flowing chord to a new one, the harmonic focus takes on even greater dimension. Here, and on many other tracks, Castaldi is perfectly content hold back, letting his cymbals ring, with a few accents from the toms, rather than adding louder fills. 

This type of approach works with music like this, which often flows languidly rather then working with a strict tempo. The title track, with its hesitant feel, recalls Duke Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine," which he recorded on Money Jungle. "Sacred Chant" begins feeling like a rubato Coltrane ballad, with Manfred Eicher's production creating the atmosphere of a windswept spring morning. It's surprising then, that this track - and the more angular "Dream On That" which follows it - both slip away after less than four minutes each, providing an abbreviated but vivid sketch of a song. 

"Zen Like" closes the album with a longer (read: 10 minutes) meditation that begins with Lovano tolling some exquisitely bell-like gongs. (They also show up in "Garden of Expression.") He sticks to a lot of simple, long tones here on soprano. Crispell and Castaldi contribute punctuation in the form of occasional short chords and gentle brushes on the skins. In lesser hands, this spare type of performance could create restlessness, but the presence that these three bring to music adds a sense of direction and command to the whole thing. This is gentle but very captivating music.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

CD Review: Alan Sondheim & Azure Carter - Plaguesong

Alan Sondheim & Azure Carter

"I don't know what kind of music this is, but it's a kind that suits me, and suits Azure as well," Alan Sondheim writes in Plaguesong's liner notes. "It's certainly music that goes closer to the edge than anything I've done before."

That represents a pretty major claim, considering Sondheim output began on ESP in 1967 with a series of improvisations that weren't exactly free jazz but fit comfortably next to them in the catalog. Since ESP sprung back to life in the early 21st century, Sondheim has been the one artist from the early days who has returned to the nest to release more music. (Plaguesong is his third album since that time.)

Much like those early albums, this one finds our hero picking up a plethora of instruments for each of the 25 tracks. Perhaps to avoid distraction, he intentionally left the names of his arsenal off the cover. A perusal of his previous albums (check out a review of 2018 collaboration with Stephen Dydo, Dragon and Phoenix here) offers possibilities for some of the non-Western instruments: qin, erhu, rababa, guzheng. Others are easier to identify, such as harmonica, banjo and acoustic guitar.

Sondheim and Carter created Plaguesong in one room of their Providence, Rhode Island home, as the Corona virus quarantine shut the world down. Sometimes the music sounds like a field recording, like when the street sounds spill into the harmonica-and-vocal spiritual of "As Aboves So O As Below" [sic]. Many songs have a warm natural reverb that pushes aside the anxiety that fueled the music, giving way to hope. Case in point - "Plague Hymn" might refer to something else, but this solo harmonica piece comes off like a fully-formed spiritual, rather than a spontaneous blow of the harp.

While Sondheim might not play all of his instruments in the "traditional" or "correct" way, he brings a distinct focus to each one. This occasionally results in a unique hybrid of cultures like when his performance on "Guqin" casts a bent blues vocabulary to the namesake instrument, with the results in resembling Appalachian folk music. "Musima" sounds like a guitar song with a performance that sounds like free flamenco, or something closer to what Gary Lucas played with Captain Beefheart.

Although 10 of the 25 tracks are instrumentals, the rest include Carter adding her vocal color to the array of strings and tones. Sometimes she just rambles, like in "MNO" or "Lada" whose words don't quite go beyond the titles. The vignettes "Temperature" and "Pulse" are more amusing, as she reads both of those numbers to the accompaniment of her partner's manic strumming. Her mood on "My Life" contrasts with its downer message, while closer "World" seems like a thoughtful reflection of everything that has preceded it on the album. 

At 79 minutes, Plaguesong could have benefited from a bit of editing, but as a document of two people trying to cope with a quarantine, one can't blame them for an extended program. Rarely does a track sound like the one that preceded it, and when it does, it serves as a continuation of an idea not a mere repetition. 

Sometimes the edge to which Sondheim alludes is more obvious, such as when he's flailing away on guitar and Carter floats over him. But other times, they seem to be assuring each other - and everyone who listens - that we can make it through these dark days. That makes Plaguesong another worthy entry into the ESP catalog of valuable time pieces.

Friday, March 05, 2021

CD Reviews: Scott Clark - This Darkness / Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver - 27 Licks

Ah, the solo album, where one improvisor- or instrument as you shall see in a moment - takes center stage all by themselves. This type of recital holds a special fascination for me. It requires that a listener check their preconceptions at the door and surrender to one person's approach. What are they hearing in their mind? The same thing you hear, or their music accompanied by other musicians? 

A solo piano album might not be too much of a stretch due the amount of harmonic possibilities that the keyboard offers. A solo saxophone or trumpet album ups the ante. But a solo drum album is a whole other exercise altogether. The melodic palette doesn't really come into play here, just the rhythmic and visceral sounds it offers. 

It's not completely out of the ordinary. The great Milford Graves - who we just lost a few weeks ago - recorded at least one solo album (and probably more). He also played with other drummers like Andrew Cyrille. Papa Jo Jones and modern drummer Chris Corsano both sat alone at the kit in a recording studio. Andrew Drury recorded an album with just a floor tom and a few accoutrements, pushing the sonic limits of such a performance. (Go here for a review of it.) 

The second album in today's selection is not actually a solo record, but a duet record. However it is a duet of two drummers, therefore it felt appropriate to group it thematically with an album by a solo drummer.
Scott Clark
This Darkness

Scott Clark is a fixture on the jazz and improvised music scene in Richmond, Virginia and co-curates the Out Of Your Head imprint with Adam Hopkins. At the same time, The Darkness could almost be heard as a distant strain of ambient music. As much as the sustained percussives recall spare sections of an Art Ensemble of Chicago album, the album's determined, gentle pace evokes thoughts of Fripp & Eno albums, or post-rockers Stars of the Lid. You might want it to move faster but Clark, in a sense, is saying, "No. Just listen."

This becomes obvious as the opener "Quiet Friend," takes over the room. A sustained harmonica slowly fades in, blowing a chord that begins with the upper harmonics and reverberates down to its lower notes, languidly. (So it's not actually just a drum album.) The drone continues unaccompanied for seven minutes, with at least two harmonicas keeping it flowing without a pause for air. Around the eight-minute mark the sound of brushes on the drums enter, eventually give way to mallets. After all those sustained harp notes, the drums offer a contrast that's almost melodic since one of the skins adds a  tuned pitch as the harmonicas continue unabated. It is moves slowly and continues in this manner for 15 minutes, with Clark alternating rhythms of 4/4, 5/8 and 6/8. But once adjusted to the tranquility, it's hard to get away.

The remaining five tracks, with one exception, are significantly shorter. Each finds Clark digging into one aspect of his kit. "Who" features cymbals and other percussion that produces resonating sounds. It never gets very busy and in fact features as much open space as space filled with rings. "Be a Bell Tower" adds some cymbal scrapes to a slightly more rapid strikes to these same chimes. The repetition can try the patience but just as it seems to be too much, Clark moves back to the drum heads, getting a primal but dynamic beat going, in waves of volume. 

"And You The Bell" acts as the album's climax, to which Clark has been building for the last 40-plus minutes. It feels like a drum solo, not in the flashy sense or the type that's based on a structure, but a free flowing one that seems to incorporate everything that came before it. Considering that he recorded the one album in one continuous piece, this final passage adds a little more sense to everything that came before. 

The Rainer Maria Rilke poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" inspired this performance, and the track titles came from its first stanza. Perhaps that might explain why the album ends almost as enigmatically as it began, not with a crashing finale but a fade. It might not be an easy listen and might be a performance best enjoyed in person, but it comes with a Zen-like clarity that lingers after it ends. 

Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver
27 Licks

By contrast, drummer Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver begin 27 Licks with a groove that remains constant while each of them varies their attack, playing on rims, heads, a woodblock or two and a cowbell. A ride cymbal early on depicts the sound of the street, adding an earthy quality to the sound. "F Train Ride" evokes that subway journey, beginning with percussion clatter, moving into press rolls and thunderous crashes. These are the kind of breaks that bring exciting contrast to free improvisation sessions with a band, using the dynamics to ramp up music that's already at a high level of intensity. Hearing them removed from a band, they still maintain that fire.

Drummers are often maligned for playing in a manner that prefers to lead rather than follow. Gray and Cleaver of course disprove that in their other projects, where communication between band members is paramount. Likewise, "Headed to Barb├Ęs" comes off like a conversation where one drummer throws out a roll or a movement across the kit which the other (it's hard to tell who's who) answers and expands upon. Other tracks get a little more minimal, with shakers and cymbal noise, and titles like "Love Conquers Hate," "The Long Roll Ahead" and "One for Bernie" hint at the political climate that was going on while this was recorded. 

"Headbangers" presents the entire recital in one 20-minute piece but I almost prefer the bite-sized chunks, which put each one in an independent light. While this might make the entire album seem a little slim, it shows that Gray and Cleaver know that brevity can make a percussion recital. Always leave them wanting more.